Monday, May 9, 2011

Growing A Synagogue Part D: Building and Rebuilding

Maybe it is because of the weak economy, maybe it is a result of our new awareness of environmental concerns, or maybe because of the shrinking number of children in need of our religious schools, but the size of synagogue buildings is decreasing.

In the 1950's a synagogue aspired to have a large building, perhaps designed by a famous architect, in an upper middle class suburb. Today, many congregations in these “designer” buildings, are finding them expensive to maintain and no longer as useful for what modern Jews expect from their religious space. A Rabbi I know had his congregation move into a new sanctuary in the 1970's that featured a Ner Tamid, an eternal light, that was not electric, rather it was a real flame burning butane (basically it was a somewhat large cigarette lighter). Shortly after the building was opened, came the first oil crisis in this country and the cost of butane shot up. What had seemed like a good idea at the time became an expensive headache. In a similar way, as styles of worship changed, large sanctuaries with fixed pews, once a standard in religious buildings, suddenly just condemned the largest room in the building to just one or two days when it could be used.

A modern synagogue today is a very different kind of a place. Sanctuaries are definitely smaller. Where once it was common to see sanctuaries seating 600-700 people and expanding to seat 1500 on the High Holy Days, today the standard size of a sanctuary seats less than 400, expandable perhaps to 1000 on the holidays. But the size of the room is not the only feature that has changed. To keep energy costs down, there is a lot more natural light being used; in some cases, the sunlight actually helps keep the building warmer in the winter. The bima, the raised platform where the service is conducted, is much lower, dropping from seven to eight steps up, to just one or two steps above the floor of the sanctuary, giving everyone the feeling of being close to the “action”. It also makes the bima more accessible to those with disabilities. Instead of narrow stairs leading up and down, the entire bima can be accessed from any direction, with a simple step up across the entire front of the bima. Bima furnishings, once very ornate and dark, are now simple and lighter in color.

In addition to changing decor there is a trend to return to the “older” synagogue style of placing the bima in the middle of the room. Where this is not possible, often the seats will be on three sides of the bima, not just in the front facing forward. This circular style, where the worshipers can see each other lends to a feeling of everyone being together in prayer. Rabbi Eli Kaunfer, in his book, “Empowered Judaism” notes “The other layout popular in independent minyanim, and the one that I advocate, is that used in many traditional Orthodox synagogues; all rows face forward, and the prayer leader stationed in the center, also facing forward. This sends a few important messages. First that everyone is facing the Aron Kodesh (the holy ark) rather than facing a leader who is davening toward (at?) the congregation. The unity of purpose is clearly reinforced by the direction of the community. Second, the charismatic role of the prayer leader is diminished – half the congregation sit in front of the leader, while the other half sit behind her. While at first blush this may seem impersonal, it actually allows both the congregation and the leader to avoid self-consciousness, putting the focus on sound rather than sight. A third advantage is that the prayer leader experiences a different relationship to the congregation by being in their midst. She can better gauge to what extent a melody is “working” and can feel supported by the more active daveners in the congregation. She is simply closer to the entire congregation than in a standard synagogue layout, and she draws strength from that closeness.” (p.114) Kaunfer admits that the feelings of “self consciousness” that can come when a congregation prays in a circle, with the leader in the middle, is what makes him prefer the facing forward model. But he admits that some find davening in a circle, seeing each others faces actually fosters a connection with God and other human beings. While I may differ with him on the feelings of “self-consciousness” and tend to prefer the more circular seating, we both agree that theatrical seating, with the bima in front and everyone watching the “show” is no longer a useable model for prayer. The need for participation and inclusiveness would have us put the bima in the midst of the congregation no matter which way the daveners may be facing.

Synagogue seating is better when we get away from fixed pews. Moveable seating has many advantages. First of all the room can be reconfigured to fit the size of the congregation you are expecting. Hadar, the independent minyan in New York City, puts up a slightly smaller number of seats for what they are expecting so that everyone will sit together rather than spread out all over the room. The feeling of being in a room with everyone nearby helps lift the spirit of the service. If you have moveable seating, and you need more seats, you can bring them in as needed.

Another reason movable seating is better is that there is flexibility in the arrangement of chairs. One week there can be semicircular seating, then placing the bima in the middle the next week and setting up a front facing congregation the following week. Aisles can be wide or narrow. You can have seating in two rows, three rows or just one inner circle. Ansche Chesed in New York had very old hard pews from almost 100 years ago all set facing forward with a very high bima. They took out the first ten rows of pews in the front and replaced them with moveable seating in a semi-circle and moved the bima to the center of the circle. Now more people sit up front, the action is closer to the congregation and it is a great, participatory service.

A third reason for moveable seating is that it makes the room usable for more than just services. One can hold a number of discussion groups on a weekday, there can be multiple Torah readings on Simchat Torah, it can allow room for dancing for Kabbalat Shabbat and the room can be used for larger meetings as needed. Rearranging the seating can have a great impact on a program that can begin as soon as the people come into the room and have to find a seat. [While I know that it is customary that people want to sit in the same seat each Shabbat, by reconfiguring the seating, people will sit in different seats and meet different people than the crowd with whom they usually sit.] I am not advocating using folding chairs. There are many comfortable seats, with pockets for books and information, that can be used without needing to bolt the chairs to the floor. It is a wiser use of space to scrap the pews and switch to moveable seating.


There was a time in this country, where the Rabbi spoke from “on high” and everyone literally looked up to see and hear him (there were no women Rabbis then). There was an invisible wall between the congregation and the bima. Just as in the theater there has been an attempt to break down the wall between the actors and the audience, so too we need to break down the barriers that separate prayer leaders from the worshipers.

When one of my congregations moved to a new building, we gutted the sanctuary to completely refurbish it. I insisted that the bima, seven steps high, be removed and lowered to no more than two. The building committee came back to me and said that, for some strange reason, the bima in the old sanctuary was made of poured concrete. It would take a week of jack hammering and then the removal of the debris to lower the bima. It just did not make economic sense. So I had them take out the narrow steps up and replace them with steps that spanned the entire face of the bima. No matter where someone sat in the congregation, they had direct access to the bima. It also freed me up to come down from the bima and speak from the floor of the sanctuary for a more informal discussion on Shabbat. As I mentioned before, Ansche Chesed in New York moved the bima to the center of the circle on the sanctuary floor and congregants only go up on the bima when they need to open the ark and take out the Torah. Otherwise, the bima is just a nice backdrop for their service.

These days,on Friday nights, for Kabbalat Shabbat, our congregation does away with a bima altogether. The service is held in one of our smaller social halls. The Hazzan stands in the middle of the circle with only a music stand to hold his siddur. I wander around through the aisles and around the back, encouraging the congregation to sing and participate in the service. I enter the center of the circle only when I have something I need to do in the center, i.e. give a d'var Torah or lead a reading. I encourage others to lead reading just by standing up at their seats.

Beyond the Building

My good friend Rabbi Edwin Farber told me a story of a renovation of the sanctuary that happened at his synagogue. The plans called for the Torah reading table to be built into the bima, right on the edge next to the steps. Rabbi Farber tried to explain to the builder that there had to be room for four people to stand around the table: a Torah Reader, a person called to the Torah but who couldn't read the Torah so the Torah Reader would read for him, a Gabbai who made sure the Torah Reader did not make a mistake and another Gabbai who made sure that a mistake did not slip past the first Gabbai. The builder listened carefully and asked, “How many classrooms are we including in this building?” “Seven” said the Rabbi. “That's a good thing,” replied the builder, “since none of your people can read!”

A synagogue is more than a sanctuary. It needs office space, classrooms, meeting rooms, perhaps a smaller chapel, a kitchen and a space for dinners and social events. The key is to be able to use the space effectively and efficiently. Moveable partitions between classrooms can give more room but could be noisy when both rooms are used. Early Childhood classes can be converted to Religious school classrooms but that change could be more work than the time between schools allows. A secretarial pool is an efficient use of space but makes it difficult for members needing a private meeting with the Rabbi to set that up. Designing a building requires a lot of thought and consideration.

For start-up and small congregations, one must consider whether a building is really necessary. Meetings and adult studies can be held at the homes of members. After school classrooms can be rented from a public/private school that has empty rooms after the school day is over. A storefront with moveable chairs, some office space and some moveable partitions may be all a congregation needs for awhile without requiring a mortgage and full tilt capital campaign. This could allow financial resources to be concentrated on people and programs and not on maintaining a building. Building maintenance can be an expensive overhead that makes future budget cuts difficult. In these days of home offices, conference rooms that rent by the hour and the local copy store serving as an email, snail mail and package office with computer equipment to get office work done, there may be fewer reasons for small congregations to own a building at all.

Another possibility, in this time of large synagogue buildings with shrinking congregations, is to rent space from a congregation that is different from yours and run two different congregations from one location. Costs can be reduced by sharing office and janitorial help. If there is a big age gap between the two congregations there will be little reason to fear one group “stealing” members from the other. The mission and atmosphere of the two congregations would be just too different. If not, perhaps create the possibility of moving from one service to the other which can enhance both services rather than create a turf war. I think it is wonderful if a minyan can move into the empty space in a larger synagogue, as long as the details of what is permitted and what is not permitted is negotiated in advance.

A small orthodox minyan once asked to meet in one of my classrooms on Saturday morning. It was a group from a local Young Israel affiliated congregation and after speaking to the Rabbi at the Young Israel ( I was not looking to create a rift in his congregation) I gave them the green light to meet in our building. In an act of cooperation, we offered, gratis, the use of the room. A couple of years later, the Young Israel Rabbi told me that they were ready to spin off the group using my space. We then renegotiated with the group; they would act like a congregation and charge nominal dues and we would give them the space for only the cost of the maintenance to keep the room clean. That group was mostly older men and slowly they were no longer able to attend. Sometimes they came into our service to look for men to help them make a minyan. There were some in my congregation who were offended by this but nobody was required to join them; some were happy to help out and go to the other service. The only other restriction we placed on this minyan was that they could not “denigrate” our Conservative congregation because we did not agree with them on issues of egalitarianism and participation. After many years, the group was no longer able to continue and the remaining members joined our congregation. We were happy to have them join.

I said earlier, that the “one size fits all” type of service is way out of date. Offering multiple services that have multiple options is a way to be more things to more people. Bringing in other smaller groups can be a way of helping them and having more to offer the community. It is important, however, to make sure that the concerns of both congregations are addressed in advance. There will need to be really good communication between the different groups to make this kind of an arrangement work.

Virtual Buildings and Virtual Community

Modern technology does not require community to actually be inside the same building all the time. Technology allows us to create “virtual” buildings. This works particularly well when it comes to educational programs. Classes can be recorded as MP3 files and put on the congregation website to be listened to later, or even posted as an MP4 file, a video of the class, for those who missed the session. An internet “forum” can be used to encourage discussion by those who may be taking the class later and questions can be posted so that participants can see what other learners are thinking. Prior to an advanced text class, basic information can be posted to the web as a “prerequisite” for those who missed the beginning semester. Together with the List-serve, a virtual community can be set up, so that in addition to learning, questions and answers, day to day information like finding a baby sitter or asking for the name of a qualified painter, can be provided; members can reach out to each other even if they can't make it that day to the building. There may be some who think that this kind of community is impersonal and cold, but given the busyness of people today, making ideas, lessons and communal information available after hours can make the difference in keeping active members involved. Young adults today, are more familiar and less put off by virtual community and this could be a way of getting them and keeping them connected.