Beth El works toward inclusion with new sanctuary, streaming services
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A welcome changeBeth El redesign helps congregation move toward inclusion

Beth El works toward inclusion with new sanctuary, streaming services

The redesigned sanctuary includes a bimah that is now level with the rest of the room surrounded by rows of pews reminiscent of Sephardic-style sanctuaries.

The new sanctuary was designed as a sacred space for the entire community. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
The new sanctuary was designed as a sacred space for the entire community. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Rabbi Amy Greenbaum has a favorite spot in the newly redesigned Sufrin Family Chapel: a seat on a pew in the northeast corner where she has a view not only of the centrally positioned bimah, but the stunning stained-glass windows, the ark and, when the room is in use, most of her congregation.

But really, there is not a bad seat in the house.

Renovations of the chapel at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills were completed last month, making the freshly restyled space more user-friendly for those with mobility challenges. The bimah, which is now level with the rest of the room rather than set on an elevated stage, is surrounded by rows of pews reminiscent of Sephardic-style sanctuaries.

The space has an intimate, warm feel to it, which Greenbaum, the congregation’s associate rabbi and director of education, welcomes wholeheartedly.

“Our new sanctuary was designed as a sacred space for our entire community,” she said. “When I enter this space to pray or to be with our community in any way, I feel a tremendous combination of peace and joy. This sanctuary embodies the words of our Torah: ‘How beautiful is this place, our sanctuary, in which God delights to dwell with us.’”

The remodeled sanctuary is one outcome of Beth El’s participation in a collaboration of 16 Conservative congregations that it entered in 2015 to look at ways to be more inclusive. The collaboration, called the Ruderman Inclusion Action Community, was sponsored by the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism and funded by the Ruderman Family Foundation.

What followed was a recommendation by Beth El’s inclusion committee to “remove barriers to participation in the chapel,” said Warren Sufrin, who along with his wife Adele, and his sister and brother-in-law, Debbie and Alan Scheimer, provided funding for the renovation.

“Getting up to the bimah was a challenge because people with physical disabilities couldn’t get up the steps, and we had elderly people who more than once fell while going up or coming down,” he explained.

Ascending the bimah prior to the renovation was “a challenge,” agreed congregant Susan Cohen, adding that the new design “means that all kinds of people now can have an aliyah.”

“I’m grateful that my small part in this resulted in a beautiful room that people can pray in, learn in and enjoy,” Debbie Scheimer added.

Warren Sufrin, executive vice president of the congregation, said the renovations will “remove barriers to participation in the chapel.” (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Architect John Francona created the new design of the 125-seat sanctuary, which includes space for additional portable seating as well. A typical Saturday morning Beth El Shabbat service, which does not include the celebration of a life-cycle event, draws about 50 people, noted Sufrin, who serves as the executive vice president of the congregation.

“The unique thing about this space is that it doesn’t look empty,” he said. “Even when you just have a minyan, you feel like you’re up close with your fellow congregants — which, by the way, was the other piece of what we were trying to accomplish.”

The cost of the renovation was $200,000, Sufrin said, with his family and the Charles Morris Foundation donating half those funds.

“Various congregants came forward with the other half,” he said. “We did not do fundraising.”

Other congregants participated by building the new bimah and shtender (lectern) by hand and painting the outside of the ark.

Not everyone was on board with the changes at the outset of the project, Sufrin said, but even the naysayers have come around to appreciate the results.

“Change is difficult,” he said. “When you ask a congregation to change the place where they’ve been praying for almost 40 years, it’s not easy at all. And they certainly wanted to make sure that things didn’t change too much.”

The room’s stained-glass panels were therefore left intact, and sculptural elements from other locations within the synagogue were incorporated into the design.

“I think it’s really been embraced by all,” Sufrin said.

Rabbi Amy Greenbaum and her husband, Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, pose for a photo in the newly renovated chapel in Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Because the sanctuary is still new it is “still too early” to tell if it will attract larger crowds to services, he continued. But for those who are unable to attend because of mobility issues, Beth El has introduced another new means of access: streaming services.

“There were people who were entirely unable to get to services at all,” he said. “So, our [Rabbi Alex Greenbaum] allowed this. He is very open to anything that will allow people to participate in services in one form or another.”

The streaming was introduced last month and has already had a positive impact on those who are unable to attend the life-cycle celebrations of family and friends.

The streaming “enables our families who are celebrating simchas to share these special moments with their families, who due to whatever reason — health or distance — cannot be physically present,” said Amy Greenbaum. “We have already seen the impact, and it is tremendous.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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