Making the Beginning of Each School Day Into a Religious Experience

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KSS Architects (KSS), an award-winning architectural design firm with offices in Princeton, N.J. and Philadelphia, built a new campus for Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph, N.J this summer. 

Imagine going to school at one of the holiest places in the world. Since September, students at Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph, N.J., have been able to do the next best thing, as every morning they can enter a school that evokes nothing less than the Kotel. 
 
KSS Architects (KSS), an award-winning architectural design firm with offices in Princeton, N.J. and Philadelphia, built a new campus for the school that was completed this summer. 
 
“As a school, we wanted to reflect our connection to Israel and we talked a lot with KSS about this,” said Naomi Bacharach, director of institutional advancement at the school. “We love the look of the school, especially in the early morning light and dusk. It is nestled beautifully into the trees/ landscape.”
 
“The synagogue is beautifully located in the front of the building letting in all the morning light. It is properly facing due east and has a modern feel with a hand-carved, one-of-a-kind ark, designed by KSS, to house the Torahs. It is a modern take on the tablets.”
 
The school was founded in 1967 and serves approximately 225 children from early childhood education through eighth grade. The new building replaces the original facility built in 1980.
The school’s building wings are arranged to resemble the surrounding bedrock masses that glaciers once formed. Cement board panels clad the exterior in a size and pattern to emulate the Western Wall of Jerusalem. Thin wooden slats are layered on the façade to continue the conversation of filtered light through the solids and transparencies in nature, further connecting the outside with the inside.
 
Michael Shatken, who is one of the founding partners of KSS, said the existing building and parking lot were “poorly deployed” and it was his goal to use historic structures from Jerusalem to create a revitalized institution for children. 
 
For Shatken, who has been to Israel four times to spend time with his wife’s family, the firsthand exposure to the most sacred space in Judaism was an immeasurable help for him and his associate, Jason Churma, as they crafted the school’s new layout. 
 
“You kind of have an association with the architecture of the Wailing Wall,” Shatken said. “I think the most important thing for me was to create a new home that promoted meaningful change in the Jewish community.”
 
KSS found a fiber cement product that resembled Jerusalem stone and chose four shades so when light reflects off it, it resembles the Kotel. It also put together a color grid that was followed by the installers so the colors would blend together.
 
In the back of the building, the architects put a block of the same color with the same measurements as the largest hand-carved stone — carved by King Herod’s craftsmen — found in the underground Western Wall tunnel tour. 
 
“We call this our ‘Kotel,’ and hope the kids will add notes that our eighth-graders will take to Israel every year,” Bacharach said. 
 
The architects designed the building with the theme of “boulders and birches,” she added. The existing campus environment is very rocky and full of trees, and the building is designed as three large, interconnected boulders. 
 
In keeping with the theme of the Kotel, the architects chose multiple shades of lighter browns, placing each panel so that very few of the stones on the outer wall would look similar — just like at the Kotel, where no two stones are identical.  
 
“We love the way the outside of the school looks,” Bacharach said. “In particular, we get many extremely positive reactions from visitors as they drive up to the school and see it for the first time. It brings the Jewish aspect of stone to life and merges well with our local environment.” 
 
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747

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