Sometimes, an institution’s public relations description of its project actually does sum it up quite well.
In a recent Facebook post, Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill announced a “once-in-a-generation” update to its sanctuary.
The Reform, 200-family synagogue is “completely redoing the sanctuary,” according to Executive Director Scott Allen. Individual seating will replace the pews, which have already been taken out; the bimah will be lowered in an appropriate metaphor for bringing God closer to the people; and new carpeting, floor tiles, paint and lighting will be installed.
The several hundred thousand dollar project is the first major update to the sanctuary in 40 years, per Allen. The goal is to complete it before the High Holidays.
“We’re looking forward to welcoming more people back and having a beautiful new space to pray in,” Allen said, referring to the pandemic’s curtailing of in-person activities over the past two years.
Or Ami’s update is both practical and stylistic, according to Allen.
Practically, a 40-year-old sanctuary just needs an update, and a period with reduced activity is an ideal time to do it. About 700 people attended High Holiday services in pre-COVID times, and synagogue officials want to prepare for that crowd to return.
Stylistically, though, Or Ami wants to enter post-COVID times with a more flexible and egalitarian aesthetic. Allen mentioned the addition of individual seating and the lowering of the bimah as the key updates.
The new seating allows for more versatility for activities ranging from bar and bat mitzvah services to rock Shabbats. A lower bimah brings the rabbi closer to the congregation.
Altogether, Allen believes the new setup will be more inviting.
“The idea of being able to make the space fit the programming is one way of making the space more contemporary,” he said.
For the update, Or Ami depended on a combination of big and small donors, per the director. To start the process, temple officials asked congregants who they thought would contribute. That effort landed enough funding to secure the project.
“By targeting some people we felt would find this project meaningful and special, we were able to raise a sizable amount of money,” Rabbi Glenn Ettman said.
Ettman and his leadership team started dreaming about the overhaul four years ago. During a service on Rosh Hashanah morning, Ettman opened the Torah ark doors to reveal the stained glass windows behind them. A congregant sitting in the back, who grew up at Or Ami, told the rabbi after the service that he felt like he was seeing the stained glass for the first time.
He thought it was beautiful and wondered if the synagogue could update its sanctuary to enhance that beauty. Together, the member and the rabbi came around to a clarifying question: What if you could walk in, see the stained glass and understand its beauty?
Now, with the bimah lowered, congregants will be able to do just that.
“To know that it’s a special, sacred space,” Ettman said. “That began the conversation.”
But the size of the project and the pandemic kept the idea firmly in dream territory for a few years. Recently, though, Or Ami renovated its kitchen to allow for more space for “alternative-type programming,” as the rabbi described it, like cooking classes for young adults.
Ettman wanted to bring the same spirit to the sanctuary upgrade, too. Synagogue members today want religion, yes; that’s why they are synagogue members after all. But they also want community in more modern, interest-based ways, like through cooking classes where they can learn recipes.
This, according to Ettman, is what Judaism will look like post-COVID.
“Believing in religion as well as a knish bread recipe is how Judaism will continue,” he said. “Being able to revamp the spaces, to give it a fresh look, to say, ‘Here we are. Let’s come back. Let’s do this.’”
For a smaller synagogue, Or Ami has a healthy mix of younger and older families. Some are multigenerational. Others are kids who grew up in the temple and came back.
Ettman hopes they all attend High Holiday services in the fall and stick with Or Ami moving forward. His young daughter has graduated from the synagogue’s Early Childhood Education program and is a student in its religious school.
“Our goal is to bring together the Jewish community starting with the ECE (Early Childhood Education program) and all the way through the Jewish life cycle moments,” he said. “And the non-life cycle moments.” JE