The Rebirth of a Shul
Special to the Hamilton Jewish News
Beth Jacob recreates itself for a new era
Five years ago, the outlook was clear and grim. Beth Jacob Synagogue, former co-president John Levy concluded, "was on the path to being gone, and that upset me very much."
The Aberdeen Avenue shul showed all the signs of a dying congregation: membership had plunged, debt was climbing, the existing rabbi's tenure was in question and parts of the 50-year-old building were literally crumbling.
Jump ahead now to 2010: membership has stabilized around 400 families, debt has been dramatically reduced, aggressive leadership has brought a sense of life back to the 127-year-old congregation, a new rabbi has won the hearts of the entire community and new life has been breathed into the building.
Those accomplishments will be celebrated in January with the official opening of Beth Jacob's new "shul within a shul," a $1.3 million project that turned a decaying and seldom-used social hall into a new worship space and opened the entire building to handicapped and elderly members.
Beth Jacob's turn-around started in 2005 when cousins Wendy Schneider and John Levy took over as co-presidents with a mission to revive the synagogue their family had helped to found.
The first job was finding a new spiritual leader.
"We went rabbi-hunting in New York City and were fortunate enough to find Rabbi Dan Selsberg. People were absolutely thrilled with him from the get-go," said Schneider.
Levy agrees: "We've ended up with someone beyond our wildest dreams, with the arrival of Rabbi Dan and his family."
Once Rabbi Selsberg had settled in, Beth Jacob's new lay and spiritual leaders quickly identified the need for a physical renewal of the congregation.
"The building had a real tired feel to it," Schneider said. "We needed a tangible symbol of what was happening at the spiritual level."
Rabbi Selsberg also saw several areas where a building designed in 1954 and opened in 1956 simply wasn't meeting the needs of people in 2010, especially those with limitations.
"The only level access to this building was down an incline along a gravel path, and once people were inside the entire second floor was inaccessible," he said. "We needed an entrance that treats everyone with equal dignity and is accommodating to young families with strollers."
The new entrance is complimented with an inside ramp to the second floor and an elevator connecting all levels of the building.
"The old design might have been fine for its time, but it wasn't beautiful and we come from a tradition that sees beauty and architecture as important," he added. "Now we have something thatÕs current and not falling apart."
As important as the entrances to the shul were, the more pressing issue was its worship spaces. The main sanctuary seating 660 was an impressive room for the high holidays or a community-wide Yom HaShoah event, but hopelessly huge for the average Shabbat.
"We were lucky to fill the sanctuary two or three times a year," Levy said. "The physical space we had just wasn't in line with our requirements any more."
A smaller chapel, seating about 60, and containing the aron kodesh and pews from Beth Jacob's original Hunter Street location, has, over the last several years, been used for most Shabbatot and the daily minyan.
"We had a situation where, for the average holiday, we were either too crowded in the chapel or lost in the cavernous sanctuary," Rabbi Selsberg said. "There had been talk about doing something about that for a couple of decades so we finally decided, if not now, when?"
Toronto-based Quadrangle Architects Limited, a firm specializing in retrofits of historical buildings, was commissioned to study the problem. A first estimate, which involved the downsizing of the main sanctuary was impractical and too ambitious. Then architect Les Klein called Levy near midnight one day with a brainstorm - build a new worship space in an area that was getting almost no use at all.
"We had an upper social hall which was rarely used, except for our Israeli film festivals," Levy said.
The entire project, which included the building of the new space and a modest refurburshing of the main sanctuary could be done for just under $4 million. After the expected anguishing and hand wringing about spending such a large amount of money, the bottom fell out of the western economy.
"We made all of these plans and then the economy went to hell in a hand basket," Levy said. "We decided we had to scale the project back by doing only what we absolutely had to right now."
A new goal of just over $1 million was set, and a core group of fundraisers took to their telephones to sell the vision.
"The goal was to get the entire Beth Jacob community involved in this project and we're proud to say that the response has been overwhelmingly positive," Levy said.
"Right from the outset we committed that this project would be self funding, and we made it clear we wouldnÕt spend any more than we could raise," he continued.
The result of all that effort is a new 160-seat chapel of movable seats, with the prayer leader in the centre of the room rather than at one end on a raised bimah, looking down on the congregation.
"The new space is going to be a lot less formal," Rabbi Selsberg said.
The entire space is finished in Jerusalem stone, quarried in Israel and shipped to Hamilton for this project.
"It's a space that reminds us of our connection to Jews around the world," he said. "It's creates an atmosphere that is unforgettable."
Beth Jacob's renewal, Levy hopes, will also be a boon to the broader Jewish community in Hamilton, by ensuring the city has a place to accommodate the needs of Jewish families of all persuasions expected to arrive as the local economy transitions.
"There's something at the core of this that felt right from the very beginning," he said, "and we know that our new "shul within the shul" will serve the needs of the Beth Jacob community for generations to come."