A much greater sense of community

Posted Sept. 26, 2008, at 10:22 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:01 a.m.

Worshippers who haven’t visited Congregation Beth El in Bangor since the High Holy Days last year may not recognize the place when they step inside the synagogue next week.

The sanctuary space is brighter, lighter and more welcoming, according to Rabbi Darah Lerner. The changes, including the wooden multicolored panels that rise like vertical rainbows from the floor and flank the ark that holds the Torah, reflect the growing congregation, she said.

“We are an open, welcoming, inclusive and no-tickets-required synagogue,” she said Wednesday, joking about the tradition in which Jews “purchase” seats on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The holiday period begins at sundown Monday, Sept. 29, and ends Thursday, Oct. 9.

Beth El is a Reform congregation established in 1981 that welcomes everyone — interfaith couples, people exploring their Jewish roots, those considering conversion to Judaism, visitors and nonmembers — to all services and special events, according to its Web site.

The congregation in 1995 moved to its first permanent home at 183 French St. Previously, First Church of Christ Science and Messiah Baptist Church owned the building. Only minor remodeling had been done since Beth El bought it. As the congregation’s silver anniversary approached, its members wanted to plan its future, Maxine Harrow, immediate past president, said earlier this year.

The renovations were part of the synagogue’s 25th anniversary celebration and part of a vision for the congregation through 2015. The design committee was formed in 2004, she said. The capital campaign, named l’dor v’dor — generation to generation in English — was launched in 2006.

“For millennia, we as Jews have passed on to our children our beliefs and our commitment to faith, family and social action,” the campaign literature said. “From you to them, for us as members of the Beth El community to those who will be following in our footsteps — l’dor v’dor helps us define ourselves as individuals and congregants as we continue to value the past, live in the present and look forward to the future.

“We have accomplished what others, even ourselves, thought might not be possible,” Harrow said on May 4 at a celebration of the Silver Anniversary Campaign after the majority of the remodeling had been finished.

The $600,000 in renovations included the removal of the wooden pews installed decades ago. In their place are padded chairs that most often are set up in a U-shape so that congregants can see each other’s faces during services.

The chairs also allow the space to be configured differently for large and small services, bar or bas mitzvahs, weddings and other events such as concerts. Since the remodeling was completed, the sanctuary most often has been set up as a worship space using about 80 chairs in one half of the room and a social area with round tables and chairs at the back. The area also can be used for classes and group study, according to Lerner.

As in all synagogues, the ark in which the Torah is kept is the focal point of the sanctuary. The ark’s place on the east wall facing Jerusalem has not changed at Beth El. The bimah, or platform from which the Torah is read and services are conducted, now is much smaller and less than a foot above the floor. There also are ramps that allow the handicapped to get onto the bimah and participate fully in services.

The eternal light, or “ner tamid,” hangs above the ark and burns continuously. A fixture in every synagogue, it symbolizes the spiritual enlightenment that emanates from the Torah, according to information posted on MyJewishLearning.com. Beth El’s new ner tamid is a modern work of art that runs on solar power and was constructed to be immune to electrical power outages. Designed by Glenburn artist Elizabeth Bush, it resembles a dancing campfire.

On the west wall is a carving of the Tree of Life, a metaphor for the Torah from Proverbs. Dr. Edward Harrow, a Bangor physician and founding member of the synagogue, spent hundreds of hours carving the dark trunk and individual leaves affixed to the wall. Harrow, who is married to Maxine Harrow, also made the ark, Torah stand and menorah.

Other renovations to the building included doubling the size of the kitchen and installing new appliances and cabinets. New bathrooms were installed in the basement that now has four classrooms and a conference room in addition to the kitchen. Work also was done on the outside of the building, according to Harrow, to correct drainage problems.

The holidays will give the members of the congregation the opportunity to show off the renovations to family, friends and visitors. The chairs also will be much more comfortable than the old pews. Lerner said.

“In the past, the rabbi and the cantor were leading the people [in the pews] as they faced each other,” she said of the changes in the sanctuary seating. “There’s much greater sense of the community being together. Now, we are speaking with, praying with, worshipping with each other.”

Remodeling goals for Congregation Beth El

• Reconfigure the sanctuary space and foyer to provide flexible worship, social and programming areas.

• Renovation of the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms.

• Overhaul and expansion of the kitchen.

• Improve handicapped accessibility.

• Spruce up the entire facility to make it a warm, spiritually inspiring and inviting home for members and guests.

Congregation Beth El in 2015

• To be the most dynamic and active Jewish synagogue in Maine.

• To be known as a beacon of Reform Judaism.

• To offer diverse and creative programming for all ages of youths and adults.

• To conduct compelling and stimulating spiritual and ritual observances.

• To increase membership by 50 percent to 225 families.

• For members to be deeply and satisfyingly engaged in all aspects of temple services, education, outreach, governance and operations.

• For members to be inspired by the traditions of Tzedakah (charity), Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and inclusiveness by incorporating social action and encouragement of diversity into all aspects of congregational life.

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