Friday, October 10, 2008

Renovated synagogue opens in time for Yom Kippur


Members of Santa Barbara’s largest Jewish congregation observed the holiest day of their faith in a newly renovated synagogue, swapping pews for plush chairs and enjoying a redesigned seating orientation.

Congregation B’nai B’rith has called its synagogue on San Antonio Creek Road home for 40 years without major renovations. It had become somewhat tired and in need of an update, said Deborah Naish, executive director of the congregation.
“We’ve painted and cleaned the carpets several times, but nothing serious,” she said.
Now the building features an overhauled Girsh-Hochman Sanctuary with an upgraded electrical and sound system, energy-efficient lighting, tile embellishments and new carpet.
“It was very much a group effort,” Naish said, adding that congregants made donations ranging from chair sponsorships to major gifts larger than $25,000.
In observance of Yom Kippur, more than 1,000 Jews gathered Wednesday evening and yesterday morning in the synagogue for services.
Instead of sitting in fixed pews stretching the length of the room — like a bowling alley, as Naish described it — congregants sat in a half-circle around a raised stage in new wooden chairs with plush seats.
“The ability to change orientation is incredibly significant,” Naish said. “There are no bad seats now.”
She said the redesign has been a dream of Rabbi Steve Cohen since he came to the congregation — to have a more intimate space and to be able to look out into the audience and see everyone’s face.
In addition to changes to the sanctuary, the building features a new etched glass entryway in the place of heavy wood doors. A scene on the glass crafted by local Judaic artist Laurie Gross-Schaefer is reflected in a metal and stone sculpture of the same image in the lobby.
The scene shows a man holding up a Torah, surrounded by children with more people walking toward him to pray.
Naish described the $1.8 million renovation as in standing with the overall feel of the synagogue, a tone she characterized to as “simple elegance.”
A committee of congregants brought together by then-congregation president Aaron Ettenberg oversaw the changes and Dawn Ziemer, the daughter of the temple’s original architect, Don Ziemer, led the design process.
Construction started June 29 and was scheduled to finish in mid-September, but delays had some worried the project wouldn’t be finished in time for the Day of Atonement.
“Two weeks ago, people thought we wouldn’t be here,” Naish said. “We had many skeptics, but we got it done.”

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