Don’t Judge The Torah By It’s Cover

Today I had the opportunity to go a an tour of a new building here in San Francisco whose unique architecture has upset many residents of the neighborhood in which the building is sited. As detailed in this article by the San Francisco Chronicle’s John King, “not everyone’s a fan.”

When the project was approved by the Planning Commission in 2005, 300 neighbors signed a petition against it. And now that it’s done? “I don’t think we’ll ever get used to it,” a next-door neighbor said last week. “Nobody on the block likes it. Would you? “

One dominant feature of the Congregation Beth Sholom’s new synagogue is the exterior of the sanctuary which resembles a half-pipe more suited for a skateboard park or a ship in dry dock. I often work in the neighborhood, and when I saw the building going up, my gut reaction was negative. Overall, I like the modern feel of the exterior, I just don’t think the building fits into the neighborhood (a reaction shared by quite a few people apparently). My opinion of the synagogue changed a bit today after I had the opportunity to take a guided tour of the interior.

Simply put, the building is beautiful. It’s glass, concrete, and wood accents are very modern, but there are many touches that link the congregation to its past. First there is a small chapel located to your right as you enter. Stained glass panels from the synagogue which was formerly on the site but was razed to make room for the new building grace three walls of the chapel and are gently backlit in order to show them in their best light. Along with some offices, a library, and multiuse rooms, there is a lovely garden on the south side of the property bordered by a neighboring building and sheltered by the overhang of the sanctuary bowl.

The main attractions, however, are on the second floor.

Walking up a broad staircase from the entrance lobby, you come out on a large open space perfect for receptions and celebrations. Many of the neighboring buildings are below the height of this deck, so instead of views into surrounding apartment buildings, you look out onto treetops and open sky. To the north is a gorgeous, large hall featuring champagne colored walls and lots of natural light, ready for celebrations and receptions. And then there’s the sanctuary itself.
This is where the menorah-shaped exterior makes the most sense. Another space filled with natural light, it is divided into two sets of stadium seating where congregants can see one another during services thus emphasizing their communal bond. The ark is set in the eastern wall of the sanctuary so, when congregants face it, they are facing Jerusalem. And, while that detail may not justify tearing down the old synagogue, that building didn’t facilitate the ark’s placement in the proper part of the sanctuary.

Exiting the sanctuary and retreating downstairs I also noticed the top of the roof of the structure supporting the curve of the sanctuary is decorated by large stones which I thought added a soothing decorative element. Ultimately, I think the exterior of the new synagogue purposefully invites a little controversy with its mismatched elements and the cheek-by-jowl nature of its placement in the neighborhood. But, when you’re inside looking out, all of the elements of the building come together in a calming, quiet matter.

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