By Colette M. Jenkins
Beacon Journal religion writer
Beth El Congregation has taken the challenge of a shrinking Jewish community during tough economic times and turned it into an opportunity to renew and rebuild.
“It’s amazing how everyone has come together to create a beautiful and inspiring new home for our members,” said Andrea Steinberger, president of the congregation. “The whole process — from discussing where to relocate to watching the new building go up — has created so much energy and excitement.”
On Wednesday, the congregation gathered to dedicate its new chapel on the campus of Shaw Jewish Community Center, 750 White Pond Drive. It was an occasion to welcome the synagogue’s members to their new home and to thank the donors who made the building project possible.
One of those donors, Victor Gross, 94, traveled from his Florida home to be present for the dedication of the new multipurpose gathering area, called the Merkaz (Hebrew word for center), and the Victor and Lillian Gross Family Chapel (named for his family).
Gross said he couldn’t be more pleased with the new sacred space.
“It bowls me over. It’s beautiful,” Gross said. “It’s absolutely wonderful.”
The stained-glass entry doors to the new chapel were cut down and transferred from the former synagogue building on South Hawkins Avenue. Inside, the chapel, which seats 120 people, is punctuated by the “Pillar of Light” Ark Wall, designed by Bonnie Cohen, a Beth El member and owner of Mosaic Design and Signage.
The 25-foot glass mosaic includes the Holy Ark doors, behind which the torahs are kept. It also includes shards of vintage glass from the original stained-glass panels and is made of thousands of pieces of recycled glass tiles cut and glued with the help of volunteer congregants.
The wall also includes a new eternal light, or ner tamid, designed by Paula Newman Pollachek, an award-winning metal artist who grew up at Beth El. The Colorado resident designed and crafted the ner tamid, a reminder that God is ever-present, from brushed aluminum.
Adjacent to the chapel is a courtyard that will be used for Sukkot and other outdoor spiritual events.
The foyer/reception area, located between the chapel and the Merkaz Room, contains the donor recognition wall, called “The Wall of Blessings.” Also designed by Cohen, it is a dimensional mosaic of seven color bands that represent the seven days of creation. It includes tiles members of the congregation created.
Cohen explained that the wings of a dove that emerge from the background of the donor wall represent the new chapter in Beth El’s history.
“The Wall of Blessings includes words from the Amidah, a series of blessings that we recite. They mean, ‘For all these blessings, we shall ever praise and honor You.’
“The goal was to create artwork that is a fitting tribute to those who made the new building a reality,” Cohen said. “Hopefully, it will inspire people to not only appreciate our generous donors, but also all of God’s blessings that we enjoy every day.”
The Merkaz Room is designed to be a gathering space for activities — from classes and celebrations to luncheons and dinners. It includes a media center and children’s books and toys. Its front wall includes handmade tiles, containing Jewish symbols, that congregants created during Hanukkah 2012.
Beth El moved from its West Akron location in July 2012 after selling its building to Summit Academy and moved to the Jewish Community Center. The more than $1 million construction and renovation project for its new home, located at the front of the center, included remodeling space in the community center’s conference room and auditorium for worship space.
The congregation can expand seating, for up to 150 people, by opening the Merkaz Room. It also has access to the community center’s kosher kitchen and auditorium, where it can seat 500 people for special services and occasions, including next month’s High Holidays.
“This entire move has galvanized the congregation and brought people closer together,” said Rabbi Stephen Grundfast, spiritual leader of the conservative congregation. “This was a bold move — coming to the JCC, giving up a little of our autonomy and becoming part of a community — and it has created a revitalized Beth El, where new people are volunteering to do things and new programming is allowing us to broaden our reach.”
For more information about Beth El, go to www.bethelakron.com or call 330-864-2105.