Owings Mills congregation fashions its 'sacred space' Beth Israel synagogue transforming factory into house of worship

August 24, 1996|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Enter the Beth Israel congregation's Owings Mills synagogue, and behold the lobby. Behold a ceiling of sprinkler heads, I-beams and naked bulbs. A floor of bare concrete. Walls of unfinished Sheetrock.

"Our congregation accepts this," says Chaya Vidal, Beth Israel's executive director. "They walk through this area, like the desert, to get to the promised land."

On that note, Vidal leaves the barren expanse for a sanctuary that feels fresh, bright and contemporary. In more ways than one, a transition is taking place: As Beth Israel settles into a new home in a growing Jewish community, the Conservative congregation is gradually turning a former factory into a house of worship.

This week, the 414-seat sanctuary received its crowning touch when custom-made chairs for the bimah, the raised platform from which the rabbi speaks, and for the congregation arrived from an Israeli kibbutz.

It was the latest milestone in a project that taps into many disciplines, from architecture to woodworking to the very tenets of the faith.

To Rabbi Jay R. Goldstein, the renovation is an opportunity to sanctify an otherwise nondescript structure -- just as religion can provide meaning in a vacuous life.

"It's the ability to take something as mundane as a battery factory and make a sacred space out of it," he says. "Just like Mount Sinai was the lowliest of mountains and was transformed into a place for God's revelation."

But even as they build a tribute to God on the edge of the sprawling Business Park of Owings Mills, the congregants are reminded that group prayer, and not lush furnishings, makes a synagogue. After all, the 800-family congregation celebrated last year's High Holy Days in a makeshift sanctuary with a concrete floor.

"This building is just a building. What makes it a synagogue, what makes it holy -- what we call kedushah -- is what we bring to it," says Goldstein.

Adds Hilda W. Hillman, a former congregation president who has helped raise money for renovations, "Wherever we gather, that is our spiritual home."

Formed 40 years ago by 10 couples from the Liberty Road area, the congregation worshiped for many years in Randallstown. By the late 1980s, many members -- especially younger families -- began to leave the area.

Many settled in Owings Mills, and within six years Beth Israel's membership declined from 1,000 families to fewer than 600. Like some other Jewish institutions, Beth Israel followed the families to Owings Mills.

In 1994 the congregation bought an 88,000-square-foot building on 10 acres near the intersection of Owings Mills Boulevard and Crondall Lane for $2.7 million.

The building, which had been used by Catalyst Research Corp. to make batteries for pacemakers and hearing aids, is in the shadow of a business park occupied by companies such as Lever Bros. and across the street from Atlantic Pharmaceutical Services' future plant.

"We fell in love with the site," congregation President Ted Schweitzer recalls. Pointing to the surrounding woods, he says, "It takes you 75 years to grow trees like that."

The congregation sold its property on Liberty Road to a Baptist church, and in March 1995 it began the $4 million campaign to turn the factory into a synagogue. Four months later, the administrative wing and the Hebrew school were completed.

Meanwhile, Saturday services were conducted in an auditorium at Owings Mills High School. Friday evening services were held in a temporary sanctuary in a dreary area known as "the back 40," a 40,000-square-foot area in the rear of the building that the congregation hopes to lease.

Expecting large crowds for last autumn's holiday services, the congregation temporarily moved to the new sanctuary -- still unfinished, with concrete floors. After the holidays, construction resumed, and in February, the congregation began to worship in the new sanctuary. Until this week, they sat on plastic chairs.

During the renovations, which are about 60 percent complete, congregation members steered architects toward a contemporary, functional design. For instance, the L-shaped sanctuary is flanked by partitions that open to multipurpose rooms -- allowing easy overflow seating for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services.

Schweitzer says, "The days of building sanctuaries that seat 2,500 or 3,000 for a few days a year are gone."

Architect Mark Levin says the project was challenging because the large building had too many columns and too few windows. The solution was to add crossbeams to support ceilings where columns had to be removed, and to cut out a section of roof to create a courtyard that allows light into the building.

Twelve small skylights -- one for each of the tribes of Israel -- help illuminate the sanctuary.

The sanctuary was designed as a sort of theater in the round. Zelic Gresser, a former congregation president who initiated the move to Owings Mills, says, "We feel part of the service, rather than the service being performed for us."

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