Temple Beth El breaks ground on $12 million addition

May 21, 2010

by John Ehrlich

Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester broke ground Sunday, May 16, on its long-awaited facility expansion project for which construction will begin June 7.

The project will double its building footprint from its current 18,435 square foot sanctuary facility to more than 36,000 square feet through the addition of an attached Great Hall and a new building to house its nursery and religion schools, Institute for Jewish Studies, administrative offices and a social hall for functions.  “It will be a center for Jewish life,” said the congregation’s Senior Rabbi, Joshua Davidson.  “Our groundbreaking was an affirmation of the core principles of our congregation: worship, justice, study and community.”

The event was both a ceremony of groundbreaking and a celebration, as Chappaqua’s Reform Jewish congregation moves from planning and fund raising to construction. Beth El President Bill Pollak stated, “After today’s event we are ready to build.” Actual construction is slated to start June 7 and will continue through August 2011.

Local elected officials joined with clergy, members of the congregation – including some who were there in 1972 when the current Temple building was dedicated – and delegates from the Interfaith Council and members of other houses of worship to celebrate this milestone. 

New York State Assemblyman Bob Castelli, State Senator Suzi Oppenheimer and New Castle Town Supervisor Barbara Gerrard joined the celebration Sunday.  Offering her congratulations U.S. Congresswoman Nita Lowey declared, “All I can think about is what this will mean to our community.  May you continue to go from strength to strength.” New York State Assemblyman Bob Castelli added, “We are all people of the book, may this represent growth and an expansion of faith.”  State Senator Suzi Oppenheimer alluding to the enhanced educational facilities to be built confessed, “I, myself, was Bat Mitzvah-ed just six years ago.”

U.S. Congresswoman Nita Lowey Speaking at the groundbreaking.

A short history of Temple Beth El and its facilities

The 45 founding families of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, who resided in 28 different communities, began meeting formally in 1949 after deciding that northern Westchester County needed a Reform Jewish congregation. They initially held services in Chappaqua’s previous Congregational Church, now the Grace Baptist Church at the intersection of Orchard Ridge Road and King Street. Rapid growth prompted a move to the Presbyterian Church in Mt. Kisco. Beth El membership continued to increase, and in 1954, the Temple returned to Chappaqua, this time as the new owner of the church building that it once shared. That church was converted into a synagogue, which provided a home to the congregation until 1972.

Beth El and its sisterhood purchased nine acres of wooded property that at one time belonged to Horace Greeley. They retained renowned architect Louis I. Kahn of Philadelphia to design a new building. The design recalled and memorialized similarly styled wooden synagogues in Eastern Europe.  Dedicated in May 1972, the sanctuary building was completed at a cost of $1.1 million, just 1/12th of the budget for the new expansion project. The building Kahn designed was intended to house 450 families, ten times the size of the 1949 congregation. Thirty-eight years later the current membership exceeds 620 families.

Louis Kahn’s vision of Temple Beth-El as a synagogue in the woods
Chappaqua, New York 1966-72 Section Charcoal on tracing paper, Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission 030.I.A.750.90

Architectural goals: Preservation and growth

The building project aims to restore and preserve Louis Kahn’s award-winning designs for the sanctuary while addressing the current needs of the congregation.  The task at hand is to improve the overall functionality of the building while fitting appropriately within the natural setting of the now 7-acre woodland property.

Alexander Gorlin, the architect of the addition, explained in a brief interview Sunday, “our design was inspired by the courtyard of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  The courtyard provides space and a sub cultural context. It is a ‘jewel-like’ setting in the woods.”

Specific objectives previously disclosed by the congregation include a new social hall where members can celebrate events of all sizes from b’nei mitzvah to weddings.  It may include a pre-function foyer for cocktail parties, state-of-the-art kitchen even a bridal room.

The convertible classrooms that ring the sanctuary and social hall in the current building will be relocated to their own building west of a new large modern entrance hall that will improve access and enhances security.  This change will also free the sanctuary itself for worship, more services, and life cycle events such as funerals.  Beth El Rabbi Joshua Davidson wrote in letters and campaign literature, “it will allow us to dedicate our sanctuary as a sanctuary; no more will it be a waiting room and busy thoroughfare. It will also create appropriate learning environments for all our students, adults and children alike.”

Davidson sees the Great Hall, which will welcome worshippers and visitors to the facility, as “a beautiful annex and a programmatic space, not just a connector.”  Other changes include dramatically enhanced religion and nursery school facilities, including exclusive-use classrooms, assembly space and an outdoor play area.  Lighting in the sanctuary will also be improved.  A few more parking spaces will be added and traffic flow and Route 117 driveway sight lines will be improved for safety.

Congregation has already raised $10 million of $12 million anticipated cost

As construction gets underway, $10 million in gifts and pledges has already been raised toward the $12 million anticipated project cost.  “This is quite an achievement in these economic times that have forced so many organizations to cut expenditures and budgets,” commented Stephen Adler, Beth El past president 1999-2003 and co-chair of the Capital Campaign.

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