Temple Sinai dedicates its renovated sanctuary and synagogue as its rabbi celebrates his 10th year in Tenafly

Caption TK
Caption TK

It doesn’t look anything like Temple Emanu-El of New York on Fifth Avenue, which arguably is the Reform movement’s flagship synagogue.

Emanu-El is overwhelming. It’s huge and long and relatively narrow; despite all the elaborate artwork on the walls, it funnels your eyes to the front, where an Alpine-height bima and vast swathes of gold frame the clergy who loom there.

It’s a clearly hierarchical space, and unless you are one of those clergy members on the bima, you are made very clearly to know that you are on the bottom of that hierarchy, free to look and wonder and glory in the splendor, but not to question.

And then there’s Temple Sinai Bergen County in Tenafly, the largest Reform synagogue in eastern Bergen County, newly redesigned to convey the opposite message.

The sanctuary and social hall have been renovated in the first phase of a planned two-phase project.

Last Saturday night, Sinai dedicated the sanctuary and the social hall; the community also celebrated its rabbi, Jordan Millstein. It’s the 25th anniversary of his ordination, and also the 10th anniversary of his time at Temple Sinai. It’s appropriate to celebrate the rabbi with the dedication, Temple Sinai members say, because it is his vision and his drive that shaped and fueled the redesign.

Cantor Nitza Shamah and Rabbi Jordan Millstein in the new sanctuary.

The sanctuary, which is the heart of the synagogue, is designed as a series of circles, under a round skylight under which a glass-and-silver ner tamid, an eternal flame, hangs. The skylight is in the center of the room, rather than directly in front of the ark, as is conventional.

Six new stained glass windows — the synagogue’s first stained glass windows — tell the stories of six incidences of the phrase hineini — here I am — which usually is the answer human beings give to God when God asks (rhetorically, because God always knows the answer) where they are.

Hineini — here I am — is Temple Sinai’s focus, the understanding and world view around which the entire community centers, as the new building reflects.

“The sanctuary before it was redone probably was best described as a trapezoid, but it was reshaped as a circle because we are saying that God is at the center,” Rabbi Millstein said. “And when we sit in a circle, we can see each other, and we are creating intimacy. The spiritual symbolism is clear.”

Not only does the sanctuary now have stained glass, it also has new clear glass windows. “We want people to be able to see,” Rabbi Millstein said. “We want it to be comfortable and warm. The opposite of cold and imposing.”

The bima now is a platform toward the center of the room; it can be lowered until it is only six inches off the ground, and parts of it can be removed, until it functions only as a slightly raised platform that allows

Cantor Shamah and Rabbi Millstein lead Chanukah Rock Shabbat services in the new sanctuary last winter.

everyone else in the room to see the person standing on it.

There are no longer any pews in the room; instead, people sit on chairs that can be moved to any configuration or removed entirely. “Flexibility is a big goal,” Rabbi Millstein said. “We can shape the room any way we want to.” When the chairs are moved to use space most efficiently, it can seat 1,500, he said.

He quoted the Reform movement’s Rabbi Larry Hoffman, who is an expert on liturgy, which he teaches at the movement’s rabbinical school in Manhattan, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “Rabbi Hoffman said that some sanctuaries are holdovers from medieval architecture” — think of Emanu-El! — “where people are meant to feel small.” Here, they are all meant to feel equal, both in each other’s eyes and in God’s.”

The way the room now is set up, the bima can accommodate an eight-piece band, he added.

The ner tamid that hangs from the skylight, held by filigreed chains that look delicate despite the heavy fixture that they support, was made for Sinai by Claude Riedel, a Minneapolis-based glass artist who makes only nerot tamid. “His grandfather owned a store in Germany, and it was destroyed on Kristallnacht,” the Nazis’ Night of Breaking Glass, which ushered in the Holocaust to the sound of crashes and screams.

Now, the grandson makes beautiful objects out of glass. “Claude sees himself as taking those shards and bringing them together,” Rabbi Millstein said.

The ner tamid, by Claude Reidel, is suspended from a skylight in the center of the room.

“When you look at the ner tamid from any angle, you see three chains that form the Hebrew letter shin,” the letter that begins the word Shaddai, one of the names of God, Joseph Slade, Sinai’s executive director, said. “And there is a tiny piece of radioactive material that glows and has a half-life of about 7,000 years, so it is literally almost eternal,” he added.

The windows were made for Sinai by David Ascalon, a third-generation artist, part of a family known for its stained glass, often in Jewish settings. All six of the windows, each distinct from the others but whose colors carry over from one to the other, tells a hineini story. None of them are immediately obvious but each is clear when it’s described; therefore, each draws the viewer in as we play the “what is this story?” game.

Hineini, Rabbi Millstein said, means not only Here I am but also I am here and ready to do your will. And ready to do our will. “The idea of being really present with each other is a key focus for us,” he said.

The windows are divided into two groups of three. The ark is between them; it says Hineini in Hebrew letters in the front, and it is taken from the biblical verse where God says Hineini to Moshe. Its central position is not accidental, but instead speaks, as so much else in the renovated synagogue does, to the idea of the relationship between people and God, and among people.

The windows are visible from outside the building.

Before the renovation began, a design planning team went to Reform synagogues across the country, focusing mainly on New Jersey, Long Island, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Sinai was founded as a congregation in 1952, and moved into the building on Engle Street — its only permanent home — in 1958. It’s a solid, large congregation; it has been growing and knew that it needed space to foster that growth, and to shape its direction. “We are fortunate in that we started at just about the time that Jews starting moving into Tenafly,” Rabbi Millstein said. “Before that, it had been Judenrein.” Jew-free. “But the movement shifted north fairly rapidly. We now draw from eight or more towns.” Although most come from Tenafly and Englewood, “people come from West New York to Rockland,” he added. “We have just shy of 500 households, plus another 70 or so in the preschool.”

The synagogue also has a good relationship with the town, and with the other houses of worship. That includes Kesher, the Orthodox synagogue right across Engle Street; “some Kesher parents send their children to preschool here,” Rabbi Millstein said. He values all those relationships immensely, he added.

The social hall also has been renovated; it’s now a series of four separate rooms, each light, airy, windowed, and similarly decorated. The doors between them can be opened; if all of them are pushed back, including the ones that separate the first room from the sanctuary, the resulting space is vast, big enough for the High Holy Days crowd. It also will be a great place for parties, Mr. Slade said.

The idea for the renovations, along with much funding, came from the two Tenafly families whose names were on the sanctuary — the Kaplens, spearheaded by Maggie Kaplen — and the social hall — the Taubs, led by Marilyn Taub. The two women are old and very close friends.

Rabbi Millstein talks to children and their families; the bima is behind him in the new sanctuary.

“Both Mickey and I are so proud of the renovations,” Maggie Kaplen said. She has been a member of Temple Sinai for more than 30 years, so she has seen it through many phases and incarnations. “It has become a very inclusive community, and values social action as one of its prime things, and a lot of it is due to the warmth and compassion of the rabbi. The Sinai community is very engaged in the surrounding Tenafly community, and that is probably due to the rabbi. He is so good at outreach, he is so inclusive, so good with other synagogues and churches and mosques, and this has enriched our temple and the temple community, and gotten so many more people involved and excited.”

Mickey Taub has been a member of Temple Sinai for more than 45 years, she said. She loves it, “but like all things it could use a makeover,” she said. “Things change, and you want to keep up with the times.”

The idea for the renovation came from her and her son Ira, who also lives in Tenafly, both she and everyone else who talked about the work agreed. “At Ira’s daughter Julia’s bat mitzvah, he said to the rabbi, ‘We need to spruce this place up,’” Ms. Kaplen reported. “I didn’t know anything about that comment then, but Mickey and I also belong to the same temple in Florida, on Long Boat Key, and we were at a social event there when she said to me, ‘Our social hall needs updating. It is dowdy. It’s used-looking. It’s old!’ And I said ‘Yeah, and the sanctuary needs some cleaning up too.’”

Remember that the Taubs’ name was on the social hall, and the Kaplens’ name was on the sanctuary. Both women felt responsible for the upkeep of those two spaces.

“So that was the beginning of it,” Ms. Kaplen said. “Honestly, I thought that we would put new coverings on the pews. I never thought that we would have a new sanctuary. I thought it would be cosmetic.”

Ms. Taub reports the same surprise. What she thought would be a simple sprucing-up turned out to be an entire overhaul. “And I am so proud of it,” she said.

Sinai’s early childhood director, Risa Tannenbaum, is surrounded by some of the program’s kids.

Once the Sinai team had a good idea of what worked and what would work best for Sinai, it hired Mark Levin of the Maryland-based Levin/Brown Architects, who is a Reform Jew and focuses on synagogues. “We wanted a specifically synagogue-based architect,” Rabbi Millstein said.

Janene Edlin of Tenafly was president of Temple Sinai 10 years ago, and she was the head of the design committee.

The five-person committee took its work very seriously. “We met practically every week for about a year,” she said.

“It really was a labor of love on so many levels,” she said. “It is a little unconventional, because Rabbi Millstein had a very clear vision. He wanted to make worship a communal experience, as much as an individual experience. He wanted the flexibility.” She loves thinking of “Rabbi Millstein in the center, and people looking at each other, and at the stained glass windows.

“We want people to be able to lose themselves in the windows, and to have a soft, neutral, peaceful place.” In fact, the only bright colors in the sanctuary are in the windows.

Rabbi Millstein really wanted to reorient people’s thinking about worship, and she wanted people to see their synagogue in a different way. The connection between people and the community is extremely important to him.

“The feeling he wanted to evoke was similar to what a good piece of art should evoke,” Ms. Edlin continued. “You don’t have to love it, but it should make you think about things differently, and from then on you should have a different understanding. You should see things at a different level.

“People are very dug into their traditions. They have a hard time getting used to things that are different than the way they were when they were growing up. Rabbi Millstein very much wants there to be a progressive aspect to the way we worship now. He doesn’t want to wipe out the traditions, but he does want to have people think about the prayers, and their meaning, and the music, and the symbols in the synagogue differently, and to have them all be relevant to today’s stresses and difficulties and challenges.”

Ilana Mattson of Tenafly was president of Temple Sinai from 2014 to 2016, when the idea of the renovation first surfaced. “For the past five or six years, we have been remarkably fortunate in having a record number of congregants involved in some aspect of life in Temple Sinai, in ways that are meaningful to them,” she said. “We also have a very respectful working partnership with our professional staff, and we are professionally run, and we are very fortunate to be financially healthy.” In other words, all systems go. “That combo of very fortunate factors made the timing right for us to undertake a capital campaign to renovate the building to better reflect who we are and how we use the space.”

That unusually high level of lay involvement is not accidental. Ms. Mattson was a member of the third cohort of Berrie Fellows, the leadership program the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey ran. For her practicum, Ms. Mattson devised a program that took representatives of specific cohorts among Sinai members and had them meet frequently over the course of nine months, building relationships among them and strengthening their ties to the place as well as to the people. She also brought in outsiders, other local Jews, members of other local communities, who talked about their own Jewish observances, knowledge, communities, and commitments. Ms. Mattson ran that program, which she facilitated, for three years; 60 people have gone through it. It’s now on hiatus, sidelined by its own success; so many of the people involved in it wanted to work more closely with Temple Sinai that the synagogue ran out of things for them to do.

“It was such an incredibly program,” Ms. Mattson said. “As Reform Jews, most of us are not super observant. We are in our temple some Friday nights, for lifecycle events, and for the high holidays, but it was eye-opening to see how our neighbors express their Judaism.”

This program not only strengthened its participants’ knowledge and sense of connection, it also moved from them to other Sinai members. That made the renovation even more natural.

The next phase will involve redoing the lobby, to make it more welcoming and also a more logical pathway into the rest of the building. It will become an inviting place, an almost Starbucks-like third place, where congregants will be welcome to come, sit, wait for their children or their friends or their appointments with the rabbis or other congregational leaders, and unwind.

Ms. Mattson hopes that every Sinai member will contribute to the ongoing capital campaign. “Our feeling is that because the synagogue is your spiritual home within the Jewish community, because it is everyone’s home, everyone should have the pleasure of participating in it,” she said. “They should participate in ways that will be meaningful to them, so that when they walk through the doors it will be personal to them.

“We plan to meet with every household, and every gift will be special to us,” she continued. “As soon as we get close to our financial goal, we will finalize the plans for the second phase, and then we will get the design team back into action, so we can build again.”

Last Saturday night, the synagogue held a gala to dedicate the new sanctuary and social hall, and also to celebrate Rabbi Millstein’s 25th anniversary as a rabbi, and his tenth anniversary at Sinai.

“Rabbi Millstein is beloved,” Ms. Mattson said. “He really is the cornerstone of the community.”

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