ENGLEWOOD A huge white tent, ’50 feet long and 30 feet tall, is popping up in the parking lot of Cong. Ahavath Torah here, one of the largest modern Orthodox kehillot in the metropolitan area. After five years of planning, its old home is being torn down and a new one will spring up in its place toward the end of ‘007.
Ken Eckstein, the synagogue president, said, "The big tent serves to keep the Ahavath Torah families together as we build. We won’t have to scatter to people’s homes for services and there won’t be a break in routine. People will come to the same location for the same services. It’s a sign of progress after five long years of planning."
Until Ahavath Torah’s old building, above, is replaced, the congregation will gather in a tent (see below). Photos by Jeanette Friedman
The tent will contain air conditioning, heating, bathrooms, carpeting, sanctuaries, classrooms, and offices, and will meet most of the congregation’s needs during construction, even the celebration of lifecycle events.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin and Eckstein are enthusiastic about the new building and say that more than 80 percent of the congregants gave the project their stamp of approval. The goal is to create a nucleus for a vibrant modern Orthodox community. Said Eckstein, "Englewood is viewed as a community where young people who want to be modern Orthodox can feel comfortable. Our programming and guest scholars add to that, but we need to be able to provide for them, comfortably, under one roof."
In 1895, Ahavath Torah consisted of eight families with a single Torah scroll. Services rotated among members’ homes. As the congregation grew, it bought various buildings, including a church, and brought in kosher provisions from New York City via ferry because the George Washington Bridge didn’t exist at the time. Slowly, over the course of a century, the Orthodox Jewish community in Englewood established itself.
By 1958, the Ahavath Torah membership had grown to 300 families and they desperately needed space, so for $55,000, the congregation bought a huge estate on Broad Avenue from Baroness Cassel Van Dorn. In 1960 it added a soaring sanctuary to the ungainly Tudor mansion built at the turn of the ‘0th century, and attempted to meet the needs of its burgeoning membership in the maze of rooms and staircases that linked the different wings of the building.
Today, Ahavath Torah has more than 700 families and 60 board members. They have outgrown the literally crumbling mansion. The new building, whose exterior design is evolving, will contain a lower level, with elevator, that includes the original footprint, with 3,000 square feet to house a mikveh, a ritual bath, wheelchair accessible and with a private entrance. The building will also be home to four sanctuaries one for each unique minyan; the main minyan in the main sanctuary; the Hashkama minyan; the auxiliary minyan (also known as the no-frills minyan there is no cantor, and often no sermon congregants lead the prayers) and the Sephardic minyan, which will have its own cultural center. There will also be youth facilities, including a junior congregation and a fifth space for a youth minyan.
The ballroom will seat 450 people, with an adjacent patio for outdoor chuppahs and parties. Access will be through double glass doors. "The idea is to keep the existing landscaping, with as many old trees as possible, and retain the woodland feel of the site," said Eckstein. There will also be a youth center on the lower level with seven or eight classrooms, a library, and large multipurpose rooms.
The spine of the building will act as a huge lobby, with an exhibit area, and the administrative suite will be opposite the sanctuaries.
The outer shell of the building has created some controversy among the congregants, but both Eckstein and Goldin stress that the design is "evolving." Many members felt the original design was too contemporary, so the exterior began to swing toward the more traditional, and at one point resembled the Temple in Jerusalem.
"The original design didn’t blend with the more traditional mix of the community," said Eckstein, "so we asked for a more traditional look, and what we have now needs to be considered in context. Landscaping and color will have an important effect. There will be a softening that goes into the look of the building. There will more iterations [and] ebb and flow until we get it right. We want to develop a building that will be functional and will fit the character of the community, so there’s a lot of balancing that goes into this process."
In addition to those people who will voluntarily contribute toward the construction, synagogue member families will pay $1,500 a year for the next five years in addition to their regular dues. The Mikveh Association is raising funds privately from around the entire Englewood community, since many neighbors will make use of the facility.
The real issue is not one of aesthetics, said Goldin but building a strong, vibrant community. "It is our fervent hope to create a synagogue that will be a home for our continued growth and inspire us to spiritual growth as well," he said.