Second time a charm as shul dedicates new building in Fort Lee

Second time a charm as shul dedicates new building in Fort Lee

Young Israel of Fort Lee’s new building. Ron L. Glassman

Sometimes you just have to go back and start all over again.

For about three decades, Young Israel of Fort Lee made its communal home in a building that was not quite good enough.

Three years ago, that building was demolished and a new one was erected – with much more care and attention – in its place.

On Sunday, the new building was dedicated; guests at the celebration included Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah of Englewood, who is the immediate past president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, and Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, as well as the shul’s own Rabbi Neil Winkler.

It is not unfair criticism but accepted fact that the original building was a problem. “It was in imminent danger of collapse,” longtime shul member Albert Nissim said.

From left, Rabbi Neil Winkler with board members Albert Nissim, Israel Frumer, and Gerald Barad. Ron L. Glassman

“The roof beams were collapsing, and we had to vacate it,” Nissim, a longtime shul member, continued. “It just wasn’t built properly. When we demolished it, we looked at the plans, and we saw that whoever had built it had left out some parts to save money.”

Until then, the congregation had dreamed about a new building, “but that had been a want. Now it was a need,” Nissim said.

The new building is 6,000 square feet, and includes a sanctuary, a social hall, a beit midrash, and offices. “We removed the entire building, down to the bedrock,” its architect, Garron Macklin of Aquarian Designs of Teaneck, said.

“We had to go through extensive zoning review with the borough,” Macklin said. “We kept an open dialogue with Fort Lee; when the mayor spoke, he talked about what an open relationship the synagogue had with town officials. Everyone helped this project along to help it get completed.”

Goldin said the synagogue was “beautiful, but not ostentatious. It reflects the warmth and the beauty of the community that has been created over these decades under Rabbi Neil and Andrea Winkler’s wonderful leadership.”

“It is a place that brings holiness into the world. Everyone can come and join together in a community,” Macklin concurred.

The main sanctuary has a large cathedral ceiling that raises 25 feet, the architect said, and the floor there slopes downward from the top toward the area where the chazan leads services. The concept comes from Psalm 130: “From the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord”; traditionally, Macklin said, sanctuaries have been constructed to place cantors in relatively low points for that reason. That configuration also helps with sight lines, and it can make the bimah easily accessible to people with handicaps.

Two synagogue members were at the construction site every day – Nissim and Israel Frumer. That, Nissim said, was in direct reaction to the problems with the old building.

The congregation has high hopes for its new home, which was planned with the wild storms the area experiences in mind.

“It’s a very solid building,” Nissim said. “It’s got a half-basement – we dug as far as we could into the bedrock – a solid concrete foundation all the way through, and a steel frame. There is a lot of Jerusalem stone, and the building is all brick and stone.”

It was designed with many uses in mind; it includes a built-in movie screen and a complete sound system. It has an ingenious lighting system with LED bulbs at customized angles along the sloping ceiling; it will be very hard to change those bulbs, he said, but they should last for 20 years, and by then technology – and, to be realistic, shul membership – will have changed. It’s fully sprinklered, Nissim continued, and has a state-of-the-art communications system and cameras all around. “In fact, the police were talking to us the other day,” he said. “There was a robbery on Parker Avenue” – the shul’s street – “and they wanted to see if the camera had caught anything.

“It did!”

Nissim added that shul leaders hope the new building will attract new members; his hope is nourished as well by the huge towers going up just south of the George Washington Bridge and north of the shul, adding even more people to the densely populated borough. The shul is surrounded by high-rises; most of the residents are retirees, so the community has few children. “We have minyans twice a day,” he said. “It’s a place where people can come to say kaddish on their way to or from the bridge on their way to work.”

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