A renovation and expansion project currently under way means that Congregation Beth El will no longer worship in a room that looks “like a Costco.”
That was the description applied by Andrew Hoffman, executive director of Congregation Beth El, to the previous appearance of the congregation’s community hall, where worship services have been held since its founding in 1976. Hoffman was referring to the high ceiling and metal framework that were formerly visible overhead but have been covered by a new, lower ceiling in the redone Jacobs Family Community Hall.
Congregation Beth El is refurbishing its classrooms, expanding and remodeling its community hall and administrative offices and building a brand-new sanctuary as part of a $12 million project that began earlier in summer. Hoffman said the entirety of the funds were raised within the congregation, which consists of about 425 families.
Work on classrooms and the administrative building has already begun, and the plans for the new sanctuary have been filed with the city. If approved, construction of the sanctuary would begin early next year. The work is meant to complete the vision of the congregation’s founders, who considered the community hall a temporary solution until funds could be raised for a new sanctuary.
“The entire campus will be made up of integrated facilities of education, community and worship spaces,” said Gary Ravet, president-elect of Congregation Beth El. “It will be in keeping with what was envisioned 30 years ago but was never achieved until now.”
The new sanctuary is planned as a two-level facility with seating for 300 on the ground level and two balconies adding 150 seats. The congregation conducted extensive research of pre-World War II synagogues in Eastern Europe in hopes of recreating that feel inside the new sanctuary.
“The idea was to keep it intimate and warm as opposed to a cavernous type of space,” Ravet said. “We wanted an older type of intimate setting, unlike the new places with huge sound systems.”
The exterior of the sanctuary is meant to have a more modern appearance with alternating concrete and glass panels. The glass will be inscribed with Bible texts in Hebrew written in the script style of the Torah scrolls.
“We hope that will help make it a spiritually elevating type of place,” Hoffman said.
The focus of the worship in the new sanctuary will face east, in keeping with the Jewish tradition that sanctuaries should be oriented toward Jerusalem.
The renovation project will connect the new building to the rest of the campus by expanding and refurbishing a plaza in front of the community hall to extend to the sanctuary.
“It will be refurbished as a garden-type space, with some added water elements,” Ravet said. “We see it as a tranquil, meditative type space.”
The space will be available for weddings under the stars and will feature species of plants and trees that appear in the Bible, including olive and almond.
Situated across the plaza from the sanctuary, the community hall will also be adorned with the glass panels and Biblical text.
“The sanctuary is the most important building, but we also wanted it to be a good neighbor,” said Randy Robbins, the architect for the project. “It will make use of the same golden tones and the glassy walls with text, so if you look across the plaza it feels like the right neighbor.”
The community center has been redone with improved lighting, acoustic panelling for the walls, expanded bathrooms, a new home for the congregation’s gift shop and a new bridal dressing room.
Next door, the administrative building has been expanded by about 300 square feet to make room for a new elevator and additional office space.
Improving access to the facilities on the sloping campus was among the project’s main goals, Ravet said. A new parking area will provide handicapped parking and a drop off area with direct elevator access to the sanctuary.
“Thirty years ago, they thought it was a great spiritual exercise to walk all the way up the hill,” Hoffman said.
The campus classroom building will also get a new elevator. Beth El is in talks with several schools about moving into the building after the current tenant, The Explorer School, moves out. The Explorer School is a public charter school that is set to move into a new campus in the Midway area of San Diego.
“This is a great place for education, not just religious education,” Ravet said