In 1970, when The Emanuel Synagogue opened its doors on Mohegan Drive in West Hartford, the community was captivated by the Conservative congregation’s classically modern 600-seat sanctuary designed by renowned Modern Architect Bertrum Bassuk of New York City, with its graceful curves and natural brick and oak interior.
But after 42 years the sanctuary was beginning to look a bit tired. It was time for a “Sanctuary Renaissance” — which is exactly what the synagogue leadership call the renovation that the shul has undergone over the past few months. Co-chaired by Emanuel members Janet Selden and Peggy Mendelson, “Sanctuary Renaissance” is the centerpiece of Emanuel’s overall effort to freshen its look. Other renovation work, including chapel and lobby improvements and roof replacement, were completed beginning this past spring, and the auditorium and adjoining lobby areas will be renovated this winter.
“The sanctuary beautification is focused on our theme of respecting and restoring our historic past yet making our sanctuary very much an inviting 21st century sacred place for today & many years to come,” says Ira Henowitz, a local architect who is also Emanuel’s vice-president and a member of the Sanctuary Renaissance committee. “We chose to call this work a ‘renaissance’ since it is very much a renewal and rejuvenation for our congregation.”
While the synagogue retained the sanctuary’s stained glass window and eternal light, which the congregation had brought with them from their previous location on Woodland St. in Hartford, the renovated sanctuary includes many new additions, including Jerusalem stone and seating fabric imported from Israel, as well as a completely redesigned Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark), with new finishes and lighting. A conscious effort has also been made to make the synagogue “greener” by adding new LED lighting that is much more energy efficient.
“We have restored the sparkle to our Sanctuary. The renovations, from our seats to the stained glass towers to the Aron Kodesh and Ner Tamid (eternal light) enhance the existing beauty of our sacred space,” said the shul’s spiritual leader, Rabbi David Small. “Changes in seating and the addition of a permanent ramp make people in wheelchairs feel like first-class citizens. The space feels fresh, inviting and accessible, which is in keeping with Emanuel’s communal culture and style of prayer. Our new High Holy Day prayer books help people of all backgrounds connect to the service. Tradition and Change—Conservative Judaism and Emanuel Synagogue at its best!”
“Design cues such as Jerusalem Stone, the leaf pattern in the carpet and the fabric on the seats evoke the Holy City of Jerusalem, the Garden of Eden, and the precious stones worn by the High Priest in the Mishkan or Tabernacle,” he says. “I am encouraged by the love and warm feeling expressed by so many of our members as they have come forward to participate in this collective effort.”