Our Building

“Make for me a Sanctuary that I may dwell within them.”

Parashat Terumah

Built in 1963 and most recently renovated in 2018, Beth Emet’s current Sanctuary seats 235 people, and when extended into the Herman and Mildred Crown Room, can seat more than 900. The building is filled to the brim, with not only spiritual and emotional memories, but also physical artifacts of Beth Emet’s commitment to Judaism, Israel, and our community. The renovation was designed by Kliment Halsband Architects and Amy Reichert. Amy designed the West Entrance decorative railing, Yarzheit Wall, Donor Wall, and Sanctuary Entry Vestibule.

About Our Building

Outside the building, to the east of the Sanctuary entrance, hangs a metal sculpture of a Magen David. Donated by congregant Esther Keegan, it remains a visible symbol of Judaism to the Evanston community.

The west entrance of our building was designed to be accessible and welcoming and to convey the functions and values of Beth Emet. The bricks on the plaza are etched with names of those who donated to our building campaign, reminding us that a community is built on the contributions of everyone. Just like the first “capital campaign” conducted by Moses in the wilderness of Sinai in which the Israelites brought donations for the construction of the Tabernacle—the portable sanctuary built in the Book of Exodus—the unique gifts and talents of people throughout our community create, both physically and spiritually, our synagogue home.

The plaza is designed as a gathering place as well as a place where one can wait for a ride or be dropped off. The ramp allows everyone, regardless of mobility, to access our building.

Our synagogue name, Beth Emet, House of Truth (Beit Emet in Hebrew) is laser-cut in large letters on the uppermost railing. Our congregation was founded in 1950 on the principle that the rabbis of the congregation would have complete freedom to preach and teach their values and their conscience. From that time on, Beth Emet has encouraged thoughtful and honest dialogue and inquiry. Right below the words Beit Emet in medium-sized letters on that panel is a verse from the Book of Exodus in which God tells the Israelites to build the Tabernacle: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham”—create for me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8) Our synagogue seeks to be a community in which the presence of the Divine is experienced and in which we can grow in the ways of holiness. The above verse also appears in the main lobby on the wall above the couch.

On the lower part of the decorative railing leading up the ramp are five Hebrew words that describe the functions of our community and the values we hold. We are a “Beit Tefillah”—a house of prayer, a “Beit Sefer”—a house of learning (this is also the name of our religious school), a “Beit Knesset”—a house of communal gathering, a “Beit Tzedek”—a house of righteousness, and a “Beit Hesed”—a house of love and compassion. We believe in the value of prayer and spiritual practice; life-long learning and growth; communal gathering to support one another in good times and bad; the pursuit of justice and righteousness; and emanating love and respect in all that we do.

These five values are repeated in smaller Hebrew script across the decorative railing. In addition to these values, the script on the railing is entirely in Hebrew to convey our love for and connection to the Hebrew language, which is an integral part of our heritage and culture.

As the light changes throughout the day, the laser-cut Hebrew letters cast shadows on the ground that add to the beauty of the entrance.

A mezuzah contains scriptural verses bidding us to fulfill God’s commandments and is affixed to a doorpost, reminding us as we enter and leave a space to show our love for God by how we act in our lives.

We commissioned Jane Weintraub, an artist and congregant, to design a mezuzah to reflect our values and the decorative and symbolic elements of our building. The mezuzah is arched on the top just like the brick arch that is on the interior of the sanctuary entrance to the building on Dempster Street. That arch was constructed from the bricks that supported the original house that stood on this site prior to the sanctuary-side of the building which was constructed in 1964. The colors of the mezuzah are those that were used in the mishkan—the portable sanctuary the Israelites build in the Book of Exodus—and are found throughout our building (the donor wall, the panels and metal screens in the lobby, the yahrzheit wall and lights above it, the stained glass, and the decorative railing on the west entrance). The Star of David which is on the exterior Dempster side of the building is incorporated in the mezuzah, and there is a flame representing the Eternal Light—the everlasting flame that burned in the mishkan and is found in all Jewish sanctuaries today.

There are thirteen dots descending from the right side of the piece that have a twofold purpose. They represent Jacob’s thirteen children—his twelve sons and his daughter, Dina. They also remind us of the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy found in Exodus 34 and appliqued to the Torah mantles that are on the Torah scrolls in the ark at Beth Emet.

On a more practical level, the new vestibule space allows our front office team to greet our congregants and visitors face to face. Beyond this welcoming function, the vestibule serves as a secure space to identify individuals prior to allowing them to access the interior of the facility, and it contains discrete security enhancements that benefit our staff and congregants.

The architect of the original sanctuary building, Walter Sobel, conceived of the structure as a permanent tent—open yet enveloping, tied to Jewish imagery, yet thoroughly modern. In this recent renovation, we advanced this metaphor of the tent, as we found it equally, if not even more, compelling today. Tents in Jewish tradition have always had both an inward and an outward focus—a tent was the protective home of Abraham and Sarah, but its openness was where we first learned about welcoming the stranger. In addition to Abraham and Sarah’s familial tent, the Torah describes at great length another, communal tent structure, the mishkan–Tabernacle.

The lobby space takes its cues from the design of the mishkan, the tent-like Tabernacle that was the religious locus of the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. In the original mishkan, materials and labor were enthusiastically donated by the people to create our first communal building project—a place at its center where God could dwell. The walls of layered bronze screens, vertical struts, wood panels and colored surfaces recall the protective layers described in the Torah. The main space of the lobby is a communal living room, encouraging gathering, conversation, and connection.

Beth Emet is a place where the community joins together not only to pray and socialize, but to pursue tzedek–justice and hesed–love, rebalancing and repairing the world through acts of generosity. The donor wall was conceived as a representation of the many ways in which congregants do this, and therefore recognizes not only monetary donations but acts of social justice as well. A large video screen highlights a broad range of activities—from the soup kitchen to teen social justice. The wall itself is a tapestry of colors and materials referenced in the passage that lists the materials donated in the construction of the mishkan

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. (Exodus 25:1-7)

Although monetary giving levels are subtly distinguished by color, that is the only indication of hierarchy on the wall, all names and plates are the same size, and are woven together, like the tapestries described in the torah.

The giving of tzedakah forms a kind of bookend to the room, with this large communal wall paralleled by the smaller, individual tzedakah box embedded into the threshold wall on the other end of the space.

But as for me, by Your abundant loving-kindness I will enter Your house, at Your Holy Temple I will bow in reverence for You” (Psalms 5:8).

Prayer requires preparation. To make the transition between our daily lives and the sanctity of prayer, the entrance to our sanctuary is designed to prepare our hearts and souls for prayer. As you approach the sanctuary, the wall in front of you is adorned with a scroll on which the words “Karov Adonai l’chol korav”—God is near to all who call out (Psalm 145)—appear. Prayer is an opportunity to pour out our spirits freely and openly.

As you cross the threshold into the sanctuary vestibule, you will notice on your right a mezuzah with the traditional words from the Book of Deuteronomy written in English, reminding us to love God with all our hearts, souls, and might. On the left doorpost is a tzedakah box with the verse, “One who is gracious to those in need honors God.” (Proverbs 14:31), emphasizing that prayer is not just how we commune with the Divine in the sanctuary but how we live our lives. Jewish tradition teaches us that we have a responsibility to give tzedakah—money for those in need—and that we should do so regularly as a way to inculcate within us the values of caring for others and pursuing justice.

On the wall in the vestibule is written a teaching from Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great 16th century kabbalistic leader from Tzfat, Israel, who taught that in order to determine whether there are ten people present to comprise a minyan (quorum) for prayer, one should recite a nine-word phrase, assigning one word to each person. Rabbi Luria used the following phrase: “Hareini m’kabel alai mitzvat aseh shel v’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha”—I am preparing to take upon myself the positive commandment of loving my neighbor as myself. By using a phrase instead of counting people, we recognize the worth and dignity of each individual, instead of making someone into a mere number. But Rabbi Luria’s phrase also reminds us of the purpose of communal prayer: to help us become more loving toward others.

To the left in the vestibule, there is a supply of hearing devices, large print prayer books, tallitot, and healing shawls. Prayer should be accessible to everyone, regardless of one’s abilities. Tallitot are available for all who wish to don one during prayer and do not have their own. The healing shawls, knitted by members of the congregation, can be used to keep warm if the sanctuary is too cold and/or taken and shared with a loved one who is in need of healing.

Above our Ark is the Ner Tamid, the eternal light. The Ner Tamid dates back to the original Sanctuary. It is in the shape of an aleph, which stands for or (light) and represents Elohim, God’s presence in the Sanctuary.

Our Torah scrolls and mantles are the most important elements of our sacred space. The Torah scroll mantles, which were donated in 1985, give kavod (respect) to the Torah are modeled after garments of the High Priests in the time of the Temple. Each of our Torah covers was created uniquely for Beth Emet by renowned fiber artist Ina Golub. The Hebrew written across the covers spells out God’s attributes of mercy, as found in the the Torah:

“Adonai, Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.”

Exodus 34:6–7

This Torah belonged to the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague before World War II. The Pinkas Synagogue is the second oldest synagogue in Prague and functioned as a synagogue from the 15th century until the Second World War. Today, it’s a museum which serves as a memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

According to the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust’s history, “In 1942, as a result of instructions sent by Dr. Stein of the Jὓdische Kiltusgemeinde in Prague, the communities of Bohemia and Moravia packed their Sifrei Torah, gold and silver filials, books and textiles and sent them to the Jewish Museum in Prague. The volume was so great that no [fewer] than forty warehouses were required to house these treasures. For many years it was believed the Germans had intended to create a Museum of an Extinct race…” though there are no documents to corroborate this claim.

Following three years of freedom after the Holocaust, in February 1948,
a Communist coup took over the Jewish Museum and warehouses. They transferred some 1,800 Torah scrolls to a damp warehouse which had once been the 16th century Michle Synagogue just outside of Prague. The Torah scrolls remained there until 1964.

In 1963 a London art connoisseur by the name of Eric Estorick arranged with the Czechoslovak government to bring the Torah scrolls to England. Estorick commissioned a professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University College in London to inspect the scrolls, and he found a funder to pay for the purchase. A non-commercial trust was established to take responsibility for the scrolls; that trust is the Westminster Synagogue in London. On February 7, 1964, 1,564 Torah scrolls arrived in London from Czechoslovakia.

The scrolls are never sold or donated; they are on permanent loan to the community that receives them. More detail about the scrolls can be found on the Memorial Scrolls Trust website.

In 1967-68 Temple Judea of Skokie requested a scroll. Rabbi Karl Weiner, the founding rabbi, was instrumental in bringing the scroll to the congregation, cataloged by the Memorial Scrolls Trust as #1443. There is a brass plate affixed to one of the eitzim, wooden rollers, that identifies the Torah as such.

In 2018, When Temple Judea Mizpah and Beth Emet combined, on Erev Simchat Torah, the scroll was marched down Dempster Street from Temple Judea Mizpah to Beth Emet where it has been housed ever since. Its presence in the Beth Emet sanctuary, a thriving congregation, is a testament to the tenacity of the Jewish people, our freedom, and our survival.

The Torah mantle for our Czech Memorial Torah Scroll was created in 2021 by artist and congregant Jerri Zbiral. Making this Torah mantle was a project that was close to Jerri’s heart because she was born in Prague and her mother was a survivor of the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

The mantle was designed to go from darkness to sunlight symbolizing the move from despair to hope. At the bottom, there’s barbed wire, dead branches, and dried flowers on a dark blue background. This slowly morphs into a yellow rose and bright sunlight. At the top of the mantle is a swoosh of birds who are alive, happy and free. The birds were drawn by Peter Sis, a Czech refugee/immigrant like Jerri. Peter is an artist, book illustrator, writer, filmmaker as well as a McArthur Fellow.

The mantle was donated by David and Sharon Kessler in memory of Dr. Harry and Susan Kessler.  Read more in the Forward (article by Alan Teller) about the new Torah mantle that was made to commemorate the Holocaust scroll.

Unique for synagogues, Beth Emet repurposed an abandoned space (a former stairway leading from the bimah to the lower level) and created its own Geniza. It is located beneath the accessible ramp and it serves as a designated storage area for worn-out Hebrew language books and papers that have God’s name on them since it is forbidden to throw away writings containing the name of God. We consecrated this space when we built it in 2018, and we open it annually to place materials within it.

The new yarzheit wall in the sanctuary is nestled in a quiet alcove, washed with light from behind the “tent” flap of the soaring space. It is crowned by a series of 6 window-like illuminated squares, which each contain the names of 2 tribes, gesturing back to our original ancestors. The names are paired according to their mothers, in birth order right to left. The translucent colors echo the original stained glass panes in the sanctuary. Typically, in the very common depiction of the 12 tribes, women never appear. In order to recognize the essential role of women in the tribal story, we included Dinah’s name, as a whisper of light in her brothers Levi and Judah’s window.

Lines from a poem by the well-known Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, bring the connection of loved ones and current congregants into the modern era, while a ledge below the translucent name plaques allows one to leave a stone beneath the family member’s name for their yarzheit.

Yehuda Amichai, from “In My Life, On My Life”:

“When a person dies it is said, ‘They were gathered to their ancestors.’ As long as one is alive, their ancestors are gathered within them. Each and every cell of the body and soul is an emissary of one of the countless ancestors from the beginning of time.”

Zichronam Livracha (Their memories are a blessing)

A decorative bronze shelf is positioned below the yahrzeit wall panels so one can place a stone below the plaque of a loved one. It is a Jewish custom to place a stone or pebble on a gravestone to symbolize that one has visited a loved one’s grave. Judaism reminds us that there is a permanence amidst the pain, and that while other things fade, stones and souls endure. May the memory of our loved ones be a blessing to us.

We designed our building to make our facility accessible, safe, and environmentally sound.

Universal Design and our commitment to protecting the environment were guiding principles which resulted in the following design solutions. All new restrooms were constructed to be used by any gender and accessible to everyone regardless of physical mobility. We also built ramps leading into the building and up to the bima and made all parts of our building accessible. In order to make our building welcoming, we installed digital screens throughout the facility to share current synagogue information, recognize and highlight lifecycle events, and provide wayfinding.

In the parking lot, we added new light poles which provide increased/uniform illumination and create a safer environment for our congregants and guests. On the first floor, exterior windows have been coated with a shatterproof film to protect building occupants and mitigate potential property damage. New security cameras have been installed around the building to record any incidents should they occur.

As stewards of the environment, we incorporated several features in and around the property. The parking lot was constructed with recycled asphalt, all new exterior lighting is LED and is designed to minimize light pollution, and infrastructure has been built into the lot for a future car charging station. To conserve power, we incorporated new energy-efficient HVAC systems & LED lighting throughout the building.

The new landscape design incorporates native plants, virtually eliminating all grass areas and decreasing the need for mowing. A new rain garden with milkweed plants was planted along Ridge Avenue to attract a variety of birds and butterflies as well as to collect rainwater from the roof and help filter out pollutants. Rainwater storage is key to decreasing the amount of water that goes into the city stormwater system, thereby minimizing flooding throughout the area.

Finally, the playground was reconfigured to provide a more creative exterior learning environment for the school children. New state-of-the-art play features were provided to encourage more creative play in a safe and engaging environment.

The following is the blessing that was written by Alden Solovy
painting by Clark Ellithorpe

God of abundance,
Bless the dedicated volunteers
Who devote time, energy, and resources
To the Beth Emet Soup Kitchen,
Those who offer compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Shining light into the darkness (Isaiah 58:10),
By sharing Your bounty with the needy.

Let all who are hungry come and eat,Let all who are needy come and partake (Passover Haggadah).
Let us extend Your blessings to all.

Bless the work of our hands
With success in this sacred endeavor:
Supporting the malnourished,Supporting those who struggle to provide food for themselves,
Supporting those unable to feed their families.
This is God’s gate;
You, who fed the hungry,
May enter (Midrash Buber on Psalm 118:17).

Bless the hungry with resources.
Release them from want.
Hasten the day of their self-sufficiency and bounty.
Until that day,
God of mercy,
Support the work we do in our Soup Kitchen
For good and for blessings.
Let us neither tire nor tarry in this labor of love,Remembering the wisdom of old:
Whenever you give food to the poor,
The Holy One accounts it to you
As if you gave food to God (Midrash Tannaim on Numbers 28:2).

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