SOUTH PORTLAND — Members of a Westbrook Street synagogue are realizing a nearly decade-old dream this week: Having a house of worship that is uniquely and distinctly their own.
For the last 20 years, Congregation Bet Ha’am has adapted to a series of temporary and rented homes. Most recently, the synagogue has transformed the circa-1937 Alice Sawyer School into a place of worship and study and used larger halls in Portland for the High Holy Days services that can draw up to 400 families.
But on Friday night, May 1, the Reform Jewish congregation will dedicate a new sanctuary, part of an 11,500-square-foot expansion on the 2.28-acre property purchased from the city in 2005.
Executive Board member Jeremy Moser, chairman of the congregation’s building committee, said that interior finish work and exterior landscaping will not be complete until mid to late June. But the congregation will hold its first service on Friday and ceremoniously place several mezuzahs – tiny prayer scrolls in cases created by local artists – over the door frames.
“Everyone is very excited,” Moser said.
A tour of the $4.8 million building on Wednesday illustrated how the innovative design by Toronto-based Shim-Sutcliffe Architects – and executed by local builders Wright-Ryan Construction – is designed to take congregants on a journey – both literally and figuratively – from the everyday to the sacred.
“It’s this sacred walk,” Moser, an architect, said. “You enter from your normal life. As you get to the sacred space, the hope is that you begin to shed your daily concerns and all of your problems.”
As worshipers enter, they will be led down a long corridor towards the sanctuary’s entrance on polished concrete floors. Natural light reflects off the New England-style, clapboard walls, which slope inward. Near the sanctuary entrance is a glass wall that overlooks a yet-be-planted garden, which will have a year-round running stream and reflective pool.
Inside the sanctuary is a spacious hall with glass walls on either end. The hall will be partitioned for regular services and expanded for the High Holy Days. The walls running length-wise gently bow outward, maximizing the natural sunlight that will likely spill in and reflect throughout the hall during the typical morning and evening services.
The ceiling, meanwhile, gently slopes upward from its lowest point in the middle towards the skylights.
Moser said a new library is located next to the garden area to draw analogies to “Tikkun Olam,” which means healing the Earth. He said the congregation hopes that the symbolism and aesthetic beauty will encourage more kids to study the Jewish faith.
“We’ve really been pushing the library culture,” he said. “That’s really important.”
Meanwhile, Moser said the old sanctuary in the Sawyer School, which is being upgraded to include an elevator, will eventually be restored into classrooms.
Although it will be another month or so before the project is complete, Moser said congregants are excited to be close to realizing their dream, which has quickly come together over the last nine months.
“The building is turning out exactly as we imagined it,” he said. “It will be a wonder once it’s complete.”
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Finish work goes on in the Congregation Bet Ha’am sanctuary and social hall in advance of the first worship service in the new building. (Michael Barriault photo)