May 23, 2013
On Demolishing and Rebuilding a Synagogue
Among the most compelling of Biblical verses is Exodus 25:8 - Asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham (“Make for me a Sanctuary that I might dwell in them.”) because it is the basis over three millennia upon which the Tabernacle, the Jerusalem Temple and synagogues have been built.
In mid-June we at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles will commence the final stage of a ten-year rebuilding project to be completed before the High Holidays of 2014. The first act is to demolish our small Chapel. In late September after the High Holidays 2013 we will gut the lobby, social hall, library, and administrative offices.
In place of the old will arise a newly designed state-of-the-art enlarged light-filled multi-use space that can accommodate a congregation four times the size from what we had twenty five years ago.
This Shabbat (May 24, 2013) we pray together in this Chapel for the very last time, and I want to reflect on its unique history, architecture and sacred character, and to respond to the question – What Jewish tradition says about demolishing a synagogue, as we are about to do?
Generations have used this sacred space for worship, Torah reading, learning and life cycle events thus making it a place of holiness and memory.
The Chapel was built 60 years ago as part of the Briskin Building construction, and was named in memory of Isaac Chadwick, a founding member of Temple Israel of Hollywood and owner of Chadwick Studios.
It was built in the Bauhaus design (lit. “House of Construction”), the modernist German arts, crafts and architectural movement that thrived between the First and Second World Wars. Bauhaus architects turned away from “fanciful experimentation,” and based their designs on what was considered rational, functional and standardized principles. Bauhaus elements include non-symmetrical forms, indoor-outdoor continuous space, and simplified design elements such as those on the right front wall evoking menorot, the glass on the eastern wall over the Ark, and our Ner Tamid (Eternal Light).
Our Aron Hakodesh, however, is not Bauhaus. It was commissioned in the mid-1930s by one of our early Temple leaders, the film producer Hal Wallis (e.g. Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, True Grit, and Anne of the Thousand Days), who hired stage designers at Paramount Studios to create an Ark for the first Temple Israel building on Ivar and Sunset (now demolished). This Ark has a carved relief of Moses leading the people to the Promised Land.
There was a minor controversy at the time that Hal Wallis used Paramount Studio funds to build our Ark. He denied it and claimed that he paid for the Ark out of his own pocket and the studio workers built it on their own time.
We are likely the only synagogue in the world with an Aron Hakodesh designed and constructed by a Hollywood film studio. We will keep and display the Ark doors and Ner Tamid, though they will not be part of our new Chapel.
Emotionally it may be difficult for some among us to witness the demolition of this prayer space. Change is, after all, at times difficult. The larger question, however, is does Jewish tradition permit a community to demolish its synagogue at all?
There is nothing stated directly about this in the Hebrew Bible. However, based on verses in Deuteronomy (12:4-6) the rabbis legislated against destroying synagogues (Babylonian Talmud, Megilah 26b).
Rav Chisda (d. 320 CE) taught that a synagogue, however, could be demolished if a replacement synagogue were built first. We, of course, have not done so because the new Chapel will be built on the site of the old. Rav Chisda’s primary concern was based on his fear that even if the money were raised, the community might decide to use the funds for another purpose, such as the ransoming of captives (pidyon sh’vuyim) (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 3b) thereby not building a synagogue at all.
If, however, there were already another synagogue available for worship adjacent to the demolished synagogue, other sages ruled that the demolition of the older synagogue is permissible. Since our Nussbaum Sanctuary will be our "replacement" synagogue for the next 15 months and, of course, beyond, we see no violation of the tradition in what we are about to do.
To the contrary, the plans for this new Chapel are inspiring (Koning Eizenberg Architects). It will be built upon the faith and traditions of the old.
Most of all, we will be able to fulfill the mitzvah - Asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham (“Make for me a Sanctuary that I might dwell in them.”)
Chazak v'eimatz v'Shabbat shalom!
(To be delivered at Temple Israel of Hollywood during services this Kabbalat Shabbat, May 24, 2013)