Shir Hadash Unveils Its New Ark, Sanctuary with a Wedding
By Ernest J. Schweit
What began as a relationship on the Jewish dating service JDate ended happily recently with the wedding of Glenn and Chantal Graff of Buffalo Grove. The wedding was the first simcha (joyous event) in the new sanctuary at Shir Hadash Synagogue in Wheeling.
“We felt truly honored and special,” said Graff, executive vice president of Shir Hadash, of being the first marriage in the new synagogue. “There can be only one first wedding in a building and being fortunate enough to be that couple is remarkable.”
The happy couple arrived at their wedding date after five years of courtship; however, that time period pales in comparison to the synagogue’s 18-year search for a new home. That search ended with the purchase, remodel, and recent dedication of Shir Hadash’s newly acquired building at 200 W. Dundee Road in Wheeling. Until then, the synagogue had operated out of a series of rented facilities in the north suburbs.
Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow, who officiated at the wedding, said, “Mazal tov and congratulations to Chantal and Glenn. We are so delighted to share in their joy and honored to have them be the first couple married in our magnificent new sanctuary.”
The Graff wedding was remarkable, synagogue leaders said, because work had just concluded on the first phase of the renovation of former regional library headquarters for use as a synagogue. “It was amazing the way the building and operations committee, board, staff and community came together to make the event happen,” Graff said, “literally one day after we passed Village of Wheeling inspections.”
The sanctuary, which had served as an auditorium for the former owners, was designed by synagogue architect Mehran Farahmandpour and draws much of its inspiration from Jewish tradition and history. “The overall design idea was to represent our current view of the Torah while emphasizing our roots in Israel, our people and our traditions, hence a relatively simple and contemporary design using traditional materials such as wood and Jerusalem stone,” he said.
The white Jerusalem stone next to the ark represents “our connection to Israel and the Temple mount,” he said. The stone features open grout joints which allow congregants to slip written prayers in the joints as they would in the Western Wall, he said. Each time a synagogue member travels to Israel, he or she will be tasked with the job of bringing those written prayers to the Western Wall and inserting them there.
A glass plank, running nearly from floor to ceiling and featuring 12 panes of glass, represent the 12 tribes of Israel. “They will eventually be replaced by some kind of decorative elements, like fused glass, wood blocks, etchings, bronze castings or other medium that would bear the names and or symbols of the tribes of Israel,” he said. They are designed to remind congregants of their heritage and to represent the connection to the Jewish people. “The Ner Tamid, a larger piece of glass above the tribes, represents the eternal presence of God that is above all tribes of Israel, to watch and protect, he said.
The ark is made of sapele, and the plank is constructed of burled walnut, which was also used in the lectern. “We used warm and richly textured woods to give some warmth to the austere room,” Farahmandpour said. “Wood tones were selected to contrast the brick background so they could stand out.” The glass doors on the ark are covered temporarily by a decorative film. Eventually, it will be replaced by a yet to be developed design, he said, but for now, the Torah scrolls appear to float glowingly through the unique glass pattern on the ark doors.
The bima, or stage, was designed to facilitate the performing arts, such as dance, music, and drama, in the synagogue’s services and programs. Not only is the bima wheelchair accessible, but the ark was designed so that somebody in a wheelchair can roll right up to it and take out a Torah without assistance. There is also a large screen and projector to the side of the bima to enable the use of visual elements at synagogue gatherings.
The final ark design was reached through a collaborative process with the congregation. Farahmandpour created half a dozen ark designs for synagogue leadership to review, running the gamut from contemporary designs to one that looked like a Sephardic jewelry box. (Sephardic Jews are the descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the late 1500s and settled in Salonica, Constantinople, Baghdad, Morocco, Algeria, the Americas, North Africa, and even India, among other places.) Synagogue leadership weighed in on the designs, and three were presented to the congregation at a special service in May. Based on feedback from that service, Faramandpour combined different elements from each design to create the unique final design. The end result: the ark is a striking and visually harmonious mix of materials that fits perfectly in the space.
“Our sanctuary is truly remarkable,” said Weiner-Kaplow. “Its beautiful design creates a profound sense of warmth that invites all worshippers to feel spiritually centered and inspired.”
Shir Hadash Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation, attracts members from Northbrook, Glenview, Deerfield, Highland Park, Wheeling, Buffalo Grove, Arlington Heights and Palatine as well as Chicago, Skokie, Park Ridge, Barrington, and Gurnee. Reconstructionism is a progressive, egalitarian, inclusive movement that makes Judaism relevant to contemporary life, while still honoring Jewish tradition. Shir Hadash is accepting registration to its one-day-a-week (Sundays) religious school. For more information, go to www.shir-hadash.org or call (847) 498-8218.