Redesigning BEKI’s Sanctuary to Be Inclusive

Congregation Beth El – Keser Israel in Westville is working with architect Michael Goldblum of Building Studio Architects to redesign the BEKI sanctuary. Built in 1959 for a congregation with a rabbi and cantor, a choir, and a formal, hierarchical style of services, it is no longer suited to the congregation, Carole Bass, sanctuary redesign co-chair, explained.

“Our plan is to update BEKI’s sanctuary to reflect our 21st-century values: warmth, inclusiveness, spiritual intimacy, and true egalitarianism,” Bass said. The space should also support active participation in volunteer-led services and participatory singing, co-chair John Weiser added.

The redesign will improve heating, cooling, energy efficiency, ventilation, and acoustics. In addition, congregants requested more natural light.

The plans, which reflect priorities expressed in a congregational survey, also address accessibility and inclusivity. The design includes flexible seating and a lower bimah with ramps on each side. In its search for the right chairs, the redesign committee plans to offer sample chairs for BEKI members to evaluate.

The questions BEKI’s Rabbi Eric Woodward posed to the congregation were, “What would it look like if our spiritual space were designed to express our values? At BEKI, there is no front or back, but rather bonds of equality and love. At BEKI, we value all the voices in our diverse congregation. What would it be like to pray in a space that
reflected our religious priorities?”

One of the congregational Zoom meetings arranged by the redesign committee, which was led by developmental behavioral pediatrician Carol Weitzman, an expert on autism, focused on accommodating the needs of neurodiverse children and adults in the sanctuary. BEKI members from the Chapel Haven Schleifer Center—which provides lifelong individualized services for people with developmental and social disabilities—and BEKI parents of children on the autism spectrum were among the participants in the discussion.

"For this important redesign of our sanctuary, we expect to raise $1 to $1.25 million, mostly from donations from members," Murray Akresh, co-chair of the fundraising campaign, explained.

Conceptual design sketches were presented to the congregation in late March. “Overall response to the design was very positive. People loved the new windows, the brightness, and the accessibility,” Bass said. Members provided detailed and valuable feedback to the redesign committee, she noted. Currently, the committee is examining
cost estimates from construction firms.

An art subcommittee has developed a short list of potential artists for new and repurposed decorative elements, such as ark doors and/or curtain, ner tamid (eternal light), and decoration surrounding the ark.

Find out more about BEKI’s redesign project at

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