On a Tuesday morning in early July, half a dozen grey-haired gentlemen gathered in downtown Pittsburgh for their daily prayers and a bit of breakfast. One might get the sense this is a traditional group, an assembly that cherishes the rituals of its ancestors, that appreciates the past.
But while elements of the past are incorporated into the space in which they worship — the new site of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob — the completely renovated building is fresh, modern and state of the art, right down to its solar-powered ner tamids (everlasting light).
Work began a year ago at the old Central Blood Bank building at 812 Fifth Ave., about a year after the congregation was forced to sell its old synagogue on Colwell Street for $5.5 million to make way for the new Consol Energy Center. The congregation had called Colwell Street its home for about 50 years, according to Ira Frank, president of the congregation.
Although the 125-year-old congregation is small — with only about 75 dues-paying families — its members decided to find a new location and rebuild, rather than close its doors after the sale.
While contractors have not yet put the finishing touches on the building, the congregation has been holding its twice-daily services there since April, when its lease expired on temporary space it was using at the old Musicians Union Local 60-471 hall on Forbes Avenue.
The greatest challenge of converting the blood bank building into a synagogue was “taking everything that was beautiful from our past structures, and bringing them into a modern structure that was windowless, and creating sacred space,” said Harry Levine, architect of the project.
Careful to maintain the halachic requirements of the Orthodox congregation, Levine has created a sanctuary where worshipers will be facing east, in an area filled with natural light.
“The seating will be like theater in the round,” Levine said. “It will be concentric to the bima and the lectern. Actually, it is a tradition of Orthodox shuls to have this seating configuration.
“It will be powerful, comfortable and intimate.”
Tangible reminders of the congregation’s rich history include the yahrzeit plaques and the refurbished pews and woodwork, all transported from the Colwell Street shul.
“We saved as much as we could from the old building,” Frank said.
In addition to the sanctuary — which boasts the impressive stained glass windows and massive hand-carved ark from the Colwell Street site — the five-floor building houses an apartment for its rabbi of 25 years, Stanley J. Savage, separate dairy and meat kitchens, a large room which will serve as a social hall, as well as several other rooms which could be used for meetings or classes.
“I think one of the things we wanted to try to emulate is Hillel [Jewish University Center] in Oakland,” said Lee Oleinick, chairman of the building committee, noting that the congregation hopes the community at large will use the space to gather for meetings, classes and social events.
Acknowledging the 18,000 square foot size of the building is “too big” for the small congregation itself, Oleinick said that, once the building is complete, the congregation plans to host an open house for local Jewish agencies to see the space and talk about possible uses.
The state of the art kitchens, which came with a price tag of about $100,000, can be used by caterers preparing for events at the shul itself, or could be leased to a kosher caterer needing a base from which to prepare food for affairs held elsewhere, Frank said.
Once the 30-space parking lot is complete, Savage says he will “put things into motion,” making telephone calls to try to increase minyan attendance, and, hopefully, resuming to teach classes.
Oleinick sees the parking lot as potentially bringing new worshippers to the shul.
“I’m hoping the parking lot gives us the opportunity to bring in new people for our minyan,” he said.
The congregation sees itself as essential in maintaining a Downtown Jewish presence, and hopes to become a sort of regional center both for locals, and for visitors to the area who are in need of a minyan.
“It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling knowing we enable people to say Kaddish. We are there for people’s needs,” Oleinick said.
“Our dream is for the building to be utilized. It’s our dream to have to re-paint it every other year because of use.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)