New purpose

New purpose

It started its existence as a banquet hall in the mansion of a Pittsburgh industrial magnate.
It graduated to a sanctuary where hundreds of Jews celebrated their b’nai mitzva or exchanged vows under a chupa.
Now, the Barnett Chapel at Temple Sinai has morphed once again; this time, into a multipurpose spiritual life center.
Members of the Squirrel Hill congregation re-dedicated the chapel Friday, Sept. 30, as the physical home of the Neshama Center for Jewish Spirituality. The members conducted the second day Rosh Hashana service in the space immediately thereafter.
The congregation will continue to refer to the room as the Barnett Chapel.
The Neshama Center will be home to several spiritual programs, including Saturday minyans, meditation groups, chanting sessions, yoga classes and writing activities.
“I like writing,” Monica Cellio, chair of the Neshama Center, said of that last activity. “It never occurred to me that it’s a path to God, but it is.”
In fact, she said the purpose of the center is to provide several “doorways” to spirituality in addition to traditional worship.
“It’s taken a room that was one purpose only, and made it multipurpose,” Temple Sinai Communications Manager Linda Raden said.
The Neshama Center is actually one of four centers at Temple Sinai since the congregation re-configured itself in 2008. The others are the Tikkun Olam Center for Social Justice, the Bracha Center for Jewish Connections and the Midrash Center for Jewish Learning.
So, far, though, according to Raden, only the Neshama Center has a dedicated space inside the synagogue.
The new centers were established, replacing the traditional committee system, to address the diverse ways in which Jews interact with their congregation.
When the then-new Temple Sinai purchased the Worthington Mansion — a registered historic landmark — in 1947, the banquet hall that would become the chapel came replete with hand-carved woodwork and stained-glass windows that, according to a newspaper report at the time, were “imported from an English castle.”
The hall was renovated in 1964 and renamed in memory of Herman Barnett, whose family supported the project.
The chapel was refurbished again this summer to prepare it for its new role; most of the benches were removed and replaced with new portable seating, and a new ark was placed along the eastern wall.
Barbara and Larry Shuman provided much of the funding for the renovations.
The old ark is still intact, though no longer in use. Raden said a longer-term goal for the space is to remove the Hebrew inscriptions surrounding the ark — the Ten Commandments and the statement, “know before whom you stand” — and re-attach them around the new ark.
The Barnett family was kept abreast of every step in the transition, according to Raden.
Beyond the benches and the ark, the Barnett Chapel looks much as has for years.
“The room is different,” Cellio said, “but it still has the character of the room it replaced.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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