Areas 1st Shabbat elevator: Elders get a lift at shul

Seniors and disabled members at Oakland's modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation have gotten a much-needed lift, thanks to the installation of Northern California's first Shabbat elevator.

The new $70,000 elevator offers those who are Shabbat-observant a vehicle for attending synagogue events with dignity and comfort, without having to struggle with a flight of steep-slatted stairs leading to the social hall.

While operating machinery on Shabbat is prohibited, the Shabbat elevator is preprogrammed in accordance with Jewish law.

"Already I have used the elevator at least half a dozen times," enthused 89-year-old Ruth Smith, who has been a member of Beth Jacob for the past 53 years and currently serves as a volunteer in the synagogue office. "It's hard to believe I used to be able to walk up those stairs hauling heavy bags of groceries."

For the past couple of years Smith has suffered from spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spine), and relied on a walker to help her get around. Without the elevator, she said, going up to the large social hall used for Kiddush lunches and b'nai mitzvah celebrations was simply out of the question.

Smith is hardly alone in using the recently completed elevator. Many seniors enjoyed attending a late October bar mitzvah, for example.

The lift, of course, is available throughout the week. But Smith noted it is especially useful for those observing the Sabbath.

On Shabbat, it is forbidden, among other things, to use electricity or start fires of any kind. Today, observant Jews cope with such inconveniences in innovative ways. For example, meals are cooked before Friday sundown and kept warm by special devices, and timers switch lights on and off on cue.

Enter the concept of a Shabbat elevator, which operates according to a preset program and is not influenced by a passenger in any way. Not all automatic elevator systems qualify as Shabbat elevators, however, because of myriad halachic issues.

On the East Coast, Shabbat elevators, which usually stop for a fixed predetermined time at each floor, are commonplace in Orthodox communities. But on the West Coast, they are few and far between.

"The elevator is definitely the first of its kind in Northern California, and perhaps all of the state," said Jeff Shachat, Beth Jacob president.

He added that although the synagogue refers to it as an elevator, it is really a lift, the kind used to transport heavy equipment. "So when we say our older and physically impaired congregants have gotten a lift, we mean that in the most literal and figurative sense."

Situated near the stairs leading to the social hall, the lift, with its concrete pad and steel shaft, resembles a glass elevator. A clear door and rear windows afford riders a view of trees and surrounding homes.

A warning on the glass door declares that the lift "shall not be used to transport materials or equipment" and has a maximum capacity of 750 pounds.

Shachat — who has made the Shabbat elevator his "personal project" for the past few years — said he came up with the idea after sadly watching numerous congregants such as Smith unable to make it up the stairs following services for a gathering. He stressed that it is used strictly for those who need it.

"I would sit there and watch our matriarchs and patriarchs, the very folks who built the shul, unable to share a Shabbat meal or join in the celebration of a simcha. My goal was to ensure that everyone had a place at the table…that we could all break bread together."

Shachat led a successful fund-raising campaign that amassed the $70,000 to construct the lift.

He then enlisted the help of Rabbi Howard Zack, who has since resigned from Beth Jacob to lead a synagogue in Columbus, Ohio.

Zack was instrumental in making the lift a reality. He located a company in Israel that manufactured and imported the unique Shabbat switch, called a gramma, needed to transform the lift into a halachic Shabbat elevator.

He also worked with Shachat, who hired architects to ensure the lift was reinforced to meet strict earthquake standards, getting a variance from the city of Oakland to go ahead with the job.

Designed as a continuously cycling counting circuit, the gramma switch allows the lift to be indirectly activated by the push of a button.

To install the gramma switch, Shachat sought the aid of Dan Levin, a Beth Jacob congregant, audio engineering consultant and former film engineer at Lucas Films. Using an integrated-circuit chip and low-voltage controls, Levin spent endless volunteer hours modifying the switches that already existed in the lift.

"It's the indirect contact that is key," explained Levin. "Rabbi Zack used to say it's like having a Shabbat candle by a window and opening the window. A wind may come along and blow the candle out, but you didn't directly make it happen."

Although Shachat succeeded in making the Shabbat elevator a reality, he was not the first to see the need for it. Back in 1964 longtime Beth Jacob congregant Max Brown tried to get one installed but was unable to raise $10,000, which was the amount then necessary to make it happen.

"At that time it was just too much for the shul to take on, and we had to forgo it," recalled Brown, now 86.

A Beth Jacob member "all my life," Brown said he finds it ironic that he now uses the elevator. "It used to be reversed — we were the young people looking to find a way to help the older people."

The Shabbat elevator "is a good example of how you can use technology, within the proper confines of halachah, to address and take into account people's needs…especially those of our elderly population," said Beth Jacob's Rabbi Judah Dardik.