Temple Sinai renovation will keep city landmark on the map

The walls came tumbling down, but at Temple Sinai that was cause for celebration.

The Oakland synagogue is undergoing a major expansion and renovation that has been years in the making. The expected completion date is spring 2010, though the project is mostly frames and walls without plaster now.

“Sinai is one of the few congregations in the U.S. that has chosen to remain an inner-city synagogue as a commitment to the city in which it’s located, as opposed to relocating to the suburbs,” Rabbi Steven Chester said. “In addition to our devotion to the beautiful sanctuary, we want to remain a part of the city of Oakland.”

An initial architect rendering of the campus with education building on Summit Street. photo/courtesy of mh2

The improvements at 2823 Webster St. include a new chapel that seats 225 with an open floor plan for flexible seating options, a crying room (a soundproof space for parents to attend services with young children) and a view of the garden; classrooms and outdoor space for the preschool and religious school; and wheelchair and stroller accessibility for Stern Hall, classrooms, offices and the sanctuary.

The sanctuary, a historical landmark, will be otherwise preserved except for new carpeting, and enlarging and lowering the bimah to “bring the clergy closer to the congregation,” Chester said.

Another innovation at the Reform synagogue is a state-of-the-art audiovisual system that will provide live streaming online for some bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and holiday services, giving a front-row seat to out-of-town relatives or homebound congregants.

“I’ve done a wedding with a cell phone open, but now people will be able to see it,” Chester said. “To me, this is extremely important, especially for grandparents who can’t travel.”

Local architects Michael Harris and Mark Horton (MH2) teamed up for the project, which cost approximately $15 million, including land, building fees and relocation during construction. To date, the capital campaign has raised close to $12 million, including a matching grant of $265,000.

To help close the $3 million gap between funds raised and the project’s price tag, a phone-a-thon Sunday, Dec. 13 will reach out to members who have not yet made a campaign pledge.

About 70 percent of Sinai’s 900 member-households have donated to the capital campaign, making it one of the most successful such efforts for East Bay synagogues, according to co-chair Esther Saidman.

“We started this well before the economic downturn,” she said. “But to see how committed everybody is given today’s economy is amazing. Even in these hard times, congregants continue to give.”

The “tremendous amount of unity and enthusiasm” for the project contributed to the high participation rate, Saidman added. Still, she said, the synagogue had to prioritize its wish list of upgrades to help offset the project’s cost, which topped off at more than what was initially raised.

“The more we raise, the less we have to rely on other funding sources,” Saidman said. “We’re very excited about the amount we’ve raised, relative to where we were five years ago.”

A year earlier, in 2003, Temple Sinai created a strategic plan that included recommendations from the congregation.

Creating more space was a top request, as well as adding the necessary ramps to make the building wheelchair and stroller accessible.

Sinai Executive Director Paul Geduldig noted that prior to the renovations, one room of the synagogue would be turned over three times a day, converting from a preschool classroom with toys to a space for religious school, and finally to a location for adult classes.

Sinai members also made it clear they wanted as many green features as possible throughout the building. To that end, drought-tolerant landscaping will be planted; energy-saving lights on timers and occupancy sensors will be used; storm water runoff will be filtered or reused as grey water onsite; and plenty of space will be made for bike parking and storage.

“It’s exciting to be in a new building that is more comfortable and welcoming,” Geduldig said. “We hope our current members spend as much time there as they can, and that we attract new members and serve as a resource to the broader Jewish community.”