The first Friday night at Congregation Beth Shalom’s new digs in Napa wasn’t just an ordinary Shabbat service. The sanctuary was packed to standing-room only; local politicians were in attendance; some people traveled many miles to be there, including one family that came in from New York; and the goodies at the oneg were enough to indulge even the most overzealous sweet tooth.
The Nov. 7 service was a marker, a dedication. For the first time in the Reform synagogue’s 61-year history, it finally had a home to fit its mission.
“We need a place that’s sacred, but we need to be the headlight shining on the injustices in this world,” said Beth Shalom Rabbi Lee Bycel.
Bycel beamed about the structure, about the deep thought that went into its design and about the beacon he hopes it will be for the Jewish community around Napa Valley.
Following a lively round of “Hinei Ma Tov” to open the service, Bycel joked about the “state-of-the-art sound system” after a speaker hummed with feedback, and managed to keep things personal despite a large crowd of about 300.
“Rivka, how are things in Israel? How is Ima?” he asked a congregant, garnering a warm response about her recent trip to the Holy Land.
“How many people are visiting Beth Shalom for the first time?” He asked for a show of hands. “Great … Will you be staying here in Napa then?” The crowd burst into laughter.
The rabbi’s jovial manner kept the mood light as the congregation celebrated the completion of a renovation and building project that cost $4.8 million, according to Bycel.
The new building, which took 18 months to build almost from scratch at 1455 Elm St. — tucked within a neighborhood about five blocks from downtown Napa — strays from the confines of a traditional synagogue.
It has an open sanctuary, with light entering from windows on every wall, and a high, beamed ceiling. There is no bimah, just two podiums at the front, and all of the seating is movable.
The room is fluid and functional, design components that reflect the way Bycel and the other Beth Shalom leaders see the synagogue’s role in the social and religious fabric of Napa Valley.
Temple president Barb-ara Lustig said she feels the congregation has grown up. “We have a house of worship here in Napa that will be a legacy to the Jews of the future who come to live and worship here, as well as for the members of the Napa community at large, who will avail themselves of this beautiful environment in programs and special events.”
While the building reflects the congregation’s growth — it now serves 180 families — it also recognizes its past.
At the front entrance are 100-year-old wooden beams that were part of the original building, which once housed the Chamber of Commerce. When it was purchased in 1953 by the Napa Valley Jewish Group, the building was already 50 years old; a remodeling occurred in 1963.
Bycel called the old structure a building that the temple “had to” use, but now it’s “perfect.”
A large, bright foyer is adorned with photos of past rabbis and presidents, as well as a tree of life showcasing members. From there, the sanctuary, classrooms and social hall can be accessed through paned-glass doors. At the front of the sanctuary, 12 values (such as respect, compassion and welcoming strangers) are etched in Hebrew onto window panes. Napa artist Gordon Heuther created the installation, as well as the glass ner tamid above the ark.
Bycel noted that the congregation’s goal is to live out those 12 values. “It’s a great accomplishment to build a building, but it takes more than that,” he said.
Dana Simon, a Beth Shalom member for five years, said the Nov. 7 service was an emotional culmination of the hard work and vision of the congregation. “It’s amazing when you see a dream come true, and that’s what happened,” she said.
Napa Mayor Jill Techel, presenting Beth Shalom with a key to the city, said, “It’s wonderful to see the lights on in this building. This is a wonderful addition.”