This month marks 132 years since 22 members of the Stamford Jewish community formally declared themselves a congregation, Agudath Sholom. Like many of its New England counterparts founded in the 19th century, the Modern Orthodox synagogue boasts a storied and patchworked past that reflects Jewish immigration patterns and demographic shifts. Founded in 1889, the congregation first met in Jewish-owned businesses and rented spaces until 1908, when the congregation erected the city’s first synagogue building in a downtown location. In 1966 – after enduring a decimating fire and reconstruction on a nearby property—Agudath Sholom moved to its current home on Strawberry Hill Avenue north of the city, with a sanctuary designed by the renowned New York City architects, Davis, Brody & Associates. The building was expanded with a lobby area and chapel in 1980 to accommodate its growing numbers.
In August, Agudath Sholom opened its doors once again for a chanukat habayit, this one marking the end of a seven-year renovation designed to accommodate another growth spurt, with membership now at 515 families.
The project began when a congregant made a significant donation in memory of his father. Earmarked to refresh and modernize the building, the gift kicked off the first of two capital campaigns. The resulting renovation has wended through the tenures of four congregation presidents and several building-committee chairs.
The timing of the project was a bit provident, according to Rachel Dayan, CAS building committee chair and past president. “Seven years ago, observant Jewish young families were trickling into Stamford, but not at the rate at which they are moving here today,” she said. “But even then, we had a need for more space: Our Shabbat youth groups would meet in the lobby and in the chapel after davening—there was no other place to put them. We needed more space for youth activities, for women’s tefilla groups, a Sephardic minyan, a teen minyan. We always said that the best problem is when you don’t have space for the number of people coming to the building, especially children.”
The structure had to be brought out of the ’60s and ’80s, a process that revealed some long-deferred maintenance needs. “The most challenging aspect of the project—as with most renovations—was working through the myriad of known and unknown conditions of a 55-year-old building,” said Executive Director Matt Feinberg, who came aboard six months into the planning process. “You never know what you are going to find when you open a wall or start digging in the ground. There was an odd sense of accomplishment each time we found the culprit of another ‘maintenance issue’ we have dealt with for years.”
Dennis Noskin of Dennis Noskin Architects (DNA) helped repurpose the building to meet the needs of a 21st-century Jewish community. That meant changing the sightlines in the sanctuary, building a small addition to house flexible classroom space, replacing floor and wall coverings with contemporary colors and materials that would create a warm and inviting environment. Parts of the building had a subterranean feel—the sanctuary with its downward-sloping floors, the administrative office area hidden out of sight below ground level.
Construction began in November 2019 and would slow during the pandemic due to shortages of construction materials or workers. Eventually, DNA’s design transformed dark and cramped spaces to create an open, airy and bright feel. A visitor to the building is greeted not only by gleaming white floors of an expanded and well-lit central lobby, but by a staffed reception area behind a large glass window.
Now there’s plenty of room to accommodate the myriad events on Shabbat, as well as thoughtful touches like well-placed tallit cubbies for men on their way to minyan, a ritual washing station equidistant from the sanctuary and social hall, family restrooms, an expanded coatroom to prevent bottlenecking during high-traffic times. DNA created what Noskin calls “a grand entry” to the sanctuary, a long overdue statement befitting the importance of the sacred space.
In addition to the budgetary and timing concerns inherent to any construction project, most interesting and challenging were the halachic requirements unique to a synagogue building. That’s where Agudath Sholom’s Rabbi Danny Cohen provided guidance.
What happens when the sanctuary floor is flattened and raised? The mechitza height must be adjusted as well. What happens when a building is brought up to code and sprinklers are installed throughout? A special insert is installed in the ark to protect the Torah scrolls in the event of a sprinkler malfunction. With new doors on the Aron Kodesh, is the parochet (curtain) still necessary?
“The answer is yes because the synagogue is modeled after the Tabernacle and in a Tabernacle, there was significance to this curtain that was over the Ark,” Rabbi Cohen said. “So that was a fascinating way of modeling our synagogue after the historic Tabernacle and the Temple.”
Significant modifications were included in the plans to make the building more accessible. In addition to refurbishing the elevator, installing ramps and removing seats in the sanctuary to accommodate wheelchairs, the centrally located Torah-reading table was updated so that a man in a wheelchair could have an aliyah.
“That was a really important part of the project and I’m very proud that we made it happen,” said Dayan. “As a shul and as a religious organization, to be able to allow men to participate in the service in a respectful and dignified way is a wonderful outcome of this project.”
Feinberg can’t wait to see congregants’ reactions to the transformation. “The most rewarding aspect of this project is knowing the changes made will have a real impact on our members’ experience inside the building for years to come,” he said. “My hope is that, when they walk in the building for the first time—whether today or in several months—they will feel a sense of pride and comfort in their home. I hope this renovation gives our membership and the community a sense of rejuvenation, especially in terms of the Covid pandemic.”
More than anything, the new Agudath Sholom is testament to the power of community—what can happen when many people coalesce around a shared goal.
“All along the way, people with different expertise were asked for input and helped make critical decisions about what to do and how to do things,” Dayan said. “This was an effort of an army of people who really gave of themselves and shared their wisdom and time to make sure that decisions were made properly and appropriately.”
Rabbi Cohen echoed the sentiment. “It’s been really inspiring how everyone has come together,” he said. “Like with the building of the mishkan, whether you give a lot or a little, what’s important is that you give from the heart. At a time when there’s a lot of anxiety in the world, the reinvigoration of a house of faith to help inspire people to live with a sense of calling, generosity of spirit, optimism and hope is very moving and historic. To come to a community where we’re standing strongly with God, with future, with the capacity of people to help in being God’s partners—to me, that is very inspiring.”
(All photos by Aviva Maller Photography)
By Cynthia Mindell