June 23, 2024
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June 23, 2024
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Shomrei Torah Completes Beautification Project With Custom-Designed Mechitza

It was one of the final and perhaps most challenging elements of a beautification project that was over two years in the making. The charge was for the new mechitza to be both elegant and functional, while at the same time meet all Halachic requirements. Aviva Oppenheim, a member of the Fair Lawn shul and an engineer by trade, directed the efforts. She offered that she enjoys “problem-solving and the challenge of overcoming obstacles,” which meant she was an ideal candidate for this exacting assignment.

The original shul interior had been designed over 30 years ago by long-time member Jeff Packard. Although the current makeover involved a renovated lobby, reupholstered benches, new carpet, wall fixtures, ceiling lights and a host of other freshened design elements, some of Packard’s original touches, such as the Aseret haDibrot and stained-glass windows in the front, and the stirring Holocaust memorial in the rear, weren’t going anywhere. Oppenheimer commented, “From the beginning of the project, we were focused on incorporating and highlighting Jeff’s art.” Somewhat ironic was the fact that the original mechitza was the only design component that was initially set up as a temporary structure, but had never been revisited in all these years. It was now finally being addressed.

Oppenheim was assisted by Allyson Paris, a shul member and interior designer, after the architect-designer hired from the outside completed her assignment on the other renovation elements. Also involved were committee members Yehuda Brum, Baruch Hersh and shul member Ronen Tzur, a contractor who reassembled the completed mechitza once it was delivered to the shul. And, as always, Shevi Yudin, with her rich history and outlook, was there to provide guidance.

Before her contract expired, the architect recommended a skilled artisan from Texas who worked exclusively with metals. Although he had never built a mechitza before, he had worked with room dividers. Since Shomrei Torah has women’s sections on both the left and right sides of the main sanctuary, two identical dividers were needed. Finding this artist was the project’s turning point. As for Paris, while she executed designs for the shul’s perochet and shulchan cover, she also took on the critical role of acting as a foil for Oppenheim, offering advice on aesthetics while Oppenheim focused on engineering the project.

Before any actual work could be performed, there was the issue of the need for a donor to cover the considerable project costs. In stepped Barbara and Gil Irwin, longtime shul members who had been very involved all along in the efforts to beautify the shul. As Gil put it, “We realized the shul would benefit greatly from a mechitza.” Barbara was more direct, saying “It’s crucial as a woman to have a mechitza that would allow women to see and hear better.” In fact, that was the key consideration throughout. As Paris said, “The mechitza needed to be open so that there was a positive visual line for women to feel a part of the davening.” Or, as Oppenheim similarly noted. “A mechitza really affects people’s experiences in shul.”

Prior to reaching out to the Texas artist, a focus group was conducted among a cross section of about 20 shul members to gain consensus. Various material options were presented to the women, with the choices coming down to glass, a one-way screen, or metal latticework. The third option was chosen because it offered the best opportunity for the women to see and hear more clearly, which they agreed would enhance their davening experience. A follow-up session was convened sometime later, which included a mockup of the design work. It was positively received and the project moved forward.

The intricate brass-colored design included layers of metal and an interwoven pattern with openings throughout. There were questions about whether the unique design could even be properly installed to remain fixed and steady. Of course, none of this mattered if the openings were too large and did not fit within strict Halachic guidelines.

The project spanned two shul administrations, with President Jeff Cohen handing control to Danny Pickett. It also included close involvement from Rabbi Emeritus Benjamin Yudin and the current rabbinic leader, Andrew Markowitz. Oppenheim brought a full-scale printed mockup to the rabbis, which inevitably led to adjustments and a back-and-forth with the artist for necessary modifications based on Halachic considerations.

Woven within the metal work were round blue stones that were present on both sides of each mechitza. During a brainstorming session involving both rabbis and the project leaders, Packard, who was also in attendance, suggested that artwork be placed within the stones for added effect. This began a process which brought the project to new heights. The drawings involved renderings of the chagim, as well as Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh. Packard was thrilled to play a role in the building of the mechitza, which he considered his chance to be involved in the one shul design element that had eluded him so many years earlier. In a voice brimming with pride and emotion, he said “It means so much to me to be a part of it after all that time.”

Beneath the drawings—provided by the rabbis—were appropriate words to represent the particular occasion. Some included an expected saying, but others were more obscure to pique curiosity. Local artist Enon Avital digitized Packard’s hand sketches and added the Hebrew text. Rabbi Markowitz explained that once the shul went this route, it was decided to step up the spiritual element. “We made sure there were 26 stones for each of the two mechitzahs, the gematria of which represents the letters of Hashem’s name.”

The one common denominator of all who were involved was a sense of pride in seeing the successful fruition of their labor. The mechitza took a full year for the artist to complete following several years of planning, and more than 30 years since the “temporary” structure was finally replaced, but it was worth it, As Oppenheim remarked “I’m really proud that the Halacha was where we started but the mechitza was also able to meet people’s needs and be a welcoming addition to Shomrei Torah.”

Rabbi Markowitz shared that symbolically, he felt it was important to have the mechitza installed in time for Shabbat Parshat Terumah, which included the reading of Parshat Zachor. Zachor, because it marked the one-year anniversary of the last Shabbat all were together in shul before pandemic restrictions changed everything, and Terumah, so that the final element of the beautification project could be completed in time to affirm the words “We were commanded to build for Him a beautiful home and He will dwell in it.” The mechitza was, in fact, delivered the Thursday just prior, despite a snow storm, accomplishing that most meaningful goal.


Robert Isler is a marketing researcher and writer who lives in Fair Lawn. He can be reached at [email protected]

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