A spiritual environment is a delicate balance of space, requisite furnishings and inspirational elements designed to stimulate a spiritual mode of thought without becoming a distraction. When successfully achieved, it is more than just a backdrop; it can be the catalyst for a sincere dialogue between the individual and God.
For many religions, the designated houses or places of worship are meant to be grandiose and awe-inspiring constructions, eliciting reverence, fear, respect and veneration from all who enter. More often than not, there is also the intention to bring into clear contrast the insignificance of man and his actions in this world with the sublimity of God.
Almost all of the world's religions expend a great deal of energy and expense in the building and consecration of these structures. They form the nexus around which communities coalesce and give focus to religious activity and devotional service. Their construction offers congregants the opportunity to give of themselves and of their resources, providing an outlet for a deep-seated need to contribute and partake in what is perceived as an unusually meaningful endeavor.
The biblical source and description concerning the construction and use of the Mishkan, also known as the Tabernacle, which the Jews carried during their 40-year sojourn through the desert, is replete with detail. Spanning three biblical books, the narrative attests to the tremendous importance designated to the Mishkan itself, its historical offshoot -- Solomon's Temple -- and today's modern descendant, the synagogue.
Pointedly, the Mishkan is described as a "place" in which God will be "residing among them" -- the people, who will pray within his midst -- rather than simply exist within the structure.
The challenge in the design of our religious environments lays in how they affect us and speak to our nature, rather than if they reflect in some manner the immutable qualities of God. If these structures are meant to be a meeting place, a place of dialogue, of supplication, a place where we can be our most honest, exposed and vulnerable selves, shouldn't their concept and design reflect these aspirations?
So much of Judaism -- its practice, its lore -- is vivid, pictorial drama. From the service in the Mishkan, to the great miraculous episodes that make up our history -- our culture is suffused with stunning and powerful visions and symbols replete with underlying significance and meaning. According to Midrashic lore, the Theophony at Mount Sinai was attended by Jews past, present and future. The themes of egalitarian inclusion spanning the eons of time, and individual distinctiveness, are foundational in their message of acceptance and tolerance. This is an example of a theme that if executed in a sophisticated and thoughtful manner could infuse the spiritual environment with deep significance and meaning.
So many of our synagogues rely on standard themes presented without subtlety and depth. On the one hand, the ubiquity of symbols like the Star of David, the Tablets portraying the Ten Commandments, crowns, lions, etc. provide comfort and familiarity in Jewish settings. They are immediately recognizable, instantaneously comprehensible and completely unambiguous. It may be, however, that both their ubiquity, and the generally languid manner in which they are presented, are precisely the problems with their too frequent usage.
If the religious environment should provide both context and stimulus for inspiration and aspiration, shouldn't the design of the space promote those qualities? It is my belief that both inspiration and excitement may be derived through spiritual compositions that are traditionally proper, conceptually harmonious with the religious philosophy of the congregation, and representative of a fresh and exhilarative approach to what has become standard and stagnant. If one explores any of the major biblical themes suggested above, artistic and inspirational creations may be wrested from them. These creations needn't be figurative and literal but open and abstract, full of allusion and artifice, allowing the congregant to make his or her own associations and connections.
If the true purpose of the spiritual space is to accommodate one of the most ennobling and enabling activities known to mankind -- prayer -- that space should embody those qualities in its design. If the environment aims to stimulate and inspire the spirit of the individual and focus his or her imaginative musings on coming closer to God, rather than amplifying the profound differences between human and God, we will be providing a greater service to our worshippers and community.
The challenge in our sacred spaces is to seek out ways to use the vast repository of traditional sources to inspire and animate our hearts and our souls. We must create associations that identify without completely defining, that illuminate without diminishing, and ultimately allow the thoughtful observer to enhance and intensify his or her perceptions. In order to balance out the obsessive nature of traditional Judaism to "concretize," it is imperative to develop and cultivate a whole new realm of cognitive sensibilities. We must recognize that certain conceptual notions must fundamentally defy concretization if they are to expand our spiritual nature.
At the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., Edward Jacobs designed the entire eastern wall of the sanctuary as a sculptural mural, representing the theme of Sinaitic revelation. The Ark is opened in a rather unconventional manner: The stone suspended to the right of the Ark is pulled down, causing the bottom half of the Parochet/Ark Cover to rise. Site: Hampton Synagogue Address: 154 Sunset Ave, Westhampton Beach NY 11978 Web: http://www.thehamptonsynagogue.org Date of Completion: 1994 Architectural Design: Edward Jacobs Project Architect: Nicholas Vero and Peter Tokar Interior Design: Edward Jacobs
In designing the sanctuary for North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck, N.Y., Edward Jacobs was following the message of Psalms 92:14: “Planted in the House of God In the courtyards they shall flourish.” The verse paints a picturesque scene of trees blossoming in the environs of the House of God, and the aromatic fruits of the trees planted by the children filled the air on the Temple grounds. This sets the thematic tone for the entire institution, a religious high school, dedicated to both secular and Jewish studies. The eastern wall of the sanctuary pictured is centered around the 11x32 foot Ark Doors. The decorative covering of the Ark Doors matches the reed-like natural motif of the other sanctuary elements. Site: North Shore Hebrew Academy High School Address: 400 North Service Road,Great Neck, NY 11020 Web: http://nshahs.org/ Date of Completion: 2008 Project Architect: Spector Group Architects Sanctuary Design, Judaic and Donor Recognition Design: Edward Jacobs
The 18 window elements surrounding the sanctuary at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck, N.Y., are not classic “stained-glass” windows comprised of hundreds of small individual pieces of glass, sanctuary designer Edward Jacobs says. Rather, each window is a composition of 6-18 large plates of glass, each one painstakingly painted, tripled-layered and fired in large kilns to produce the desired effect. The panes were then suspended in three-dimensional relief on custom steel frames creating a dazzling effect of color, light and depth. The project was completed in 2008.
Surrounding the Ark at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck, N.Y., and in fact, the entire sanctuary, are 18 monumental window elements. The front eight windows of the synagogue measure four feet wide by 12 feet high. Sanctuary designer Edward Jacobs says all panels were inspired by God’s creative activity occurring during the period of the world’s creation.
The dominant theme of the Ark at Lev Efrat Synagogue, which Edward Jacobs designed in 2011 for the synagogue in Efrat, Gush Etzion, Israel, is one of an abstract “Tree of Life” -- a powerful and broad-based metaphor in Judaism. Set in an asymmetrical pattern, the cut-outs allow for glimpses of the interior curtain. Site: Lev Efrat Synagogue Address: Efrat, Gush Etzion, Israel Date of Completion: 2011 Sanctuary Design, Judaica and Donor Recognition Design: Edward Jacobs
The interior Curtain of the Ark at Lev Efrat Synagogue, which Edward Jacobs designed in 2011 for the synagogue in Efrat, Gush Etzion, Israel, continues the theme of the outer doors but expands into the realm of creation and notion of history and remembrance in the Jewish tradition.
Finally, the interior of the Ark at Lev Efrat Synagogue, which Edward Jacobs designed in 2011 for the synagogue in Efrat, Gush Etzion, Israel, becomes the realization of the verse from Proverbs 3:18: “It is a Tree of Life for all who grasp it…” Each Torah Scroll, supported within its own cradle, each facing a different direction, is floating within the innermost section of the Ark. The base of the Ark contain mementos of the contents of the original Ark the Jews carried with them on their desert sojourn.
Edward Jacobs is a concept designer of synagogues and Jewish exhibitions in the United States, Israel and Europe. A principal at The Berenbaum Group, he is currently designing The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia.
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