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opinion | JOAN WICKERSHAM

Building a sanctuary

Temple Beth Elohim was created from — and for — community

At night, the lit-up sanctuary is a welcoming presence.

Bruce T. Martin Photography

At night, the lit-up sanctuary is a welcoming presence.

How do we talk about architecture? Sometimes we talk about aesthetics; more often we talk about function and cost. But the most expansive dimension of architecture is what happens inside a building — what the building inspires, elicits, and makes possible. Let’s listen to what the architect and the users have to say about a beautiful new building outside of Boston.

After the members of Wellesley’s Temple Beth Elohim chose architect William Rawn to design their new building, Rawn and his associate on the project, Mark Scott, spent almost a year researching, listening, and learning about Judaism. Rawn traveled to Israel with a group from the temple to look at ancient and contemporary architecture. He talked with his clients about the values of their community: egalitarian, welcoming, modest, with an emphasis on nature, social justice, and active participation in the community.

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The architect: “I think it’s important not to put pencil to paper until you understand the culture. Otherwise you’re biased and premature in attempting to solve the problem.”

You enter the temple, which was completed in 2010, through an outdoor courtyard (a feature of many buildings Rawn saw in Israel), sheltered by stone walls and slim hornbeam trees. It slows you down, acts as a threshold from the outside world.

A congregant: “This fall, for Sukkot (the harvest holiday), we made bouquets from wild flowers and grasses that grow around the parking lot, and placed them in the courtyard. We were incorporating our own land into the holiday.”

Inside, a long central space runs the length of the building, from a library / meeting room at the front to classrooms at the back. A two-story atrium at the midpoint serves as the crossroads of the community.

A congregant: “There is always so much going on in the building — preschool, Sunday school, book groups, study groups. There are the members of the Caring Community, who bring challah bread and hand-knit shawls to members who have had illness or death in their lives.”

Another congregant: “For my eighth-grade son, who’s already had his bar mitzvah, the temple is a place where he feels very connected. He participates in a discussion group and an acting class.”

Another congregant: “On a recent Friday night I went to a meditation service in the library. The space allowed for a different, more intimate experience. I came in angry at someone. During the service I could feel myself becoming more compassionate, and by the end I had let it go.”

The temple is sited in the woods, cradled at the bottom of the steep wooded hillsides surrounding the building.

A congregant: “The building frames nature for us, in a way that encourages a connection. It lets us into the light and the landscape.”

The tall-ceilinged sanctuary conveys a sense of both intimacy and awe. Like the courtyard, the sanctuary is a large square, 70 feet on a side. One may not be aware of this geometry, but one is aware of the underlying sense of rightness it creates. Acoustics were critical; Rawn’s office, drawing on their experience designing Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall and other concert spaces, worked with an acoustical consultant to optimally reflect and absorb sound.

A congregant: ““The first time I came into the sanctuary, I was so moved and uplifted that I wrote a song.”

Two of the sanctuary walls are glass, inviting the surrounding woods into the room. The quality of the light changes throughout the day. And at night the lit-up sanctuary becomes a glowing, welcoming presence from the outside.

A congregant: “When I sit in the sanctuary, I always look out into the trees, watching the landscape change with the light and the seasons.”

The temple exists to house a community and provide a place for contemplation. But its architecture also enhances these experiences: It is a building where people want to gather, a building that inspires contemplativeness.

A congregant: “We’re here to stop and open ourselves and quiet our minds. The building helps make it possible for us to do that.”

Another congregant: “The first time we walked into the new building it felt like home.”

The architect: “There is enormous satisfaction in seeing the temple real and in use. But that only happens after a building has been taken away from the architects. It’s not ours anymore. It’s theirs.”

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her new book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’
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