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Brookline synagogue has a plan: Build

A designer’s rendering of a planned renovation at Congregation Kehil-lath Israel in Brookline.Handlin, Garrahan and Associates

As it prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in two years, Brookline's oldest synagogue is unveiling a plan to transform its campus and its mission for the next century.

Within five years, Congregation Kehillath Israel envisions that its 1.3-acre Harvard Street site just blocks from Coolidge Corner will feature:

 a renovated sanctuary building;

 a new three-story addition housing a social hall, preschool programs, and the main synagogue office;

 a college extension program through a partnership with an as-yet unnamed university;

 offices for Jewish nonprofits serving youths and young adults;

 a 3,500-square-foot office area where young adults can work on innovative start-ups serving the Jewish community;

 an apartment building for seniors, to be constructed on the site of an existing social hall on one side of the synagogue.

The goal, said Rabbi William Hamilton, who has served the 400-family congregation for 20 years and been a driving force behind the project, is "to redefine what a center can be for Jewish life — for the spirit, mind, and heart."

Kehillath Israel will host a public meeting July 8 to present details of the plan and answer questions. Just what sort of reception the project will receive from neighbors remains to be seen, but concern about traffic during construction is likely, especially since the town's nearby Devotion School is also due for a major overhaul starting next summer.


The synagogue project calls for restoring the exterior of the iconic twin-towered main building to pretty much the way it appeared in the 1920s, when future president John F. Kennedy attended Devotion. Inside, the emphasis is to be on making spaces flexible for a wide variety of uses and accessible to people with disabilities. A similar approach is to be taken to renovating the Novakoff building, which is behind the sanctuary and houses offices and classrooms.

The addition to the sanctuary building is to include a new entrance hall to the synagogue, with the main office directly inside, and an elevator. The design features a second-floor gallery with a sloping glass roof, allowing sunlight to reach the sanctuary's stained-glass windows. With its rounded exterior, the addition would encroach on less than half of the synagogue's existing garden.

Provided the town approves the building plans, work is expected to begin next spring and be completed by the 2017 High Holy Days. In the quiet phase of its fund-raising drive, the congregation has raised more than half of the estimated $15 million cost of the synagogue portion of the project. It hopes to raise the rest with a major public capital campaign.


Services are to be held in the synagogue's current social hall while construction is underway. Afterward, that 67-year-old structure is expected to be razed.

By then, Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly hopes to have secured financing and town permits to construct an apartment building.

Amy Schectman, the agency's president and chief executive, said the nonprofit will consult with neighbors and municipal officials on the building's design and size.

The housing agency, which owns buildings in Brighton, Newton, and Framingham, rents to seniors of all faiths, generally at below-market rates. Demand for the independent-living units is so high that some waiting lists are closed, Schectman said.

Kehillath Israel is embarking on this ambitious project in the face of national forecasts of declining synagogue membership.

"There are two roads," said trustee Devra Shapiro, a Newton resident. "You say, well, we have only 400 families, maybe we should make the synagogue smaller, maybe we should get a different building. The other option is to grow, expand, and make partnerships."

Partnerships are nothing new for the synagogue. It currently provides space for two Orthodox minyanim, less formally structured groups that come together for prayer.

Hamilton sees Kehillath Israel as bringing Jews together at a time when they are increasingly divided in their views toward Israel and in their religious practices. The expansion, dubbed "KI Next: Building for the Future," aims to offer "common ground," the rabbi said.


Hamilton stressed that partner institutions would retain their independence.

"It's not just inviting everybody into this center," he said. "Each of them has a reason to be, an ideology and aspirations and strategies that are unique."

By being under one roof, the synagogue's employees and members would inevitably cross paths with each other. Hamilton cited the example of a university Hillel center, where "nobody says let's all pray together, but they say let's all have dinner together . . . or do public service work together."

While Kehillath Israel is nominally affiliated with the Conservative movement, Shapiro said, "We don't care if you're Reform or Orthodox."

Of the synagogue's 12 trustees, three — including Shapiro — are converts to Judaism. "We have an immense amount of Jews by choice," she said.

Small groups of congregants began setting the synagogue's new course five years ago in meetings at members' homes.

"We asked, 'What is KI? What do we stand for?' " Shapiro said. "There was a surprising amount of unanimity. . . . We were drawn to going back to what the synagogue originally was: a house of learning, a house of assembly, where you're not in a box that you only come to Saturdays."

The state granted the congregation its charter in 1917, when Jews were just beginning to move out of the Roxbury-Dorchester area. Membership peaked at 1,500 families in the middle of the last century, then fell until the 1990s. Since then, the numbers have leveled off, and are expected to remain steady.


Jonathan Sarna, a prominent scholar of American Jewish history who attended Kehillath Israel as a youth, said KI Next exemplifies how synagogues can be more inclusive and serve as a hub of activity day and night.

"All over America we have large synagogues that go unused" much of the week, said the Brandeis professor. "This is giving us a new model of making the synagogue a place where all sorts of Jewish activities can go on.''

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.