AA Synagogue Restarts Renovation
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AA Synagogue Restarts Renovation

President Gerry Benjamin on the success of the Capital Campaign and how infrastructure improvements and interior changes will elevate Ahavath Achim while preserving tradition.

After 35 years with the Atlanta newspapers, Marcia currently serves as Retail VP for the Buckhead Business Association, where she delivers news and trends (laced with a little gossip).

The new sanctuary will replace some of the existing pews with individual chairs. The renovated sanctuary will retain the iconic gold back wall and torah ark.
The new sanctuary will replace some of the existing pews with individual chairs. The renovated sanctuary will retain the iconic gold back wall and torah ark.

Congregation Ahavath Achim is undergoing a major renovation, including important improvements to infrastructure like the HVAC system, new flat roof and replumbing.

AA President Gerry Benjamin said, “7 years ago we began the capital campaign, which has now well exceeded its goal. This represents broad support spanning 300 donors. The overall project will also include renovation of the social hall (Srochi Hall) and the Cohen-Kogon entry Pavilion in addition to the main sanctuary.”

President Gerry Benjamin notes that infrastructure improvements, as well as design elements, will leave AA in good stead for many decades to come.

Benjamin also assured the AJT that the meaningful symbols already in place won’t be altered: the Torah Ark opening and the elaborate gold back wall (which will actually expand into the ceiling) will remain. The ability to host 3000 at community-wide events will remain. The central section pews will be replaced with individual chairs for flexibility. Both side areas will have pews with new cushions. “By lowering the bimah, and leveling the sanctuary floor, we won’t be looking up,” Benjamin continued. “The refurnished lobby area also will provide a more intimate and modern environment.”

COVID threw a temporary wrench into the process, delaying initial plans by a year. Demolition has now officially begun, and plans are to complete the build prior to the 2022 High Holy Days. The synagogue recently held a sentimental “last service” in the main sanctuary, as the Torot were relocated to the Ellman Chapel, where services will continue throughout construction.

Architect Elihu Siegman, of design firm SAI and Associates, had just completed the renovation of a synagogue in Asheville when he signed on for the AA project. “The design strategy is to craft a new, inclusive, and centrally oriented space within the existing sanctuary,” he explained. “A room within a room. The new, lower bimah and leveled floor will be clad in wood, extending out from the iconic ark wall. Above, a new wood slatted ceiling will complete the newly enveloping, intimate space. The fixed pews will be replaced with more flexible individual chairs. The spaces between the wood millwork ceiling will be equipped with new acoustical treatment, mechanicals, LED lighting, and sound system.”

Architect Elihu Siegman, of SAI and Associates, is overseeing the renovation.

Longtime congregant and oft-quoted historian Doris Goldstein said, “Change of any kind and circumstance is hard. The current space is iconic in its own way and clearly articulates the style of post-WWII America. I like the pews. I sit in some form of a chair everywhere I go. When I enter a sacred space, I want to be in a different frame of mind. Sitting in the pew helps me to leave my ordinary life behind and to focus on ideas that transcend. I like being able to squeeze one more person into the row and rubbing shoulders with a fellow congregant. If someone close by is grieving or celebrating, I can touch them to show support or share their simcha. That may not be possible when each person is confined to their designated chair.”

Some of the pews are physically uncomfortable, Goldstein said, “which inhibits [congregants] from focusing on the service, so it will certainly benefit them. Our clergy and leadership feel the chance to reconfigure will make the space more user-friendly. I like the idea of a central reading platform from which to read the Torah instead of the current lofty distance. The officiant will be closer to the congregation. Will these and other changes make a difference to those committed to membership in Ahavath Achim? I’m willing to go along as everyone tries to navigate the future.”

Gastroenterologist Mark Stern was asked to head the renovation committee three years ago. “Beginning over a decade ago, the seeds were planted for the eventual renovation,” Stern said. “Acknowledging the history within the walls of this sacred space, the idea was to create a new way in which to observe together. Rather than praying at each other from a high traditional bimah, the intention was to change the aesthetic to one where we pray with each other, with a lower bimah surrounded on all sides by congregants.”

Stern also acknowledged the other members of the committee, composed of builders, designers and real estate experts, who contributed to the process: Michael Habif, Michael Kogon, George Nathan, Greg Paradies, Jill Von Tosh and Mark Cohen “have enabled us to be successful in creating a new space that will bring us all closer together,” he said.

Looking to the future, Benjamin said, “This renovation should leave us in good stead for the next 125 years.”

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