Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

85 Harrison Street, New Haven, CT 06515-1724 | P: 203.389.2108 |

Our banner is based on BEKI’s stained glass, designed in 2008 by Cynthia Beth Rubin. For information on this and other of Cynthia’s work, go to: <a href="" target="_blank"></a>. Artisan Fabrication by JC Glass of Branford, CT

Frequently Asked Questions

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General Questions

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Why change our sanctuary?

Our synagogue was built in 1959 for a congregation with a rabbi and cantor, a choir, and a formal, hierarchical style of services. In 2022 we need a sanctuary that reflects our 21st-century values of warmth, inclusiveness, egalitarianism, and spiritual intimacy.

The overarching goals of the redesign are to make our sanctuary:

  • physically more comfortable by improving heating, cooling, ventilation, and seating
  • accessible for all people
  • more intimate in scale and layout
  • a space for active participants in our volunteer-led services, not for a passive audience
  • a warmer, more inviting environment

Rabbi Eric Woodward and synagogue president Yaron Lew have enthusiastically endorsed the project. You can read Rabbi Eric’s message here and Yaron’s message here.

What will the project cover? What will change and what will stay the same?

The shape of the sanctuary will stay the same. The ark will remain on the west side of the sanctuary: unfortunately, it is not feasible to relocate it.

Currently, the sanctuary’s HVAC system needs repair. The seats are literally falling apart, and their design and layout provide poor accessibility. The divider between the sanctuary and the social hall needs to be replaced. The redesign will address all of these critical areas as well as others.

  • Creating a less frontal and more accessible seating layout
  • Making the bimah (stage) and ark accessible for everyone
  • Replacing the movable wall divider between the sanctuary and the social hall
  • Modernizing windows for greater comfort, more natural light, and environmental sustainability
  • Covering the sanctuary’s cinder block columns with a more appealing finish
Has the redesign committee evaluated the cost of a complete reconstruction and lowering of the bimah/ark versus simpler ways to achieve most of the goals of accessibility?

No. The conceptual design will be a total presentation of the redesign. A budget estimate ballpark will be developed for each major component of the project. Based on funds available and the priority of each component, we will decide what can be done now or deferred to a later time. Lowering the bimah and ark is a top priority. It does not appear to be too hard to do but we will wait to decide until we see the designs.

Do BEKI members get a say in the redesign?

Of course! The sanctuary redesign committee held a congregation-wide Zoom meeting in December 2021. We will post designs on the website as they progress. Feedback is welcome, which may result in changes to the design. We may hold another congregational meeting after the architect delivers one or more conceptual design proposals in March.

What were the results of the congregational survey in November 2021?

The survey got a great response from 183 people, 95 percent of whom are BEKI members. The redesign committee thanks everyone who responded.

The results help identify major priorities for the sanctuary redesign. Those priorities include:

  • Accessibility. Members want to make sure that the bimah and the ark, in particular, are accessible to everyone.
  • Seating. Respondents want to change the layout of our seats. People also want more comfortable seats, with more room between rows.
  • Acoustics.
  • Climate control and air quality.
  • Amount of natural light.
  • Intangible priorities include a warm atmosphere; fostering a sense of community; creating a space conducive to participatory prayer and singing; and facilitating a spiritual experience.

These survey findings dovetail with BEKI’s values and the redesign committee’s mission statement.

Accessibility supports BEKI’s egalitarian and inclusive values. The redesign committee will consider accessibility and inclusivity in every aspect of the sanctuary’s design and function.

Changing from our current hierarchical, audience-style seating arrangement (facing a stage in front) to a more inclusive layout will better fit our participatory, member-led services.

Acoustical improvements will also promote inclusivity, accessibility, and the participatory nature of our services.

For climate control and air quality, part of the committee’s charge is to determine what HVAC improvements are needed in the sanctuary and to incorporate those changes into the redesign. The upgrades should bring less noise (thereby improving acoustics), better air quality, and improved energy efficiency— potentially reducing BEKI’s carbon footprint and operating costs.

Replacing the single-pane sanctuary windows with energy-efficient glass will offer many design possibilities for increasing natural light and beautifying the room.

Other themes, including financial questions, emerged in response to the open questions at the end of the survey.

More detail on the survey results is available here.

When will we have a design that’s ready to go?

The architect began proposing ideas in December 2021 and submitted preliminary sketches of the room layout in January 2022. The committee expects quick progress. We have asked the architect to complete one or more  conceptual designs by mid-March 2022.

When will the project be completed?

We don’t know yet. The redesign committee hopes to recommend a conceptual design to the Board of Directors in the spring. When the Board signs off and we get an idea of available funds, we will proceed with more detailed plans and we interview and hire a construction firm. The construction schedule will depend on the final scope of the project and the available budget.

Does the whole project have to be completed at once?

No. We will develop a conceptual plan that covers the full redesign. We will get several design options from the architect. Once one is selected, we can determine if we can afford to do the whole project or parts of it. We hope the design will be spectacular and irresistible, which will make funds available and enable us to do the whole redesign.

Who is the architect?

After interviewing four architecture firms — all recommended by BEKI members — we chose Building Studio Architects because of the connection the committee felt when meeting its founding partner, Michael Goldblum. Michael and his firm have worked on many synagogues and Jewish schools as well as commercial and residential projects. As an active shul-goer in Riverdale, New York, Michael understands synagogue life and what Jewish congregations look for in a sanctuary. Raised in Stamford, he has attended services at BEKI. The firm is based in New York City, but Michael has worked on several projects in Connecticut, including a historic restoration of the Washington Building, at 39 Church Street in downtown New Haven.

How much will this project cost?

The Sanctuary Redesign Committee was given a budget range of $1 million to $1.25 million. That is an all-inclusive number that includes any modifications necessary to the heating, cooling, and ventilation in the sanctuary. It covers the project construction, architect fees, permits, engineers, and anything else related to the sanctuary redesign.

How will BEKI pay for this project?

The Board of Directors will ultimately decide on funding for the sanctuary redesign. BEKI President Yaron Lew has identified several possible sources:

  1. Targeted fundraising: We will run a fundraising campaign specifically targeted for the sanctuary redesign. This campaign will be run by a team of volunteers, separate from the redesign committee itself. We plan to kick off this campaign in conjunction with the Rabbi Installation ceremony at the end of March. Rabbi Eric is excited about the redesign, and his installation will be an inspiration to bring it about. For more information,
  2. Government grant: The new federal infrastructure bill includes $50 million for houses of worship to replace their aging HVAC systems. The grant provides up to $200,000 per house of worship. BEKI intends to file for this grant as soon as it opens.
  3. Neighborhood Assistance Act (NAA): This Connecticut state act encourages corporations to support non-profit organizations. A company that owes corporate taxes in Connecticut can contribute funds to a non-profit organization for energy conservation, and receive a tax credit from the state for the amount of the contribution. We are actively looking for companies that owe taxes in Connecticut. If you know of such a company, please let us know!
  4. BEKI 120 funds: Limited funds remain from the  BEKI 120 campaign, celebrating the 120th anniversary of our predecessor congregation in 2012. This money was earmarked for future building upkeep projects, and is available for this project.
  5. Endowments: BEKI's endowments have significantly appreciated in value since the summer of 2020, thanks to gains in the stock market. If, as is likely, the market corrects itself in 2022, we stand to lose a lot of these gains. If necessary, we could use some of the gains before the investments depreciate in value.  Not all endowments are available for us to draw on, so we will be limited in the amounts we could use. It should also be noted that some advisors are telling us that endowments are there to be used in times of need. So while it could be justified in the eyes of some, we will do our best to not take out principal money from any of our endowment.
  6. Construction loans: The government is offering zero-interest loans for increasing building energy efficiency. The prospect of taking out another loan is unappealing, and we will do everything we can to avoid it. What we can do is to restructure our current loans to increase the loan amount, a process that should also allow us to secure a lower interest rate.

The Finance Committee will examine all the options and make recommendations to the Board. How much will come from each source will depend on the success of our grant-writing and fundraising efforts.

Tell me about the fundraising?

A Sanctuary Redesign Fundraising Committee has been formed and is developing a comprehensive plan to raise the necessary funds. The plan will be reviewed and approved by the BEKI Executive Committee and Board before fundraising volunteers reach out to the BEKI community. The committee expects that actual fundraising will begin sometime in March. Committee members include Murray Akresh, Mark Oppenheimer, Jessey Palumbo, John Wareck, and John Weiser. President Yaron Lew will also be actively involved in our fundraising efforts. Please reach out to a committee member or Yaron if you would like to begin any preliminary discussions about sanctuary redesign pledges, or contact the BEKI office to make a donation.

Furniture Arrangement

I don’t like the seating arrangement shown in the preliminary sketches. Can it be changed?

The sketches show one possible arrangement for the seats and reader’s table. In response to congregant feedback, we asked the architect to draw an alternative layout, which you can see on the BEKI website (password required).

The rabbi's priority is to have as much flexibility as possible in the seating arrangement and placement of the reader's table. As a congregation, we can try out various arrangements until we find one that most people find satisfactory. We are likely to settle on two or three arrangements to accommodate the needs of various events other than weekly services.

It looks like the sketches show fewer seats than we have now. Do we expect to lose seating capacity?

We expect to reduce the number of seats on a typical Shabbat — which is not the same as losing seating capacity. A major goal of the redesign is to make the sanctuary feel more intimate. Our current capacity is 332 fixed seats — perhaps one-third of which were typically filled, pre-Covid. The sketches show roughly 200 seats. Since they are all movable, we can expand capacity when needed.

What happens on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with less seating?

Please see the answer above: there will be fewer seats on a typical Shabbat, with expanded seating as needed.

If there are fewer chairs overall within the same space, how will we feel more intimate?

Reducing the number of seats means that (in non-Covid times) we will all sit closer to each other. Nobody will be in Alaska, Florida, or Nova Scotia. The design and placement of the ark and ark platform will also make the room more human-scale.

Why can't we integrate pews AND movable chairs, to accommodate all of our needs and interests?

The redesign committee considered combining fixed and movable seats. The drawback is that any fixed seating, no matter where you put it, severely limits the flexibility of seating arrangements. At the congregational Zoom meeting, a BEKI member mentioned a synagogue with short, movable pews. This idea was new to the committee; we are looking into it.

Will we have only the reader’s table or will we also have an additional lectern from which the rabbi and/or the president could speak?

Furnishings may include a movable lectern, allowing someone to speak from the ark platform even when the reader’s table remains on the floor.

Are the bookcases movable?


Is there a space between the bookcases and wall on both sides so you can get in toward the rear seats rather than having to enter in the middle?

Yes. The sketches don't accurately reflect the positioning and length of the bookshelves. There will be aisles along both side walls of the sanctuary, along with a center aisle.


Don't the chairs need holders for chumashim and prayer books?

Yes. The software the architect used doesn't have images of chairs with holders. We're researching what's out there and have found several options. We will include chairs with and without armrests, to meet diverse accessibility needs. We'll also choose chairs that can be attached together, to maintain the neatness of the rows.

The rabbi's priority is to have as much flexibility as possible in the seating arrangement and placement of the reader's table. As a congregation, we can try out various arrangements until we find one that most people find satisfactory. We are likely to settle on two or three arrangements to accommodate the needs of various events other than weekly services.

If there are holders for the siddurim and chumashim on the chairs, what are in the bookcases? Extras?

The bookcases could hold extra prayer books and chumashim (Bibles), as well as large-print editions, Megillot (readings for Purim and other holidays), alternative versions of these books, and commentaries. The shelves could also provide temporary storage for tallit bags during service times.

Accessibility, Ark, and Ark Platform/Bimah

How have we accommodated physical accessibility to the ark and reader's table?

The reader’s table will be on the floor, as is our current custom. We will recommend a table that can be adjusted so that someone in a wheelchair can have an aliyah, read Torah, etc. There are two ramps to the ark, one from each side. Although the drawings don't show it, the steps will have handrails. The ark covering will be easy to open and close.

Could we consider putting the ramp in the front and the steps on the sides? It would make a powerful statement about not sidelining accessibility and help prevent kids from tripping and injuring themselves on hard stone.

Frontal ramps are a much less efficient use of the space. Because of where the exit doors and supporting columns are, the ramps would need to be at least 12’ 10” away from the walls. The area between the ramps and walls would essentially become a very large walkway — we couldn’t put seats there, because they would be behind the ramp. On a typical Shabbat, that might not be a problem. But on high-attendance days, like the High Holy Days, we may need that area for seating.

Why are steps necessary? Why not have everyone use the ramps?

Some people prefer steps; some prefer ramps. Including both accommodates both preferences.

Why have steps and ramps at all? Why not have the ark at floor level, like the reader’s table?

The committee gave serious consideration to this possibility, which is radically inclusive: everyone approaches the ark the same way. In the end, we decided that elevating the ark provides a stronger sense of place and permanence, as well as the opportunity for literal aliyah — going up, as at the ancient Temple.

Will the new bimah design accommodate, for example, when all the kids join at the end of Shabbat services?

Kids will still be able to gather around the reader’s table for Ein Keloheinu and Adon Olam. We’re considering ways to create a special place for them to sit (on the floor, benches, or elsewhere) between those prayers, and especially during Mourners Kaddish.

Are the planters on either end of the bimah to screen the ramps? Could they be more minimalist or sheer so there’s no risk of blocking the view of those who may be on the bimah?

The planters are intended to partially screen the ramps but not the bimah/ark platform. They’re just one suggestion for topping the half-walls along the ramps.

Will the electronics (sound and T-Coil) be reused in the new design?

The new sound system has not been designed yet. We intend to improve upon our present electronic capabilities. Wherever possible, we will reuse current equipment if it allows us to meet our goals of improved acoustics, auditory accessibility, and security. (For more on sound and acoustics, please see below.)

Will the floor covering allow wheelchair users to propel their chairs without too much effort?


Ark Doors

Could we keep the current ark doors/other bimah ornamentation?

The committee is leaning toward a design that allows more light into the sanctuary and a more modern aesthetic. We received a lot of positive feedback about the new window above the ark. That design can’t accommodate the height of the current ark doors. 


That said, in the next phase of the project we will be looking for an art consultant to work with the architect on recommendations for ornamentation. We will direct the consultant to consider the possibility of incorporating decorative elements that are currently in the sanctuary or in storage at BEKI.


Why are the windows different on the sides of the sanctuary?

The courtyard windows, which face north, are large to maximize natural light in the sanctuary. The Whalley Avenue side faces south. The wooden louvers on the Whalley side are designed to minimize glare from direct sunlight during the day.

Louvers are notorious dust collectors. How about encasing the louvers between two panes of glass? Or using glass with some kind of screening element?

Based on congregant feedback, the Sanctuary Redesign Committee has asked the architect to consider alternatives. If the final design retains the window louvers, we will work with our facilities manager, Michael Barone, to find a safe and reasonable way to dust them.


How will we address sustainability of materials used, like carpet?

We will consider the environmental impact of all the materials and furnishings that go into the redesign. We'll also look toward "gentle demolition" of the materials we're removing, so that they can be sold or donated for reuse as much as possible. There are numerous other considerations in choosing materials, including cost and durability..

Will congregants have input on choices for floor covering and seating?

The committee will seek congregational input on a number of items, including the seating and potentially floor covering. The committee will make the final decision based on a variety of factors, including cost, durability, sustainability, and congregational input.

Sound and Acoustics

How will we handle room acoustics?

We will work with the architect and potentially with an acoustical engineer.

Is the space intimate enough that we won’t need microphones?

Unfortunately, no. For one thing, a T-coil or hearing loop, which transmits sound directly into hearing aids, relies on amplification. The HVAC improvements will reduce background noise, which may reduce the degree of amplification needed. Certain seating layouts may have the same effect. The committee will work with Rabbi Woodward to design a sound system that complies with Shabbat restrictions.

Overall Design

Will the sanctuary redesign be coordinated with the social hall space?

The charge to the Sanctuary Redesign Committee is to create a design for the sanctuary itself — from the movable wall to the ark. Our mandate (and budget) specifically do not include the social hall.

Can the building support the weight of the proposed design?

The synagogue was built with highway-grade structural steel pillars and girders. That said, a structural engineer must certify that all aspects of the design meet Connecticut building codes and are safe for occupancy and use.

Will the ceiling be lower?

No. We plan to run new heating/cooling ducts above the ceiling (where none currently exist), to add vents for that ductwork, and to replace the lighting. Otherwise, the ceiling will remain as is. Lowering it would be a major expense and ranked as a low priority for the committee and in the congregational survey.

Were fans considered for the ceiling? Especially as the ceilings are so high, it would be more energy-efficient both with heat and A/C.

With such a high ceiling, fans would not be effective unless they were truly massive (and truly deafening).

Will there be a menorah?

Ornamentation — including ark doors and/or curtain and other decorative elements — will come in the next phase of the design process.

What happens with the organ loft?

The storage rooms flanking the current bimah — one of which formerly held an organ and choir — are not part of the redesign mandate.