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2005-10-19-Congregation Ner Tamid 
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2005 blog


The 'Eternal Light' in Poway

                                                           San Diego Jewish Times, October 19, 2005


By Donald H. Harrison

The irregularly shaped sanctuary is dominated at its apex by a large representation of the Burning Bush.  If you stare closely into the flames, you eventually will note that they were fashioned from Hebrew letters forming the words Shma Yisroel—“Hear O Israel.”  The Burning Bush—from which God ordered Moses to go and liberate the Hebrew slaves in Egypt—in this representation is as tall as a tree.  It can be parted, Red Sea-style, to reveal the congregation’s most precious possessions, its Torahs.

Angling away from this Aron Kodesh are two walls with six tall windows each, the total of twelve representing the Tribes of Israel.  Their stained glass is translucent, permitting one to see through them to the silhouettes of the hills of Poway.  The earth-tone walls of the synagogue, both inside and outside, have been scored to simulate the lines of those hills.  One of God’s newest Houses—Ner Tamid Synagogue—was designed to fit in with His landscape.

The Conservative congregation’s president, Marlene Markus, commented that at one point it had been planned to cement rocks into the gashes in the walls, but congregants intervened saying that the incomplete walls served as a reminder that God’s work too was left unfinished to enable people to join in Tikkun Olam, the Repair of the World.

Lifting one’s eyes from the designs on the walls to a lamp suspended from the ceiling, one contemplates a very special Ner Tamid or Eternal Light. It had to be special indeed because this is the Ner Tamid of Ner Tamid Synagogue. It is a simulated flame, stained to pick up the colors from the Burning Bush. “It is particularly beautiful at night,” comments Markus.

Raise your eyes even higher still to the open-beam roof —and note the irregular shape.  The Morey and Jeanne Feldman Building was designed by architects Mark Steele and Mark Baker to invoke the feeling of a Tent of Meeting such as those in which the Israelites gathered as they wandered through the Sinai and Negev Deserts.  Enhancing this feeling in the Phil & Ruth Slonim Sanctuary is the placement of the Holy Ark itself; instead of being shoved against a wall, it is free standing, away from the corner, making it more visually accessible to the entire congregation.   It is as if the Ark of the Covenant were set down into the Tent of Meeting.

"Although the interior of the Sanctuary is meant to reach up to the heavens, its earthy exterior gives the building special strength and a weightiness that speak to Ner Tamid’s new solidity,” Rabbi Arnold Kopikis commented.

"For a community that started in the warm atmosphere of the Slonims'  home only 16 years ago, to build a significant building from the ground up, feels as if we really made our space and a strong presence in the Jewish community,” the rabbi added.

Gerry Burstain, a past president of the congregation who served as head of its interior design committee, said the congregation wanted to integrate some of the central stories and symbols of Judaism in the sanctuary. He complimented designer David Askalon in New Jersey for translating the congregation’s vision into reality.

During dedicatory services on Selichot night September 24, congregant Molly Cohen said she once wondered why synagogue buildings were even necessary—why not simply gather in Nature and plan acts of Tikkun Olam?  “I realized that even a priceless painting has a fine frame around it to keep the eye from being distracted from what the artist wants us to see,” she commented.

 “We need an enclosure to keep us focused on what we are praying for—what God expects of us when we leave our place of prayer.  The frame should be majestic, awe-inspiring because it houses the most precious masterpiece of all time—our Torah, our Etz Chaim, our Tree of Life, the source of everything we were, are, and strive to be.”

For now the 350 chairs in the sanctuary can be rearranged for social occasions, bingo games, and other events in the multipurpose space.  If the congregation’s long-range plans are realized, someday permanent seating may be installed, with other functions moved to the as-yet unbuilt social hall.   The building was designed so that the social hall, once built, can serve either as a separate space, or when appropriate, such as on High Holidays, as an extension of the sanctuary.

Today, the sanctuary is the only permanent building on the 8-acre hillside campus reached from  Pomerado Road in Poway.  Modular buildings provide spaces for the congregation’s classrooms, offices, and for a Founder’s Chapel where some furniture and decorations from the congregation’s previously rented facility on West Bernardo Drive in Rancho Bernardo have been lovingly reassembled.  For example, a large mezuzah presented to the congregation by its former rabbi, the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron S. Gold, hangs on the door of the chapel, even as it once hung on the door of the old synagogue space.

And here, please permit me to go off on a tangent.  Before coming out of retirement to serve Ner Tamid Synagogue, Rabbi Gold had served as spiritual leader for 18 years of Tifereth Israel Synagogue.  Recently, I had the chance to be the speaker for the first in a series of observances at Tifereth Israel Synagogue marking the fact that 2005-2006 is that congregation’s centennial year. 

I noted in the speech that if Congregation Beth Israel in 1905 had a chapel, or a separate place for the Orthodox minyan to meet, its Orthodox members might not have split into a separate congregation.  Today, I think it is wise that Ner Tamid, and nearly every other congregation in our county, provides a place where members can stage alternative services, should they so desire, yet still belong to the same congregation.

In honoring its past, while building its future, Ner Tamid Synagogue has shown considerable far-sightedness.  Already, its investment is paying off.  From 140 families, its membership has spurted to about 175 family units since the new synagogue was built..