Thursday, May 8, 2014

USA: A New Synagogue for the Dell Campus in Austin, Texas

Austin, Texas. Temple Beth Shalom.  Entrance.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

USA: A New Synagogue for the Dell Campus in Austin, Texas
by Samuel D. Gruber

A new synagogue, the Reform congregation Beth Shalom, has opened on the expansive – and expanding - Dell Jewish Campus in Austin, Texas.  The building, designed by Austin architect Arthur Andersson of Andersson-Wise Architects, has been in use since December 2013.  It  joins the notable Conservative Agudath Achim Synagogue, designed by Lake/Flatow (and featured in my 2003 book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community) to anchor the Dell Center, which since its founding in the 1990s, has become the hub for almost all things Jewish in Austin.  When I was in Austin in April, Austin Federation head Jay Rubin kindly showed me around the campus, and I stayed for evening services at Beth Shalom. 

Beth Shalom congregation was founded in 1999 by a small group that wanted to create a Reform congregation on the Dell Campus.  Austin's main Reform congregation Beth Israel, chartered in 1879, had chosen not to move to the campus from its building complex at Shoal Creek Boulevard, where they moved in 1957, with their sanctuary dedicated in 1967.  Beth Shalom founders, therefore, saw an opening for a Reform presence at Dell, where the JCC and the Austin Jewish Academy were built (1997), and where the Conservative Agudath Achim was completed in 2001 to much acclaim, by which time Beth Shalom had built a  membership of 72 families meeting in the JCC Community hall for High Holiday services.  Beth Shalom applied for membership in the Union of Reform Judaism and after negotiating for a location on the campus, in 2005 began in earnest the long process of building a permanent home.  Eight years later the result is an elegant but modest modern building, that strives to blend with its site, with land and plan to grow.

The Beth Shalom architect and building committee sought to combine a building that had not merely a “feeling of permanence. But really would be able to last a thousand years or more.” In fast growing Austin, however, one wonders if any building can last even a hundred years, and certainly Texas synagogue buildings, like most American synagogues, are not known for their longevity. According to the architect Anderson, “thoughts of permanence and making a sacred, fortified place were combined with an equally important desire to build a worship space that was flexible.  The congregants wanted a room that would be intimate for a group of three hundred, but accommodate nearly three times that many for the High Holy days worship."  

The result is a room with flexible seating, and a large wooden wall on one side that opens up to expand the room side as needed.  There is also a small balcony that adds seating, too. Texas limestone walls recall the Kotel in Jerusalem, but because the stone is local it is cheaper - but also speaks to the rootedness of the Texas Jewish community.  Though the congregation is new, Jews have been in Texas for a long time.  Indeed, in a twist on the idea of permanence and migration, the state's oldest standing synagogue - B'nai Abraham in Brenham, Texas - will be moved across the state later this year to a new site a stone's throw from the newest synagogue - Beth Shalom.  The transplanted B'nai Abraham will serve a traditional Orthodox minyan on Shabbat (as it was built to do), but will be open for other life cycle events to the entire community (I'll be writing a lot more on this - my ancestral synagogue - in the coming months).

Austin, Texas. Temple Beth Shalom.  Santuary.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014


 Austin, Texas. Temple Beth Shalom.  Santuary.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Architect Andersson writes: “The scale and ceiling height of the foyer commons leads to an intimately scaled arrival into the worship space.  As one walks into the sanctuary, the stone walls rise to a canopy of articulated plaster ceilings recalling a traditionally tented Tabernacle.  Natural light filters in along the edges and top of this solemn room, creating an atmosphere suited to worship and prayer…” Typically, this congregation wants it every which way: fortified yet intimate, permanent and still recalling the very temporary structure of the Tabernacle, designed to accommodate the wandering Israelites.   Considering these demands, and a relatively modest budget for a building of this size, the architect has delivered with an attractive, contextual, flexible, well-lit worship space that also includes some of the now-requisite architectural symbols (temple and tent in a green setting) for new synagogues worldwide.   In all, the three-story 21,000 square foot building includes, beside the sanctuary, a social hall, administrative wing, family room, full kitchen, 1,200 square foot foyer, and eight multipurpose rooms.  The present building is L-shaped forming two side of what one day could become a central court.

Austin, Texas. Temple Beth Shalom.  Exterior and parking.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

See also:

Cone, Tonya, “Temple Beth Shalom Breaks Ground on New Home,” The Jewish Outlook (May 1, 2012).

Cone, Tonya, “Temple Beth Shalom to Dedicate Long Awaited New Home (Dec.6-8),” The Jewish Outlook (November 1, 2013).

Temple Beth Shalom Sweet Home, Building Dedication Weekend (December 6-8, 2013).  Commemorative Issue (Austin, TX: Temple Beth Shalom, 2013).

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