2014-01-10 / Community

Seeing the light

Synagogue was built to capture natural beauty of its surroundings
By Tracy Orzel
Contributing Writer


Architects Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe used light as a major design element throughout Congregation Bet Ha’am. Wooden clapboards were reversed on the interior of the building. Because the top of the clapboards are thicker and the bottoms are thinner, the boards catch the light instead of the shadow. (Tracy Orzel photo) Architects Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe used light as a major design element throughout Congregation Bet Ha’am. Wooden clapboards were reversed on the interior of the building. Because the top of the clapboards are thicker and the bottoms are thinner, the boards catch the light instead of the shadow. (Tracy Orzel photo) SOUTH PORTLAND – Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland was put on the map when The Huffington Post recognized the Reform Jewish synagogue as one of 50 “stunning” synagogues and temples from around the world on its website in November.

Founded in 1985, Congregation Bet Ha’am means “house of the people” in Hebrew and congregants include approximately 350 families. After years of holding cramped services and religious classes in Sawyer Elementary School, the congregation purchased the school and the land from the city of South Portland in 2005.


Since the building’s completion in 2009, members have been able to enjoy concerts, lectures, panel discussions, plays and social gatherings in the new space. (Tracy Orzel photo) Since the building’s completion in 2009, members have been able to enjoy concerts, lectures, panel discussions, plays and social gatherings in the new space. (Tracy Orzel photo) Designed by Canadian architects Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, construction on the synagogue began in 2008 and was completed in May 2009 to the tune of $6 million.

Toby Rosenberg, who was on the building committee and is one of the original members of Bet Ha’am, said it was an honor to be recognized alongside synagogues in Israel, Germany, Russia, Australia and Ethiopia, as well as 17 others in the United States.

“It made me want to go visit them and understand them the way I do ours,” Rosenberg said.

Funded through a capital campaign, the temple features a concave ceiling, polished concrete floors and natural materials, such as wood, throughout.


Building committee member Jeremy Moser said the width of the sanctuary is only 45 feet. "So you're very close and that was also one of the goals, to keep people very close together," said Moser. (Tracy Orzel photo) Building committee member Jeremy Moser said the width of the sanctuary is only 45 feet. "So you're very close and that was also one of the goals, to keep people very close together," said Moser. (Tracy Orzel photo) “If you look at the site, Huffington Post ... most of those buildings cost 10 times more than this project. They just do,“ said building committee member Jeremy Moser, who is an architect by trade.

One of the most unusual aspects of the design is the clerestory windows, or skylights, which run the length of the structure to make it appear as though the roof is floating.

“The natural light creates this sense that the world’s around you. Our services start typically in the morning and then at sunset and the way the light interacts with the liturgy is essential,” Moser said. “It was so hard to do this. It breaks all the rules to have continuous skylights because it means your roof isn’t really supported by your walls.”

To circumvent this problem, the builders installed steel columns every eight feet to support the roof; however the use of light as a design element doesn’t stop there.

“The north and south walls of the building are all glass, inviting a strong connection with the outdoors. The south wall in the sanctuary overlooks an enclosed garden with a reflecting pool,” Rosenberg said. “Light reflects off the pool and dapples the curved ceiling of the (sanctuary), reaching furthest into the room in the winter when the angle of the sun is lower.”

The architect also incorporated clapboards and reversed them on the interior of the building. Because the tops of the clapboards are thicker and the bottoms are thinner, when the wall sconces are lit, the boards catch the light instead of the shadow.

Because attendance varies, the social hall and the sanctuary are divided by a moveable wall that can slide the entire length of the space, depending on the needs and number of worshippers. This is particularly effective on High Holy Days, when approximately 700 people convene in the sanctuary.

Moser said the budget was revised more than once to complete the project and still make sure the structure was buildable and repairable.

One of the design elements nixed due of cost was a grain roof, which can last up to 50 years; however, the building was designed to accommodate one, should the congregation raise the money in the future.

While religious classes are still held in the school, since the building’s completion more than five years ago, members within the synagogue and the community have been able to enjoy concerts, lectures, panel discussions, plays and social gatherings in the new space.

“When the only space we had was the schoolhouse part of our campus, we had little connection to the outdoors and nature,” Rosenberg said. “Now we hold some of our services outside by the reflecting pool … We grow things that relate to ancient, seasonal, festivals that were established when our ancestors were agrarian. We are afforded many more ways to interact with each other, the community and God.”

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