a Jewish presence in the City of St. Louis
The Sabbath arrives and we pause. Our busy lives quiet and we pray for a sukkat shalom — a shelter of peace to be spread over each and every one.
The concept of a sukkah is ancient, yet remains a powerful symbol, as we pray for peace and think about community. Sukkot were simple shelters open to the sky and to others. They were built in the wilderness by a people who for generations were slaves and were now free. With little more than the hope of a better life to help carry them on their journey, our people knew, even then, that to truly be free, all people must be free, and to truly find peace, the shelter of peace must extend to everyone.
When CRC built our building, we decided to name it "Sukkat Shalom," in the hope that it would serve as a shelter of peace for all who entered. Our building was designed to reflect the values and vision of our congregation, and our Soul of the Building Circle ensures that new decisions made about the building, from art to landscaping, stay true to this design. Below are some examples of the many ways in which our building - our Sukkat Shalom - has been designed, built and decorated with purpose and meaning.
Even the decision to have a building was made with intention. When CRC was founded in 1984, we first met in people’s homes and then in various locations around the city, including First Unitarian Church on Waterman, where we rented space for services and Shabbat School for many years. We said we didn't want our own building because we didn’t want to put more into bricks than people and programs. But, before long, we became spread thin, and found we were spending more on time on the logistics of our meeting spaces than we did on people. So we decided it was time to have our own “home.”
Our building is across the street from First Unitarian Church, on the site of the former Diplomat Hotel. The Diplomat — in its prime in the 1940s and 50s — was a wonderful hotel with many memories of bar mitzvahs and weddings. But it fell into disrepair and eventually was condemned. We applied for the option to purchase the condemned building from the city. The price of the land was the cost of tearing down the building. One of the first decisions we made was to place our door facing the doors of the church so that we could always see the place where we grew up.
The architect of our first sukkah, CRC member Andy Trivers,also designed our permanent home. We broke ground in 1999 and moved into our new building — our Sukkat Shalom (Shelter of Peace)—in 2000.
Even before the land was cleared, we had an Other Use Committee. Their mission was to devise ways to make our building a community resource. Every year, our building is home to dozens of events, meetings, and programs, many held by other local nonprofit organizations that share our values. Room at the Inn, St. Louis ARC, Planned Parenthood, Cultural Leadership, National Council of Jewish Women, the Anti-Defamation League Hate Crimes Task Force, and PROMO are just some of the many groups that use our building.
One thing you might notice when you enter our building is that there are no naming plates anywhere in the building. When we raised the money to build our building, we asked people to give anonymously, from their hearts, to build a building that would belong to the whole congregation. Although many fundraising experts told us we couldn't have a successful capital campaign without providing naming opportunities, the CRC community did it!
Just inside the front door is our Tikkun Closet, which provides a place where people can get things they need, such as food and clothing, in a dignified, low-key manner. We are also a satellite location for the Jewish Food Pantry, so we can conveniently assist our neighbors in need.
The construction of our building makes use of numbers which have meaning. For example, there are 18 windows at the top of the oneg— Hebrew for joy—which is our gathering place. We come together here for Kiddush after weekly Shabbat services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, and to celebrate special occasions, simchas, like bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and baby namings. Often, we can look through our 18 windows and see the moon during its cycles. The number eighteen is chai in Hebrew, which means life.
All the outer doors in the building are done in threes. This is because at the southern wall of the ancient temple in Jerusalem there were three gates. The Pilgrims would come into the Temple Mount through one door to make offerings, through another door if they needed something…and then a middle door for everyone to leave from together. We want everyone to leave physically and spiritually filled.
Our building was designed with circles so there could be no jagged edges — making it conducive for people to gather comfortably to talk, and to pray. The oneg provides the center of the building…everything is built around it —the religious school, administrative offices (Misrad), meditation room (Kol D’Mama Dakah), library, sanctuary (Beit Tefillah), and the adult education room (Beit Midrash).
Our Sanctuary is where we hold weekly Shabbat services and most holiday celebrations throughout the year, as well as lifecycle events such as baby namings, b'nai mitzvah ceremonies, weddings, and funerals.
From the beginning we decided that our sanctuary didn’t need to be large enough for the High Holidays. We hold these services in a larger space (usually the Chase Park Plaza Hotel down the street), so that we have enough room for everyone who wants to come. We do not ever require “tickets” for services.
Our Ark is downplayed. We wanted to draw attention to the light coming in from the seven windows high above the Ark. Seven is significant because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh…which is our Shabbat. According to the Talmud, the only thing a synagogue has to have is a window. We need to see outside, to understand the brokenness of the world, but also to see the trees and the beauty.
The stone around the Ark is Jerusalem stone. The fact that it wasn’t designed to look like the Western Wall of the Second Temple doesn’t keep it from doing so. A very special thing happened on the first anniversary of the death of Matthew Sheppard, the young man from Montana killed by a hate crime because he was gay. A candlelight service was held at a nearby church. Spontaneously people walked to CRC with their lit candles and placed notes in the fence surrounding our building construction site. Rabbi Susan had the idea to place the notes in the foundation behind the Ark--along with wishes and prayers from clergy and others in the neighborhood. These notes are a now a permanent part of CRC.
The Ark is made from acacia wood, as is prescribed in the Torah. The acacia is a desert tree that has roots that go deep into the earth. By (divine?) coincidence, the wood appears to Rabbi Susan to have four images on the bottom of the four mothers, Rachel, Leah, Rebecca and Sarah and the top or upper portion has the images of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The Bima table, inspired by a dream, has an arm that swings. It is lightweight and moveable. We also have a portable Bima. For some special services, we move the smaller round bima to the center of the room and circle the chairs around it. The bima table is easily moved onto it for services in the round.
The Ner Tamid, or Eternal Light, which hangs over the bimah was designed and created by glass artist, Thomas Bagiackas of Kent, Ohio. We chose a glass "light," which reflects the natural sunlight from outdoors, rather than the traditional oil lamp found in most synagogues. While it doesn’t have its own light source, it reflects light directed to the crystal from the windows. Upon closer inspection, you can see that the piece is made up of many broken pieces. This is just one reference to the kabbalistic story of creation, of shattering and repair.
We decided early on that CRC's building would not be heavily dominated by art; that people were the most beautiful part of CRC. Our photo collages trace our history as a congregation through the faces of our members and friends.
Our large Multipurpose Room allows us to host a wide range of celebrations, fundraisers, meetings, and other programs throughout the year. The wall between the Multipurpose Room and the Sanctuary can be lifted to create one larger space.
Two of our hallways are lined with classrooms. During the school year, these classrooms host our religious school programs for youth. In addition, several local groups make regular daytime use of the classrooms for programs.
One of the fundamental goals of CRC is to strengthen the bonds of our community through communication and participation, while continuing our work of Tikkun Olam — the repair of the world. Our landscape includes an area we call "Common Ground," located at the northeast corner of the property, a circular area of paving stones intended to welcome members of the surrounding community, in this diverse urban setting. In this garden space, we have placed a public sculpture as a landmark where the community is welcome to gather for marches, candlelight vigils, or prayer services.
Also on our grounds is our "Fitness Course for the Soul," with stations along its path for prayer, remembrance, meditation, growth, renewal, community, and a children's garden. Our intention was that each station would have a special meaning to rejuvenate the soul as you walk its paths.
On the northeast corner of our property is our "Tikkun" sculpture. Its form is based on the Jewish mystical story of creation about the shattering of vessels, the gathering of hidden sparks and the repair of the world. The “Shema”—the holiest Jewish prayer--is written inside. The largest opening is facing the First Unitarian Church.
A path, comprised from clay pieces decorated by the community, leads from the sanctuary to the vessel. The clay pieces represent shards from the shattered vessel. CRC and community members took part in creating the art by decorating, etching or hand printing the clay pieces. The sculpture is here to remind us that what we do is important—both inside our Sukkat Shalom as well as outside — to do the work of Tikkun Olam.
We invite you to visit us any time. Visitors are always welcome at CRC!