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The addition taking shape on the back of the office building at Congregation Beth El in Bennington. (Photos by Mark Rondeau)



Congregation Beth El begins centennial expansion, renovations



The Bennington Banner, May 23, 2011


BENNINGTON -- Construction now begun at Congregation Beth El will consist of two expansions and numerous improvements designed to create a more accessible, roomy and energy-efficient home for the thriving house of worship.


"It's really exciting," said Rabbi Joshua Boettiger on Wednesday. "It's something we've been building toward for a long time. In a lot of ways they're minor renovations, but I feel like they're major for us and it's a big project to take on and we've been blessed to have some donors who have really stepped up and made this possible."


Currently underway is a 20-foot addition to the office building on Adams Street in back of the synagogue. Another project, not yet begun, is to extend the back of the synagogue at the corner of North and Adams streets by six feet.


The project, expected to be completed by the High Holy Days in late September, will add about 810 square feet to the buildings and will cost $400,000, according to Boettiger and Richard Lowenthal, president of the congregation. Timothy D. Smith Associates, Bennington, designed the project, and the general contractor is Cutler Construction Company, of Bennington.


The addition to the office building will create a new social hall replacing what are now classrooms. Its lower level will include two new bathrooms a lobby and a kitchen. The addition will be one-story with a sloping roof. There will be an entrance facing the back of the synagogue.


Community event space planned


The social hall will be suitable for bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings and other events for the congregation. Additionally, the hope is "that we can also offer this space to the community at large, people who are looking for a place to have a wedding," Boettiger said.


The second floor of the office building will stay the same, with offices for the rabbi and office manager and a classroom.


Work at the synagogue will include extending both the sanctuary and basement, which is now the social hall. The addition will create room for more pews. The existing pews have already been refinished and painted.


"There's a lot of congregant involvement. One congregant is designing the stained glass windows, we'll have two new stained glass windows," Boettiger said. "One congregant is designing a new ark, that holds the Torahs."


The basement of the synagogue will include new bathrooms. The larger, open space will be converted to classrooms. There will be a new mechanical room, and the heating system will be switched from oil to propane to make it more energy efficient. A new entrance will be added; the current entrance is steep and constricted.


Both buildings will be made fully accessible to those with disabilities. This includes replacing the lift currently near the back of the synagogue, where everyone present can see someone using it, with one in the front of the building near the main entrance. In front of the synagogue there will be new blue stone steps, and a new walkway.


"So there's a lot of little things," Boettiger said. "In a lot of ways it's very modest, it's not a huge renovation and that was part of it. We wanted to meet all of the real, legitimate needs that I think the community has right now."


The synagogue was built in 1926. "We really love our sanctuary building," Lowenthal said. "We're fortunate to have it."


Respecting the history of the synagogue is an important goal. "We really want to keep the historic feel of the synagogue in every respect," Boettiger said. "So all the changes are kind of designed to just be true to the original design of the building."


The congregation is seeking a place for worship for about six weeks over the summer when work is underway on the synagogue.


Lowenthal said the aim has been to try to limit costs while achieving all the goals for improvement. The congregation currently consists of 120 member units, or households.


"We're not like mushrooming in growth but we're growing steadily. So we need a little more space and there were a lot of ways that we needed to improve the facilities," Boettiger said. "But we went through like 12 versions with our architect to say ‘OK, what can we afford, what meets the needs, how can we not saddle future generations with debt.'"


Lowenthal said the renovations have been a work in progress for several years. Boettiger said the congregation celebrated its centennial in 2009, and a centennial fundraising campaign was originally planned. "We wanted to have a centennial campaign," Boettiger said, "but we also were aware it was a tough economic time and we didn't want to go to our congregation at this time and put an additional financial burden on them."


In addition to gifts from donors, the congregation now has begun the centennial fundraising campaign.


"We haven't raised all of the money but we have raised almost all of it, which is really exciting," Boettiger said. "I think it's exciting, (and) the people in the community who are connected to the synagogue in some way are excited because they see it happening, and people I think want to be part of it."




Mark Rondeau - Writer, Editor, Photographer


Congregation Beth El in Bennington.