Bet Shalom's congregational home is in Minnetonka, Minnesota. The current building, which opened in 2003, symbolically features the sanctuary at the center of the building, surrounded by offices and classrooms. Large glass walls around the back of the sanctuary seamlessly move horizontally to create either an intimate space for 500 congregants attending Shabbat services or up to 1,300 for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. The floor is gently sloped towards the bimah, giving the literal feeling of aliyah, rising up to the torah. The main entrance of the building is framed by what resembles a tent flap symbolizing the welcoming nature of the congregation.

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View of Bet Shalom Congregation from Orchard Road

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Bet Shalom Congregation Sanctuary

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Bet Shalom Congregation Entry Area

One size fits all in new Minnetonka synagogue

By Linda Mack, Star Tribune Published May 4, 2003

Those attending last week's Holocaust remembrance event at Bet Shalom synagogue in Minnetonka experienced the sanctuary as a generous open space plenty big enough for 1,300 people. Worshipers at weekly Sabbath services experience it as an intimate space for 500. The trick: disappearing walls.

Bentz/Thompson/Rietow of Minneapolis designed a small six-sided worship area with a curving social space behind it. With the press of a button, the back three walls part, creating a much larger room. The bottom half disappears into the floor, while the top half slides up and becomes part of the sanctuary's upper wall.

"No synagogue wants to build a sanctuary for two days a year -- Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana," said Rabbi Norman Cohen, who has led the 22-year-old congregation to the new temple, dedicated last year. "But you want to have it work for that. And we didn't want any second-class worshipers."

The Jewish reformed congregation started in rental space in the Jewish Community Center and moved to a former Lutheran church in Hopkins.

Movable walls have been used before in places of worship. At Wesley United Methodist Church in downtown Minneapolis, for instance, wood doors part in the same way to make room for overflow crowds on Easter and Christmas.

But Bet Shalom's walls are an architectural and engineering feat. They weigh 4 tons each; they're 36 feet wide and 20 feet high, and they include full-size, inch-thick doors. But they move "like a feather," said project architect Gary Milne Rojek. And in either configuration they look like an essential part of the decor.

Apart from the unusual walls, the sanctuary is stately. The walls are made of milky white glass encased in thick diagonal wood. Cedar slats on the back wall and around six columns add warmth, as does the hexagonal-shaped ceiling that soars to a glass lantern. Thirty-six square clerestory windows bring in natural light.

"At evening services, the sun goes down and changes the color of the sanctuary," Cohen said.

Light from the sanctuary also flows into the rest of the building, which wraps around it.

"No matter where you are in the building, you revolve around the sanctuary, the core of our mission," he continued.

Cohen sees the whole building as a teaching tool for Judaism. A mosaic over the lobby fireplace includes symbols of Jewish holidays. The sanctuary floor slopes up slightly toward the raised platform, called the bema, recalling that those called to the altar have "the honor of going up." (It also eliminates the need for a ramp for those with handicaps.) The ark that holds the Torah is in the shape of a menorah, a seven-branched candelabra. Its intricate design includes gold leaf on laser-cut stainless steel.

Space for the synagogue's other functions surround the sanctuary. The busy religious school has its own entrance to separate traffic. Classrooms for younger children on the level below the sanctuary take advantage of the sloping site. Other classrooms wrap around the upper part of the sanctuary. The spatial dynamic between the outside circle and inner hexagon creates many spots that are perfect for conversation.

The congregation's 17-year home in Hopkins, a long, narrow building, didn't offer much room for adult interaction.

"We did not want a place where parents just dropped off their kids for religious school," Cohen said. "This building allows for parents to sit and talk. Thank goodness we have those nooks and crannies."

Tom Silver, chairman of the congregation's building committee, said that although he has been a member for 20 years, he is meeting other longtime members for the first time, thanks to the new facility. Cohen said the congregation has grown to 730 families, but is still the "family of friends" it was founded to be.

Architect Milo Thompson said the congregation was involved in the design process to an unusually high degree. Architectural historian Marilyn Chiat gave two lectures on the architectural history of synagogues and led a bus tour of Twin Cities worship places. Liturgical consultant Larry Hoffman led a workshop in which members of the congregation spoke about what they wanted in their new space. And the architects listened just as intently, Cohen said.

"We understood the importance of having the right kind of space for our purposes," he said.

The outcome, he said, is magnificent.

Linda Mack is at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Copyright 2003 Star Tribune. Republished here with the permission of the Star Tribune. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the express approval of the Star Tribune."