Building a shul in Eretz Yisrael
Yom Kippur is here, and with it, many hours of standing in shul, doing teshuvah and davening to Hashem. When was the last time you noticed all the millions of details that make your shul different than any ordinary building? We visited Reb Goldschmidt, the gabbai of a shul in Eretz Yisrael — not just any shul, but my family’s shul! Our community has been building our own shul for several years, and Reb Goldschmidt has loads of experience and stories to share.
Construction on our shul started over three years ago but is not yet fully complete. Coming down toward the unfinished shul building is a tricky, dusty business. But once we pull open the makeshift doors, my breath catches. The inside of the shul is large, beautiful, and empty on this quiet Friday morning. In just a few hours, men and boys will be filing in, ready to welcome the Shabbos Queen. In the meantime, in the hallowed quiet, the hum of the air conditioning blanketing the space, it’s just us and the gabbai-cum-shul builder.
When my family moved to this community seven years ago, the shul was in one of those ubiquitous prefabs that Israelis call “caravans.” In most frum communities in Eretz Yisrael, you can find these structures littered abundantly about, housing minyanim, kollelim and batei medrash. Even though the shul “built on” additional rooms to their large caravan in order to house a second room for more minyanim and an ezras nashim, it wasn’t big enough. During Yom Tov, when the bochurim came back from yeshivah, you could see crowds of men davening outside the shul, because there was simply no room inside.
The biggest and most pressing problem was lack of funds. To build any structure, you need money. Lots of it. Finally, one man from the kehillah approached the gabbaim and handed them a 70,000-NIS (21,800 US Dollars) loan. “Get started,” he said. “Get plans drawn up, and start a keren habinyan, a building fund.” Reb Goldschmidt tells us that this was a bold move: There was no guarantee he would ever get back his money. There was no existing building fund, and there was no way to ensure his loan would be paid back. This avreich took a risk — but his first move ended up creating our new shul. (Even though it’s not fully built yet, many tefillos take place in the new building already.)
There are many halachos about how to behave in a shul. True or False?
- You may use the shul as a shortcut to reach the school’s exit.
- You may say “hello” to a friend you meet in shul.
- You may continue speaking to your friend if it’s an important topic.
- You may trade rebbe cards in shul.
- You may not enter the shul to take shelter from a rainstorm.
- You may not scrape the paint off the wall of a shul.
Locating a Lot
Obviously, besides for money, you also need a place to build the shul. Here in Modiin Illit, the municipality (the local government, similar in some ways to a county or district) sets aside lots to be used for shuls. The lot nearby hadn’t been claimed by anyone yet, so our shul could use it. Can anyone just come and say, “I want to build a shul here?” The gabbai tells us that no, he had to collect signatures from mispallelim. “We had to have 140 signatures from people before we were given the lot,” he says.
Architecture and Building Plans
Now that the shul had a lot on which to build a building, the initial 70,000-NIS loan went to paying an architect to draw up plans for the new shul. An architect is the one who designs and plans buildings before they’re built. Every building starts with an architect, whether it’s a home, an apartment building, a hospital, a shopping center… or a shul.
The gabbaim gave the architect ideas of how they wanted the shul to look. But before the architect could even get started, Reb Goldschmidt’s father gave his son a lesson on building communal buildings. It turns out that the gabbai’s father is pretty experienced himself; he built Yeshivas Chaim Ozer’s building in Bnei Brak. He asked his son how many seats he was planning to build in the shul. “I was thinking about 300,” Reb Goldschmidt told his father. His father proceeded to teach him an important rule: “My son, as soon as you have a building, you will attract more mispallelim. And for each man who will come to daven in your shul, you must calculate three sons.” And that is how the modest, 300-seater shul turned into an impressive shul that can comfortably seat 1,200 people!
Once the architect submitted the first sketches, the gabbaim hung the computerized images in the caravan. They invited the community to give feedback and comments. The comments came flooding in. Some were clever, like adding doors and making sure the bathrooms were distant enough from the main shul so that people there wouldn’t hear the tefillos. Other ideas didn’t make sense, but Reb Goldschmidt is clear that a gabbai needs to respect everyone and thank everyone for their input, even if the ideas they give aren’t great. That’s good advice for life. Everyone likes when they feel heard and respected..
After the architect draws up the plans, the plans are given to an engineer. The engineer’s job is to make sure that the building will be structurally stable. He decides where to use iron and where to use concrete and where to place the support columns.
Once the engineer is done, the plans move back to the architect, who reconfigures the design based on the engineer’s changes. And then begins the parade of consultants:
Health and Safety Consultant: You wouldn’t want a little boy to fall out of a window, would you? The Health and Safety Consultant makes sure the building is a safe place to be, from fingers getting caught in door hinges to window safety, from the slant of the floor to the height of the steps, and in Eretz Yisrael, making sure there is an easily accessible bomb shelter.
Fire Safety Consultant: A fire in shul? What a nightmare. But the right consultant will make sure you’ve got a great sprinkler system in place, fire alarms, water pipes, and he will insist that there is a door every 30 meters (approx. 100 feet) so that in an emergency, chas v’shalom, the nearest exit is never too far away.
Accessibility Consultant: We want all Yidden to feel comfortable in shul — and able to get into it. The accessibility consultant makes sure people with disabilities can make their way in and around the building comfortably.
Plumbing Consultant: This one is obvious, right? Running water and plumbing are pretty important.
Lighting Consultant: It would be pretty frustrating to be stuck in a dark, shady corner with your Yom Kippur machzor. The lighting consultant makes sure that the entire shul is bright and well-lit.
Acoustics Consultant: In a shul, this is really important. The chazzan and baal korei’s voices need to travel well and at the right pitch. The acoustics consultant’s job is to design the shul in a way that sound carries easily and clearly to every area.
HVAC Consultant: Would you ever have imagined that having a frum HVAC consultant would be important? This consultant advises which heating and cooling systems to install, how powerful they should be in each area (the otzer seforim as opposed to the main beis medrash, for example), and how many units to use. Reb Goldschmidt tells us about a massive chassidishe shul that hired one of the leading HVAC consultants in the world. It was so important to them that everyone be comfortable, that they paid a considerable sum for the advisor’s services. Unfortunately, when it came time to move into the new shul, it was uncomfortably warm. The dismayed gabbaim contacted the consultant, who insisted that his calculations had been correct. In quick order, an HVAC inspector was summoned, who confirmed that the consultant had done his work well. Now the gabbaim were truly perplexed.
The mystery was solved when it was explained that the calculations were made according to Western clothing; in the consultant’s calculations, each person in the building was wearing a T-shirt. But these chassidim davened with their beketshes and talleisim, and they were hot. When building our shul, Reb Goldschmidt made sure to use a frum HVAC consultant, who knows how our community dresses during davening and what it’s like when we dance on Simchas Torah.
Some of these consultants are mandatory; without them, the shul won’t get hooked up to water or electricity and won’t be given a legal status. Others serve to enhance the shul.
After the architect incorporates all the suggestions made by all the consultants, the plans move from sketches to actual building plans.
Hiring a contractor and starting to build!
Next comes hiring a building contractor. There are thousands of details to think about, keep track of, and take care of. First the foundation is dug, and then the building’s skeleton goes up. Plumbers and electricians and technicians come and go. The work seems endless. Every design is hand-chosen, every material is hand-picked, the choices are endless. Every single decision is made with the goal of making the most beautiful, comfortable, and durable shul possible. Halachically, there are many more details that must be considered (see sidebar).
The shul isn’t finished yet, the furniture isn’t installed yet, and the outside stills looks like a building site. But this is our shul, and it’s going up steadily, day by day, detail by detail, in a true labor of holiness and love.
Stories from Behind The Scenes
Digging the foundations was supposed to cost NIS 35,000 ($10,895). Because of technical difficulties, the price shot up to NIS 135,000 ($42,000)! We had raised the original sum, but now we were NIS 100,000 ($31,130) short. The building fund was dry. Three yungeleit told me that they would be able to arrange a loan to cover the unexpected expense. It was the morning after Yom Kippur, and I needed to pay by that evening. I traveled to a bris, and the hall didn’t have cell phone reception. I told my fellow gabbai, “If the funds don’t come in by 1:00 p.m., please contact each of the three avreichim, and ask them to arrange the loans.” Then I went into the bris, and no one could reach me anymore.
When I came out after the bris, my fellow gabbai was livid. “How can you disappear like that?” his voice growled through the phone. “It’s 1:30, and I don’t have the money!”
“What about the loans?” I asked, confused.
“There are no loans!” he practically shrieked. “One wasn’t approved for a loan, one’s wife didn’t want him to go ahead with the loan, and the third told me he’d never offered such a thing!”
He was screaming like a madman, all his worry and anxiety pouring out. Suddenly he said to me, “I’ll call you back,” and hung up. I started worrying he’d had a heart attack and tried calling him, but he didn’t answer the phone. Finally, he called me, calm and serene. “I’m on the way to the bank,” he informed me happily.
“Someone heard me screaming at you from across the street,” he told me. “He had a NIS 100,000 check($31,130) on him. He wants us to return the loan bit by bit over the next few months.”
These stories happen again and again (minus the screaming part), and the sum of money is always exact, to the shekel. Someone Above is clearly running this show.
Do You Know?
A. Which masechta discusses the halachos of beis knesses, such as that a shul should be the tallest building in the city?
B. Why would a rav ask that the money to build a shul come from private loans and not bank loans?
C. How many windows should a shul have?
(Answers: A. Shabbos B. to avoid issues with ribbis, C. 12, as seen in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 90:4
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 877)
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