Temple Israel renovates for 21st century education

Synagogue opened its remodeled lobby, education wing this fall

A view of the remodeled lobby at Temple Israel, a Reform Jewish synagogue off 24th & Emerson. Copyright Sue Lund Photography, 2016

When Temple Israel underwent a strategic planning process in 2008, it found that its 80-year-old original building was in pretty good shape.

It’s 52-year-old education center, however, was not.

The floors between the sanctuary and education center were misaligned. Plus, the two-floor design of the education center forced the congregation to put its early childhood center on the second floor, which presented problems of accessibility.

“Just to get it up to code was close to a couple of million dollars,” Senior Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman said. “So when people saw that, they were like, ‘Let’s be inspirational and aspirational.’”

Temple Israel's renovation included a new courtyard named after a congregant. Copyright Sue Lund Photography, 2016
Temple Israel’s renovation included a new courtyard named after a congregant. Copyright Sue Lund Photography, 2016

The result was a renovation of the education wing, which opened this past fall. The 2,200-household congregation didn’t stop there, however, building a new lobby and courtyard and renovating bathrooms outside the sanctuary.

“It was both affirming that we’re in the city and being (that) we had 1955 classrooms and wanted to make education flourish in the 21st century,” Zimmerman said of the project. “It was both vision and need.”

Temple Israel, originally named Shaarai Tov, was the first Jewish congregation in Minneapolis and has owned the land at 24th & Emerson for more than 100 years. The congregation built its sanctuary facing Hennepin Avenue in 1928 and added the education center in 1955. It renovated the sanctuary in the ’70s and again in 2004.

In 2014, the synagogue had a plan to renovate the education wing that would have cost $15 million. The congregation’s board of directors decided, however, to include a new lobby and courtyard in the project, adding several million dollars to the project.

It raised funds from its congregants, exceeding its goal by more than half a million dollars. That allowed the board to add back projects that had been canceled because of cost constraints.

“People were quite generous, and they are quite excited about it when they walk in,” Zimmerman said. “I think that it’s affirming that people want us to be in the city and that they believe in the mission and vision.”

The remodeled education wing opened this past fall, after a dedication ceremony in September. It includes 12 classrooms and a playground along Fremont Avenue.

The synagogue designed its early childhood center around its Reggio philosophy of education, which emphasizes concepts such as flexibility, creativity and transparency. As such, it designed the classrooms to have windows into classrooms at heights for both parents and kids. It also intentionally created ceilings that get higher further into the classroom to help kids transition into class, Zimmerman said.

The synagogue also uses the education wing for its K–8 educational program, called Judaic Experiential Whole-person Learning. The program, new this school year, has kids learn Hebrew through movement, starting them with conversational Hebrew before asking them to decode the language in later grades.

“It’s a whole different kind of experience,” Zimmerman said.

A view of the new playground outside of Temple Israel's renovated early childhood wing. Photo by Nate Gotlieb
A view of the new playground outside of Temple Israel’s renovated early childhood wing. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Zimmerman said the curved-wood ceiling is a signature piece of the lobby, designed by Joan Soranno and John Cook of the firm HGA. People say the ceiling evokes Noah’s ark or a sukkah, a temporary structure used for the Jewish holiday Sukkot.

The lobby’s 12 floor-to-ceiling windows are meant to invoke the 12 ancient tribes of Israel, Zimmerman said. The garden is named after a longtime congregant who served on the synagogue’s board of directors.

The lobby has become a community-gathering space, used by the congregation for social gatherings and organizations such as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Zimmerman said community members socialized in the lobby for hours this past spring after an event about combating extremism, something that would not have been possible without the space.

She said the synagogue takes seriously its role of being a city congregation, even though members come from about 115 zip codes. The building expansion means that congregants are taking that role to heart, she said.

“I like to say our address is our mission and vision, which means that we really do take seriously being a city congregation,” Zimmerman said. “It’s very important for us to be a presence.”