Dick Solomon and his wife moved to Kenosha from New Jersey three years ago to be near their daughter, Debra, and her family. Shortly after the move, the couple joined Beth Hillel Temple. Though he is an active 85-year-old, Solomon began having mobility issues and needed to use a walker at times to get around.
“Until five months ago, I was able to climb the two flights of stairs, three if you count climbing from Founders Hall on the ground level, to get to the Sanctuary for prayer services, but then, I found I required the walker full time and climbing stairs became impossible.”
Because he was no longer able to climb the stairs to the sanctuary, Solomon missed several Shabbat services. Fortunately, summer services were held in the synagogue’s backyard worship space, so he was able to attend those.
For Solomon and others finding it difficult to attend Shabbat, festivals and other services at Beth Hillel, the expedition is much easier this week, thanks to a 10-month renovation project that included an elevator to make the synagogue more accessible.
“Having an elevator installed is allowing me to attend any prayer service or other program held on any level of the Temple,” he said.
The prayerful dedication for the elevator, Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant restrooms, a ramp and other projects began Friday evening before the weekly Shabbat service. According to Rabbi Dena Feingold, the effort to make the building more accessible began 10 years ago.
“We had a discussion over the years about whether we really wanted to stay in this old, giant, inaccessible building, or would it be better to build something more modern, sleek, accessible and smaller, because we don’t need such a huge space,” she explained. “At some point, we decided as a congregation to develop a long-range plan and make a commitment to this historic building. We wanted to make it comfortable and appropriate for today’s world, and the chief thing is accessibility.”
The building located alongside Library Park celebrates its 90th year, as construction was completed in 1928. As with many historic buildings, accessibility was not considered in that era, nor was air-conditioning.
“Our sanctuary is on the second floor and we actually found the original plans for the building as part of this renovation process and saw a design for an elevator; the plan helped people get into the building but did not allow for easy access to all three levels,” Feingold said. “We wanted to accommodate the truly disabled, so they could have full access, so putting in the elevator was a priority.”
Feingold and a small group from Beth Hillel began exploring Partners for Sacred Places, a national non-profit organization focused on building the capacity of congregations of historic sacred places to better serve their communities as anchor institutions, nurturing transformation and shaping vibrant, creative communities.
“We joined a cohort of 12 congregations and went to four all-day sessions and learned about restoring historic buildings, and how in many cases, they partnered with the community to use them for other purposes besides being a place of worship, such as a children’s theater or community center,” she explained. “We also talked about how to raise money, and I had a modest skepticism, as we have only 125 to 130 members and they are not wealthy people, just mainly people of average means.”
With the assistance of one of the members who works as a professional fundraiser, Beth Hillel raised most of the funds for the elevator, air-conditioning the sanctuary, renovating and adding restrooms, moving offices and dismantling the pipe organ. A circle drive and ramp also makes it easier for those with wheelchairs, walkers and strollers to make it into the building. The project was spearheaded by Nevin Hedlund, architects from River Forest, Ill. Construction was handled by Absolute Construction Enterprises from Racine.
“We have stopped using the pipe organ three or four decades ago as it has gone out of style,” said Feingold. “We donated it to a guy in Baraboo that restores organs. We didn’t realize how big the space was, so we took down two walls and created a lobby space at the top of the stairs. We’ve already used it once for a funeral and were able to put a book there for people to sign, and had pictures and people assembled in the hall to greet the family. It was so nice to have this space for everyone to meet.”
As a two-decade member of Beth Hillel, 74-year-old Jim Feldman never missed a Shabbat service until a failed knee replacement surgery six months ago confined him to a wheelchair.
“This elevator is a real important issue,” he said. “The inside of the synagogue, to get to the front door, you have to walk up a bunch of steps and then once in the synagogue, you have to walk up a very long winding staircase, which is extraordinarily difficult for elderly people. Before I landed in this wheelchair, I had no problems. We have congregants in their 70s to 90s that have physical problems and had great difficulty getting up there. The building is an old one and there was no way you could move the sanctuary to the first floor. It was impossible.”
There is another advantage to the elevator — having funerals at Beth Hillel.
“The elevator is large enough to fit a casket and up till now, we had to go to the funeral parlor for funerals. If you are very religious, you really want your funeral in the synagogue,” he said.
“The other thing, before the elevator it was hard for people with young children to get up all those stairs. We want to get the young kids involved in the life of the synagogue at an early age.”