In September 2005, our sanctuary was damaged by Hurricane Rita. The renovated sanctuary design was inspired by Beth Shalom’s essential values of tradition, community, worship, and our connection to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).
The new design for the Aron HaKodesh (Sacred Ark) combines two cherished elements of our previous sanctuary, the Silvia Sunberg stained glass windows and the original Aron HaKodesh’s bronze doors. The stained glass windows inlayed in bronze have now been incorporated into this Aron HaKodesh, and are appropriately the focal point of our sanctuary.
The stained glass is a montage of Jewish symbols which artistically express the verse in Daniel 4:33 “How great are His signs; How mighty are His words.”
From left to right these symbols are:
- The mystic emanations or manifestations of God
- The Shofar (ram’s horn) proclaiming the central affirmation of Jewish belief
- The Shema– our central prayer which proclaims God’s oneness, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”
- The Magen David (Star of David) with its six points representing the interconnection of God, World, Man, Creation, Revelation and Redemption
- The Torah, our foundational text which provides an endless source of divine inspiration and direction
- The Menorah (branched candelabra)representing the light of God and enlightenment
Within the Aron HaKodesh, there are five Torah scrolls each with its own remarkable history. Two of particular interest are the “Westminster” Torah, saved from the Shoah (Holocaust) and restored after World War II, and the unique Sephardic scroll, in a decorative wooden case.
The Ner Tamid (Eternal Light), suspended before and above the Aron HaKodesh, burns continuously in the sanctuary as a reminder of the Shechina, the Divine Presence. This is the original Ner Tamid from our first congregational home on Acadian Thruway. After having illuminated this building’s original Aron Hakodesh, it once again occupies its position of prominence in this renovated sanctuary.
The Jerusalem Stone, surrounding the Bima (Pulpit) and Aron HaKodesh, is a visual reminder of our tradition to orient ourselves during prayer facing Eretz Israel.
The arrangement of seating on three sides of the bima is a traditional synagogue style commonly used in Jewish history, and one that is very fitting for Beth Shalom’s participatory style of worship.
The sanctuary ceiling with both its dramatic source of light and its vertical projection symbolizes our desire to be enlightened by Torah and the mitzvot, and our hope that our earthly prayers might transcend. As Psalm 97:11-12 proclaims “Light is sown for the righteous, radiance for the upright. O, you righteous, rejoice in Adonai and acclaim God’s holy name!”
Kippah (in Hebrew)/Yah-mih-kuh (in Yiddush)
In ancient times a covered head was the mark of a servant. Wearing a kippah can signify that you are taking upon yourself the role of a servant, dedicating yourself to something beyond your own self. In Orthodox Judaism, kippot (plural for kippah) are worn by boys and men at all times. In many Reform and Conservative synagogues, both men and women may wear a kippah. It is also acceptable for non-Jews to choose to wear a kippah while in the sanctuary.
Tallit (in Hebrew)/Tallis (in Yiddush)
The prayer shawl with its fringes on the four corners finds its origins in Torah, Numbers 15:37-41 and Deuteronomy 22:12, “The Lord said to Moses, …make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments…look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them…be holy to your God…” The tallit is worn by the congregants at morning prayers, and only by the prayer leader at other times. Non-Jews do not wear a tallit.
The language of ancient Israel and of the modern Jewish State is read from right to left. There are two primary dialects, Ashkenazic (of Eastern European origin) and Sephardic (of Spanish or Mediterranean origin). The Hebrew in the siddur has both consonants and vowels. The Hebrew of the Torah has only consonants, making it more challenging to read.
The most important and holy object in the synagogue is the parchment scroll upon which the Five Books of Moses are handwritten by a sofer (scribe). Everything about the preparation of the Torah is special. The parchment is handmade from lamb skins, the special ink is made from nuts, and the letters are formed with a feather quill. It takes years to make a Torah scroll and the results must be perfect. The tradition of publicly reading the entire Torah each year (a portion each week) goes back over 2000 years.
The manner in which we cover and adorn each Torah scroll today is symbolic of the vestments worn by the biblical High Priests, and are based on their description in Exodus Chapter 28. The Torah mantle, or covering, represents the High Priest’s tunic. The sash, placed directly on the scroll itself, is representative of the High Priest’s belt. The rimonim, or ornate silver coverings placed over the Torah scroll’s wooden handles, symbolize the High Priest’s headcovering. The bells that were sewn around the hem of the High Priest’s robe are recalled by the small silver bells on the rimonim.
Our Torah mantles were designed by renowned Hebrew calligrapher and artist, Mordechai Rosenstein. It is obvious that he truly put his heart and soul into the unique design he created for us. Mordechai, a special friend of this congregation for many years, and always our teacher, shared his inspiration and the meaning of his design.
“Isaiah 6:3 was my inspiration…Holy, Holy, Holy is The Creator… I have attempted to differentiate the four seasons by the selection of colors, and the shapes of the letters. Winter’s colors are dark, as the days are short… The stars represent the black velvety clear skies of a quiet crisp beautiful Winter night… and the letters are sharp like the wind, ice, and biting cold. The colors of Spring are bright yellow and green as plants come to life. The letters are shaped like buds as they pierce the earth… tightly wrapped ready to burst forth. The Summer sun is bright… days are full of light. The letters are round and full. Leaves are everywhere and the flowers have come forth in full color creating bright accents. Fall’s carpet of leaves is a very beautiful thing… trees shout out their individuality in their various colors, which in summer are all green. If we look carefully the Fall is very, very colorful, as if the leaves contain the last warmth of summer… thus the transformation into a palette of rich warm colors…”
Chumash (a biblical textbook of the Five Books of Moses)
Chumash comes from the Hebrew word for “five.” The Chumash contains all of the Five Books of Moses, along with excerpts from Prophets that are read each week. Each Saturday morning, a portion of the Five Books of Moses is chanted from the Torah scroll, as the congregation follows along in the red Chumash. Following the chanting of the Torah portion, the Haftarah, an accompanying reading from Prophets, is read.
Siddur (Jewish Prayer Book)
The word comes from the Hebrew root, meaning “order;” and, indeed, Jewish worship occurs at fixed times, with fixed prayers, in a fixed order. Once you are comfortable with the siddur, you can be comfortable at any service anywhere, for the liturgy has varied only slightly around the world and over the last 1,000 years. Some of the contents of the service are 2,400 years old. The prayer book is our Jewish diary of the centuries, a collection of prayers composed by generations of those who came before us, as they endeavored to express the meaning of their lives. The siddur is our encounter with over 2000 years of Jewish living.
The unique design of our siddur, Mishkan T’filah, is specifically intended to be inclusive, allowing each individual to be spiritually enriched by the power of communal worship. Each prayer has a two page spread; the right hand page offers the traditional prayer, with elegant, faithful translation and transliteration, and the left page contains alternative prayers which can be used in place of the traditional prayers. Beneath the liturgy are sources and commentary. Mishkan T’filah enables the individual worshipper to locate a prayer that suits him or herself within the two page spread, even while the congregation prays another.
On the High Holy Days, we replace the colorful mantles with white ones, also designed by Mordechai Rosenstein
At Beth Shalom, we house six Torah Scrolls that each reflect the diversity and richness of the Jewish experience. Four of the five scrolls in the main sanctuary are clothed in mantles designed by renowned Hebrew artist, Mordechai Rosenstein. On the High Holy Days, we replace these colorful mantles with white ones, also designed by Rosenstein, that come together with the following words: Levochein livavot b’yom din (The One who Knows our Hearts on the Days of Judgement.)
One of these Scrolls is our small and most precious one, rescued from the fires of the Shoah (Holocaust) during World War II. In so doing, we affirm the sacred Jewish principle of Zachor / To Remember, and to never allow something similar to happen again (L’Olam Lo Od.) Read more about this scroll.
Another one of our Scrolls is a Sephardic scroll housed in a large and ornate cylindrical case from which the Torah is read in an upright position. This differs greatly from the soft coverings of the Ashkenazi Scrolls which are laid horizontally on the lectern for chanting.
Our only Scroll not housed in our main sanctuary is in our portable sanctuary (aron ha’kodesh) in the Green Room. Currently, we use this each year during Sukkot, the harvest holiday of happiness and gratitude, and chant from it outside in the shade of our beautiful Sukkah. Hillel of LSU donated both this Torah Scroll as well as the Aron HaKodesh to Beth Shalom Synagogue in 1989. We often used this Scroll in the summer months, and its distinctive artistry and tight lettering are still a sight to behold today.
When Hurricane Rita hit in 2005 and caused major damage to the shul, we held High Holy Day Services at Jefferson Baptist Church next door, and brought this Scroll and Ark over there so we could still incorporate this critical element of prayer and communal Jewish life.
This video shows our Torahs in action during Simchat Torah 5779 (2018). Simchat Torah means “rejoicing in the Torah” and marks when we read the last Torah portion and the first Torah portion. Our Simchat Torah celebration is a joyful, vibrant party where in as many people carry and dance with a Torah scroll as possible. Children at Beth Shalom are given candy during the seventh blessing.