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Somerville’s Temple B’nai Brith celebrates accessibility to all

Journal Correspondent

Marshall Sloane spoke in Temple B’nai Brith’s third-floor sanctuary at the completion of the congregation’s accessibility campaign. Sloane’s family helped create the congregation in 1903.

DECEMBER 28, 2017 – SOMERVILLE – The steep staircases that wind their way through Temple B’nai Brith will no longer prevent congregants, guests, and visitors from coming through the door to pray in the sanctuary of this city’s historic synagogue.

The congregation, founded 114 years ago, on Dec. 17 celebrated the completion of Project Aliyah, a capital campaign to make its nearly century-old synagogue building accessible to all with the installation of an elevator in the three-story building located in the Winter Hill neighborhood,  once the heart of the city’s bustling Jewish community.

Built between 1919 and 1923, the temple is noteworthy for its Byzantine Revival architecture, designed by Samuel E. Eisenberg, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who settled in Boston. The massive, hand-carved wooden Torah ark in the sanctuary was acquired from a North End synagogue that was razed in 1920.

“It’s a historic jewel in the city,” said Frank Valdes, an architect and member of the congregation. “It’s a clear example of turn-of-the-last century’s religious architecture.”

But the synagogue has steep staircases on the exterior and interior and a multi-level layout, with the sanctuary on the top floor and restrooms only in the basement.

In 2001, Sara Chimene Weiss, then 13 years old, donated money from her bat mitzvah gifts to start an accessibility fund because her great-grandmother could not attend services in the synagogue.  In 2008, inspired by the girl’s generosity, the congregation launched Project Aliyah. It took time and a modification of a more ambitious proposal to raise sufficient funds to complete the project, designed by architect Derek Bloom.

The successful $1.25 million campaign included a grant of more than $450,000 from Somerville’s Community Preservation Act fund awarded in 2015. The remaining support came from more than 280 individual donors, according to synagogue president Fred Levy, an indication of the broad support from members and others with ties to the congregation.

In addition to the elevator, other safety and security improvements include a fire suppression system and accessible restrooms. Construction was completed last September, just in time for the start of the High Holidays.

The synagogue’s longtime religious leader, Phil Weiss, said at the dedication ceremony during Hanukkah that the Hebrew word, “Aliyah,” which means “to call up,” was an appropriate name for the accessibility campaign involving an elevator.

“I am happy to be here to celebrate [Temple B’nai Brith’s] dedication to inclusivity, as we commemorate the completion of the temple’s accessibility campaign,” said Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.

The CPA grant is an important symbol of integration in the city, according to Dorothy Shubow Nelson, the daughter of the late Rabbi Leo Shubow, who was the synagogue’s longtime spiritual leader until he retired in the 1970s.

Marshall Sloane, whose parents were among the founders of the congregation in 1903, also spoke at the dedication ceremony.  Sloane, founder of the Somerville-based Century Bank, said he and his siblings grew up in the congregation that continues to be a source of fond memories.

“I rode up in the elevator,” Sloane told the Journal at the event. “It was very nice.”

The Sloane family foundation and Century Bank both contributed to the project, according to Barry Sloane, Marshall Sloane’s son, who is president and chief executive officer of Century Bank.

“This temple has such a legacy for our family, so it’s very important for us to be involved and be as supportive as we can,” Barry Sloane told the Journal at the event.

Charlotte Adler Kirshner, who grew up in Medford, made her way back to Temple B’nai Brith, her childhood synagogue, from her home in Newton to attend the event. The sprightly 96-year-old, who walked up the front stairs to enter the synagogue, recalled the long streetcar rides to attend services and Hebrew school.

“I can hear the earlier voices of the people of past generations in this building with us,” said Rabbi Eliana Jacobowitz at the ceremony. Hired in 2010, Jacobowitz was the congregation’s first rabbi in more than 40 years.

Curtatone commended the congregation for its perseverance in achieving this milestone, a benefit for people of all faiths, he said. He was reminded of the many church closings over the years that leave a sad void in a community, he told the Journal. It’s important to maintain the culture of diversity in the city, said the mayor.

“The synagogue is woven into the fabric of the community,” he said.

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