It has been half a century since the members of Congregation Children of Israel in Athens have altered their sanctuary or social hall. But if a fundraising campaign is successful, renovations and redesign could render the interior of the facility almost unrecognizable.
The building needs a new roof, Rabbi Eric Linder said, as well as work on the heating and air-conditioning systems and other major maintenance work.
“We figured, if we’re going to spend a good deal of money on repairing things, why not go ahead and improve the overall aesthetics?” he said.
Others in the Reform congregation agreed; there had been talk of renovations in 2008 until the recession hit.
Members of the congregation of 170 families have spent the past several months forming committees, choosing Atlanta-based Walker Houser as the architectural firm, visiting other projects the firm has completed, meeting with architects to discuss their hopes and dreams for the building, and determining their options.
The price for the planned renovations and repairs is $1.4 million, which the congregation hopes to raise internally. Once the funding pledges are secured, architects will draw up the final plans, a process that could take six months. Six more months will be needed for the actual construction.
Different committees have meet to figure out the master plan, “and there’s tremendous enthusiasm,” said University of Georgia psychology professor Adam Goodie, the president of the temple. “It incorporates so many of the things we’ve been dreaming about.”
Those dreams include more light — better lighting, skylights and an entire wall of windows in what is now a dark sanctuary. The windowed wall will open into a garden, which can serve as a peaceful gathering place. A small addition on the east side of the building will expand the sanctuary for more seating and a new bimah.
Under the preliminary plans, the bimah will be larger, wide enough to accommodate b’nai mitzvah families and to allow consecration students to stand under the ark. With a skylight overhead and windows on the north side and behind it, the bimah will be bathed in natural light.
There will be raised seating for the choir, a new ark and two lecterns, and the bimah will be wheelchair-accessible. A new sound system is also part of the plan.
“What’s great is that everything is going to be organically integrated,” Goodie said. “It’s going to be incredible.”
Instead of pews, the renovated sanctuary will feature individual chairs, a change that will accommodate 200 people instead of the current 145. A center aisle will separate the seats. For small gatherings, chairs could be removed to create a more intimate setting.
Plans are to renovate the adjacent social hall as well, with the floor, ceiling and walls mirroring those of the sanctuary. When the partition doors between them are open, the sanctuary and social hall will function as one space, able to accommodate larger crowds and special events.
The renovation will incorporate elements from the congregation’s first building from 1884 in downtown Athens: Two stained-glass windows will flank the entrance to the social hall; a wooden pew will be placed in the sanctuary; and two large menorahs will retain places on the expanded bimah.
The preliminary plans include other improvements. The restrooms will be “refreshed,” and the Sisterhood will have a new gift shop. Prayer books will be stored in the vestibule.
Rabbi Linder hopes to have all financial commitments — and 100 percent participation from the members — in place by the end of November so construction can begin in the spring. He isn’t sure whether services will move during construction.
“We’re hoping to raise the money with our members, but if someone who joined us, or whose child or grandchildren joined us, while they were in college wanted to contribute, we would love to hear from them,” Goodie said.