MILWAUKEE – The late Rabbi Isaac Lerer, founder of Temple Menorah, had long wanted to beautify and modernize the synagogue, which has stood here at its current location since 1978. Now, many years later his son — Rabbi Gil-Ezer Lerer, spiritual leader of the congregation — has brought his father’s dream to life.
But the term “renovations” only tells part of the story. It’s also been a salvage operation of sorts. In 2013, Congregation Beth El Ner Tamid’s Mequon building was sold, after Beth El combined with Congregation Beth Israel to form Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid in 2012.
Lerer learned that two massive doors covering Beth El’s ark — designed by the synagogue’s late Cantor Norton Siegel – and a Holocaust memorial were going to be discarded, he said.
Lerer and some former Beth-El members who joined Temple Menorah felt they could not live with that possibility. They took action. The doors and Holocaust memorial were removed and stored at Temple Menorah.
Thus, when it came time to design the renovations, it was a given that the ark doors would be incorporated into the Bernard and Helen Soref Sanctuary. Work began just after last Passover.
Using the doors created unique challenges for designer Mark Brick, owner of B&E Contractors, Inc. Brick is also a member of Temple Menorah and a former student of Rabbi Isaac Lerer.
“It required a lot of modifications because we were designing around the doors and not the other way around,” said Brick. “Originally the doors swung open, but we modified them to slide open instead. It’s not an easy task when you’re working with doors that are 13½ feet tall, 6 feet wide and 200 pounds each.”
Lerer said the newly built ramps on each side of the bimah make the congregation more inclusive for everybody.
“The bimah was never handicap accessible,” he said. “My father was worried about people falling off the stairs.”
New brickwork replaces wooden paneling, and new carpeting is designed to “flow toward the arc because that’s where your prayers go,” said Lerer. “Lights will make the doors of the arc glow. We want people to feel moved as they meditate with G-d.”
The small Holocaust memorial, which consists of four urn-shaped sculptures mounted on heavy marble pedestals, has also been modified. Each pedestal now has a carved Hebrew letter—zayin, kaf, vav, resh—which spells zakhor, Hebrew for “remembrance.”
“Thanks to the generosity of congregants and friends, we’ve been able to raise over $100,000 for the renovations, which will be ready for the High Holidays,” Lerer said. “We didn’t want to tax the congregation, and not one penny of general funds has been touched.”
Lerer said the renovations represent more than the mere beautification of the temple.
“We did this knowing we have a strong future,” he said. “Otherwise, why bother? I’m no miracle worker, but I’m hoping it motivates people to come to services, to come closer to G-d.”
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How to go
A dedication for the renovations will be held on Sunday, Sept. 18, at 10:30 a.m. at Temple Menorah, 9363 N. 76th St. The dedication will include a performance by the Milwaukee Jewish Community Chorale. A gala reception will follow the program. For more information, call 414-355-1120.