Farber’s new building brings reflections and treasures from the former Beth Achim sanctuary

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For Farber Hebrew Day School staff and students — four of my grandchildren included — the final days before the long-awaited move to their new building were spent bustling with excitement.

For me, the countdown chronicled in daily Farber emails was a reminder that not only would the former school facility soon be gone, but along with it, the expansive area — used most recently by students and community members for prayer and programming — that was once the sanctuary of Congregation Beth Achim, site of cherished milestone events and spiritual religious services.

On a recent winter afternoon, alone in the room, I made a final stroll through the space where 40-plus years ago, my husband, Michael, and I stood under the stunning stained glass skylight as it was pounded with the heaviest of late spring rains, becoming one of the many hundreds of couples to be married in the shul.

Three children and 10 grandchildren later, this last visit was a quick escape from the school’s gym during a brief break between the basketball games of our two eldest grandchildren. They, and their two younger siblings, are Farber students whose school events and programs have brought us back to the sanctuary on countless occasions.

My memories that day are blurred, combined images. I look back and picture my beloved late Aunt Faye wiping a tear from her eye as I walked toward my future husband. At the same time, I can still see the face of the woman who sat in front of me decades later in that same room, having turned around thinking the loud burp that came from our infant grandson I was holding might have originated with me!

Standing at the start of the aisle, I thought of the words my dad said to me as he and my mom led me to my new life. And I remember the wedding guest who leaned over from her seat as we walked back down the aisle after the ceremony and whispered, “Don’t worry about the rain; it’s good luck. It rained at my wedding, and I’ve been married more than 20 years!” At the time that sounded like a very long marriage.

Days after my stroll, the room is vacant; the walls are bare and Farber children’s voices are chanting prayers from a new space, having moved this past week to the school’s first newly constructed building in its 54-year existence, on land just to the west of the former one in Southfield.

Here Come The Students

When Farber students left school for February break, the building was, in essence, intact. When they arrived back on the final day of the month, the fruits of the immense labor of many was met in awe.

For our 13-year-old granddaughter, Shira Schon, praying in the sanctuary at Farber was among her final memories of the former school building, with the morning service among her very first in the new one. “Our class was part of the final group to be in the room, for Minchah, on the last day, and part of the first group to use the new shul, for Shacharit, on that first one,” said Shira, who lives in West Bloomfield.

“It was sad to know it was the last time we would be there. It was always cool to know I was in the place where my grandparents got married. There was a strong sense of community there, but in the new room, there was the same sense of community, just in a new place. The shul is where I davened and experienced so many important things in my life. But the new shul is beautiful and on that first day, new memories were already formed. I will always know I davened there on the very first day. We were part of something new while still continuing with the old.”

Plans For The New Shul

The multi-windowed, 2,380-square-foot, 175-seat beit midrash (house of learning or study) is as new as it gets, with fresh, light-colored paint, bright carpet and built-in wooden bookcases. Throughout the space are many of the familiar, important pieces of spirituality that have been relocated from their former home. The walls are graced with the Five Books of Moses stained glass pieces that were restored and moved from the old sanctuary into the new room.

There are near-continual plans for use of the new room at the nursery-12th grade, Modern Orthodox Zionist day school. In addition to class programming, assemblies and celebrations, combined Farber-family and community programs along with daily school prayer services will take place there. A sound-proof, retractable wall can divide the room to accommodate two gatherings at once.

 If These Walls Could Talk

From the days when the Beth Achim sanctuary was the venue for celebrations and spiritual services until now, countless lives have been impacted. For David Arm of West Bloomfield, that impact took place daily for many years as the son of the late Rabbi Milton Arm, Beth Achim’s longtime spiritual leader. When I told David that his dad “married me,” he said he’d often heard that line before and as a kid it never failed to leave him shaken.

“My brother and I were horrified when we would hear women tell us that my father had ‘married them.’ We thought he was being disloyal to my mother!”

David’s thoughts of the synagogue-turned-school sanctuary are good ones. “My memory is davening there week in and week out on Shabbos and Jewish holidays with my father on the bimah,” he said. “The memory is a warm and comforting one.”

He is not saddened by the end of the physical Beth Achim, which will be taken down along with rest of the old Farber building (except for the newer 9,257-square-foot gym) within the next few months. Instead he said, “I feel nostalgia. My father was passionate about Torah and the Jewish people. He always made fun of the ‘edifice’ complex, the post-WWII Jewish obsession with big suburban synagogue buildings.

“So, for both me and my father, what was always paramount was the continuity of our masoret [tradition], not any particular building or synagogue.”

Perhaps one of the first individuals to enter the Beth Achim sanctuary was Ron Friedman, who grew up across the street from the synagogue and remembers as a kid watching the construction of its sanctuary. “We used to play in the shul and walk around inside when it was just dirt floors and plain cinder block walls,” said Friedman, who now lives in Huntington Woods. “They didn’t block off the windows. We used to crawl through and play. Kids in the neighborhood would play flashlight tag at night.” Eventually he made his way back inside after completion of the building, attending High Holiday services there as well as Hebrew school classes.

Cheri Eisenberg, too, lived near the synagogue. “I grew up in Sharon Meadows subdivision and went to Hebrew elementary school and shul at Beth Achim in the late 1960s, early 1970s,” said Eisenberg, who now lives in Atlanta. “Rabbi Arm lived down the street from us, and our dog regularly used to chase him when he jogged in the neighborhood.”

Relaying a bar mitzvah memory from her brother Steven Eisenberg, who lives in Vermont, she said, “He loved animals and we always had lots of them at our house, including a horse which he boarded at a nearby farm. Rabbi Arm knew of Steven’s love and expertise with animals and while they were sitting next to each other on the bimah during his bar mitzvah, Rabbi Arm leaned over and said to Steven, ‘You know I’ve got a terrible problem with raccoons in our garage; do you have ideas how I can get rid of them?’ This familiarity of being neighbors with the rabbi hopefully eased my brother’s nervousness.”

Getting Married

Among the weddings that took place in the Beth Achim sanctuary was Steven and Merle Band’s 1984 ceremony. “To walk down the aisle was a magical moment in front of our family and friends wishing us mazel tov and happiness in the beginning of our lives together,” said Merle of West Bloomfield. “We were also lucky to have had Rabbi Benjamin Gorrelick and Cantor Max Shimansky marry us. It is sad to think of the room being gone because of all the simchahs and the memories of people who were there who are gone now. But we are going on 33 beautiful years together and are truly blessed with our son, family and friends.”

Also married under the same stained glass skylight were Larry Gunsberg of Northville and his former wife Leanie of Farmington Hills.

“We had ‘dueling clergy’: Rabbi Stanley Rosenbaum and Cantor Louis Klein from Congregation B’nai Moshe, and Rabbi Arm and Cantor Shimansky from Beth Achim,” he said of the 1985 wedding. “It was Super Bowl Sunday and someone brought a portable, battery-operated TV and my brother-in-law who lives in San Francisco, whose team played that day, danced wearing a San Francisco 49ers hat.”

Among the last of the Beth Achim celebrations was the 1996 bat mitzvah of Lindsay Mall of Farmington Hills. “It was my first ‘big gig,’” she said. “I stood and sang in front of the massive congregation, next to the amazing stained glass windows. I always felt so safe in the presence of the Beth Achim congregation, like they were all my grandparents and parents, so proud to see me up there. But that’s how it always felt at Beth Achim, like family,” said Mall, whose grandfather Sidney Silverman was a founding member and president of the synagogue and strategic in its design and construction.

“I had the run of the place as a child. The shul always had so many spaces, doors and secret passageways. And I knew them all. It was like my own private mansion,” she said.

In 1998, Beth Achim merged with Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. Former Beth Achim Rabbi Herbert Yoskowitz, who went on to serve at Adat Shalom, remembers “the people who sat on the pulpit like Cantor Shimansky, who chanted the service from his heart and not just from the siddur or machzor, and Reverend Joseph Baras, who was as fine a Torah reader as I ever heard.

“In that sanctuary sat two outstanding rabbis, Rabbi Ben Gorrelick and Rabbi Arm, who inspired and taught for many years,” he added.

 What’s Old Is New Again

Mikey Skoczylas, a graduate of Akiva Hebrew Day School, which in August 2016 was renamed Farber Hebrew Day School to honor donors William and Audrey Farber, has special memories. The Southfield resident remembers not only being a student when the school moved into the former Beth Achim building in 1999, but also when his own children started classes there.

Seeing his kids participate in the same programs he once did “was more sentimental because they have some of the same teachers I did,” he said.

“My siddur party was with Morah Chana Greenfield, and my son Aron just had his in the shul in our old building,” said Skoczylas, whose wife, Ariella, is also an Akiva alumna and a current Farber middle school and high school Judaic studies teacher. “I remember community-wide concerts on Chanukah and Yom HaAtzmaut [Israel Independence Day] fondly.”

Skoczylas, who is a Farber vice president, sees the move of the school as exciting. “While the shul is very beautiful, a small school never really needed a 500-person sanctuary,” he said. “The new space will present the school with much more opportunity to accomplish its mission of educating the Jewish leaders of tomorrow.”

 What’s Important

The synagogue’s place is not what is most significant, but rather the continuity of tradition.

Yoskowitz maintains, “We Jews are more bound by time than by space. Whatever happens to the sanctuary that once was part of Beth Achim will not erase the many good memories and associations that we who were privileged to share the sacred space retain.”

Those memories include wedding days, like mine, that stay in our hearts no matter where we take them.

The memories of a lifecycle event, a school milestone or a spiritual prayer remain inside us, not in the space where they were first celebrated.

But sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get unexpected reminders in places we never imagined.

Nearly 42 years after standing under the chuppah, beneath the stained glass skylight in the Beth Achim sanctuary, I am met by that same striking ensemble piece, now beautifully portrayed as the centerpiece artwork of the new Farber building’s front lobby, colorfully greeting me each time I enter my grandchildren’s school.

HOW FARBER USES THE ROOM:

In addition to school programs and milestone events, the Farber beit midrash has been and will continue to be the venue for community concerts —which in the past have included Shlock Rock, Revala Sheva and Soul Farm — gatherings and speaker programs.

For the students, uses include annual siddur and chumash parties, holiday ceremonies and celebrations, graduations, Special Friends Day programs, and performing arts and plays. Community members and Farber parents join students daily during morning and afternoon services.

FARBER’S NEW BUILDING:
  • In 2014, a $3 million donation from the William and Audrey Farber Philanthropic Endowment Fund at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit spurred fundraising among the parent body and community members.
  • In July 2015, the Farbers of West Bloomfield increased their gift to $8 million with a donation from the William and Audrey Farber Philanthropic Fund through Federation’s Centennial Campaign.
  • Fundraising for the building is part of Farber’s Unified Campaign, which funds the new building, Farber’s academic improvement plan as well as an endowment plan for the new facility.
  • The Farbers provided the lead gift for the $16 million project, initiating gifts from additional donors.
  • Architect is Paul A. Corneliussen of French Associates Inc. in Rochester.
  • Builder: Andrew Klein, president and CEO of Rand Construction in Brighton.

Shelli Liebman Dorfman Contributing Writer

Beth Achim Sanctuary
Farber students Jake, 8, Shira, 13, Ari, 11, and Eitan Schon, 5, help pack siddurim for the move
Larry and Leanie Gunsberg under the chuppah in 1985
Michael and Shelli Dorfman at their May 1975 wedding

More on the history of Farber Hebrew Day School can be read at thejewishnews.com.

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