After a two-year legal battle and nearly a year of construction, an Orthodox Jewish group is about to open its $2.4 million synagogue and education building between two houses on Tacoma’s West End.
Rabbi Zalman Heber calls the completion of the brick-and-wood structure “history in the making.” It provides a traditional-style synagogue for practicing Orthodox Judaism, including a kosher kitchen in the basement social hall and separate seating for men and women in the sanctuary.
Chabad Jewish Center of Pierce County is the first synagogue constructed in Tacoma since 1968, when Temple Beth El – affiliated with Judaism’s Reform movement – was built.
“It allows us to do everything properly,” said Heber, who started and directs the center, which is part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. “It allows us to grow.”
The center, with three levels including a basement, will have its grand opening June 10, preceded by weekend Shabbat services.
Heber designed the 30-foot-tall building, including its brick front.
“I wanted it to blend in with the community,” Heber said.
That’s not the way some neighbors view it; they say the building is too large for the neighborhood.
“It’s too big,” said Robert Woodmark, 21. “I can see it from my window. It just doesn’t fit in the area.”
Two others voiced similar concerns but wouldn’t allow their names to be used for this story.
In 2010, a hearings examiner cleared the way for the controversial synagogue project, after ruling the city’s denial of land-use variances imposed a “substantial burden” on Chabad’s religious rights.
The city contended the group could have redesigned the synagogue or found a larger site. Dozens of residents opposed the project, mostly because of its size.
“I was advised not to go forward,” Heber said. “I said, ‘This is our right.’”
Chabad had dropped its proposed height for the building by 5 feet. But Rodney Kerslake’s ruling permitted variances allowing the synagogue to be built within 7½ feet of neighbors’ property lines.
“I think it was very fair,” Heber said. “The system worked.”
Heber said neighbors’ concerns included noise, aesthetics, size, traffic and possible property devaluation.
As for parking, the Chabad community has an agreement with Tacoma Public Schools to use parking across the street at Skyline Elementary School.
Heber’s advice to neighbors: “Give it time.”
“They’ll be proud to have this in their midst,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of concerns. But they’re concerns of the unknown. The building attests to its beauty.”
Heber started Chabad of Pierce County in November 2003. For most of that time, it has met in his house behind where the new synagogue stands.
The community doesn’t have a formal membership. About 40 people attend Shabbat services on Friday nights and about the same number on Saturday mornings. About 25 youths, ages 6-12, study at the Hebrew school on Sundays.
Attendance peaks at more than 120 for the High Holy Days in the fall.
Their new gathering place is an 8,300-square-foot building on a 7,148-square-foot lot previously occupied by a large garage.
“I wanted to get the maximum space on the property,” Heber said.
The top two floors contain the synagogue and two classrooms for the children’s Hebrew school. The daylight basement houses a social hall and kitchen.
The 120-seat synagogue is the centerpiece with a 16-foot-tall mahogany ark where the Torah, the Jewish scriptures, will be stored. Brad Bowers of Key Peninsula carved the ark, and Heber designed it.
The walls on each side of the ark are lined with Plexiglas pictures and Hebrew words depicting good deeds – such as giving to charity, the reading of Jewish books and the importance of loving others.
These “mitzvahs” were emphasized by Rabbi Menachen Schneerson, who died in 1994. He is the last of the seven historic leaders – called rebbes – whose teachings guide and inspire the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Founded in Russia more than 250 years ago, the movement spreads its Orthodox Jewish style of practice through 4,000 centers worldwide.
Chabad is a Hebrew acronym for wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Lubavitch, meaning brotherly love, is the town in Russia where the movement was based for more than a century.
Chabad Jewish Center, at 2146 N. Mildred St., is steeped in symbolism. The six clear windows on each side of the sanctuary represent the 12 Tribes of Israel. The seven rear windows represent the days of the week.
The sanctuary faces east toward Jerusalem – in keeping with Jewish law.
Just inside the synagogue, a “tree of life” – representing the Torah – covers the wall. It is the handmade work of Olga Slugkovskya, who is part of the Chabad community.
With the high ceilings and a skylight, Heber said, “Your eyes can always gaze up to the heavens.”
The local Chabad community donated a majority of the funding for the building, Heber said. The remainder was borrowed.
The building has a $75,000 security system, funded by a federal Homeland Security grant.
Heber said he can’t wait until the final touches are completed and the synagogue opens.
“We’re very excited,” he said. “This is a milestone the Jewish community has been waiting for for a long time.”