West Bloomfield synagogue opens its doors to faithful

By Janet Sugameli / Special to The Detroit News
  WEST BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — When Sam Blumenstein walks into the new synagogue, known as The Shul, he is reminded of ancient tents in the deserts.

   "It's a soaring edifice," the West Bloomfield resident said. "It's an all-natural building, with the timber exposed. There's not a lot of decorative materials, but when you stand there, it gives you a very uplifting and spiritual feeling."

The Shul, a Hebrew word meaning temple or synagogue, is the first building built on the 40-acre Lubavitch Campus of Living Judaism in West Bloomfield, next to the Jewish Community Center.

When completed, the campus will include additional buildings housing social and educational institutions, including the Michigan Jewish Institute — which will grant four-year degrees.

  The Shul will be open to visitors of any faith in time for the Jewish high holy days, which begin at sundown tonight with Rosh Hashanah. 

   "We invite everyone who would like a taste of their religion in a nonthreatening environment," said Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov.
   "It's very personable," Shemtov said. "People will just come here to learn about their roots and learn about the Torah at their own pace and their own level." 

   Rosh Hashanah services will be the first performed in the new location. The congregation had been meeting in a nearby home. 

   "In these days of turmoil in the world when the world is shaking, we're moving into a beautiful house of God," the rabbi said. "It's a message to us that we should not fear terror and we should put our trust in God. Having a building like this, you realize the we have to move forward and work toward a brighter future."
No obligation
   Some Jewish organizations sell tickets to crowded Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services or charge an annual membership fee for full participation in synagogue religious, social and recreation programs. The Shul will have no obligation or commitment, Shemtov said, though no-fee registration will be requested.

   "Our mission is to teach and to share our heritage with every Jewish person — no matter their affiliation, background or previous knowledge," he said.
   "There is a thirst out there for spirituality," Shemtov said, explaining why he is inviting Jews who are not very familiar with their own heritage to come back without making a commitment. 

   "It's interesting to have your grand opening as the first service of high holidays, but this is what we're all about — connecting to each other as a community and connecting to God. This is what we will be doing together. What more spiritual connection is there for a Jew than an opening at the beginning of the high holiday services?" 

   "And, every few minutes we give some anecdotes about the prayers. So we're not only praying together, but learning together," he said. "So for many who go to a synagogue and don't know what is going on, this is an opportunity for them to attend a traditional service and have an understanding." 

   In addition to the high holiday and regular services, The Shul plans to offer Friday night family dinners, religious and cultural classes, children's programs, youth zone (a club for kids) and a Bat Mitzvah club for girls.
   Member Eileen Stein said she has high expectations for her new house of worship. 

   "My hopes are that we will become a stronger community and that we will be able to participate every week, instead of every other week like we have been since we started," she said. 

   "This building will serve as the spiritual home for me and many others who desire to incorporate yiddishkeit (being Jewish) and teshuvah (repentance) into our lives," said Martin Packard, another participant. "There are places for praying and places for learning. This Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of mankind, affords us with a new beginning in our new home."
The construction
   Congregation member Martin L. Abel said the nearly 20,000-square-foot building is unique because it doesn't look like an ordinary house of worship.

"Instead, The Shul appears to be arising out of its surroundings — a surrounding filled with trees and shrubs and natural growth," he said.

 Shemtov said the founder of the orthodox Hassidic Judaism movement taught praying and connecting to God should be done in the open so worshipers can realize that nature is all part of God's creation.

  "The intent of using natural materials is to give a feeling of warmth and comfort while you're praying, just like you are in the middle of a forest and the trusses are like branches of the trees that hold out the roof instead of leaves," added architect Robert Ziegelman. 

   At each end of the synagogue, 55-foot glass panels give the appearance of a menorah — the Hanukkah candelabra with nine arms. 

   In the main sanctuary, a retractable skylight will allow indoor weddings with the tradition of being under the open sky. 

   Even though The Shul's construction began in July 2001, the campus has been in the works since 1990, a vision and dream of the Lubavitch movement in Michigan. Lubavitch is an international Jewish movement. 

   "When we bought this property, we realized it was right in the middle of suburbs. But when you are on the campus it is surrounded by wetland and woodlands you feel you're right in the middle of nature," Shemtov said. "You don't feel like you are in the middle of the city, and the building really reflects that. It's very much like something that fits in a natural surrounding." 

   For information or to register, call The Shul at (248) 788-4000 or see the Web page: www.theshul.net.

Janet Sugameli is a Metro Detroit free-lance writer.