A bowl soars in the Richmond

Sidewalk supervisors in San Francisco’s Richmond district have been keeping an eye on what's happening at Clement Street and 14th Avenue. First, the Beth Sholom temple complex was demolished, then some strange structures were raised and concrete poured in huge quantities. Now there stands one of The City's most interesting new buildings; Congregation Beth Sholom will open it next month. 

The eye-catcher is the sanctuary, a gigantic bowl outside, an amazing space for 700 worshippers inside. It is the work of StanleySaitowitz, principal of San Francisco's Natoma Architects.

He speaks of the design reflecting Beth Sholom's nature as a conservative congregation, the structure inspired by the ancient temple at Israel's fabled Masada fortress.

Traditionally, Saitowitz says, tabernacles were centrally organized, the congregation sitting around the rabbi. Then, in the early 20th century, the space became “more frontal and performance-oriented.” The Beth Sholom sanctuary design, being “communal, with no separation,” goes back to earlier times.

Beth Sholom Rabbi Micah Hyman points out that the conservative, not orthodox, congregation, continues the temple's tradition of families worshipping together.

“As the rabbi,” he says, “I am so inspired to work in a space that has no bimah [a platform or altar]. It reflects a spiritual aspiration… as a whole, the facility allows smooth flow from social to spiritual space while integrating different populations of age and interest.”

Saitowitz had only 15,000 square feet to work with for the entire project, but he has managed to build a continuous series of courtyards he calls “quiet space embedded in the middle of a noisy city.”

There are entrances to the sanctuary and Koret Hall — the main building, facing Clement Street — which houses a library, youth lounge, board room, meeting rooms and room for meditation, yoga, study and other spiritually-oriented practices.

The unusual shape of the sanctuary's bowl reminds one of another startling new structure in The City, Daniel Libeskind's Contemporary Jewish Museum, which looks like a cube sitting on its corner.

Unlike that steel complex, the Beth Sholom bowl is made of concrete, poured in place, regarded by Saitowitz as a “technically challenging, but excellent material that allows plasticity.” The outer surface of the sanctuary is reminiscent of the 2-millennium-old Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

Another challenge to the architect is the Jewish proscription against iconography or ornamentation of any kind. Saitowitz's solution is decorating with natural light by building skylights. He says, “On the eastern wall, the window turns into the eternal light above the Ark; a shadow menorah cast from the six beams that support the roof animates the wall, changing as the sun moves through the day.”

Saitowitz, who has practiced in The City for more than 30 years and also taught at University of California, Berkeley, has other projects around the country, including another temple, Beth El in La Jolla, and the new Tampa Museum of Art in Florida. Locally, he has built some three dozen projects in the past decade.

There is another Beth Sholom Synagogue of architectural interest: it is in a Philadelphia suburb, built in 1959, the last work by Frank Lloyd Wright, who died just before the completion of the temple.

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