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Or Ami Sanctuary

~Article from the November 21, 1987 Richmond Times-Dispatch, by Ed Briggs

When Rabbi Aaron Koplin was hired to lead Congregation Or Ami in 1984, the tiny Reform Jewish congregation had two things on its agenda – it wanted to grow and it wanted to get out of the frame house it had long ago outgrown.

Next week, the 150-family congregation, who has grown 50 percent since Rabbi Koplin arrived, will move its furniture into a new contemporary design sanctuary on Huguenot Road adjacent to the Stony Point development.

For the year while the $600,00 synagogue has been under construction, its sign out front heralded that this congregation was not only Reform Jewish, but also liberal Reform Jewish.

“When you look at where our people came from in Richmond, you can tell that they’re coming here for something other than geographic location,” Rabbi Koplin said yesterday. He explained that a third of its members came from the West End, a third from the Fan District, and a third from south of the James River.

Or Ami practices a liturgical style different from its parent synagogue, Congregation Beth Ahaba, where the congregation uses the “Gates of Prayer” liturgy widely used in Reform Judaism.

Influenced by a liberal wing of American Judaism, Or Ami’s services are written by congregational members, using modern representations of ancient symbols.

And their sanctuary – the synagogue’s centerpiece – reflects the way they feel Rabbi Kolpin said. 

Exposed beams radiate from the narrow end of the wedged-shaped room, drawing the eye to the ark, the enclosure that hold the Torah, and the eternal light.

Standing in the middle of the carpeted sanctuary, the rabbi said, “It focuses the attention where it should be – on the ark that contains the Torah.”

Another symbol will be the eternal light that traditionally hangs by the ark. It is made from pottery, the same material ancient Jews used to build their eternal lights.

“But this one will have an electric light,” quipped Rabbi Koplin. 

A glass wall covers one side of the sanctuary looking out onto a lake and a wooded section by Huguenot Road. Again, Rabbi Koplin said that wall harkens back to the past. 

“There used to be a custom that synagogues should not be cut off from the outside. It was there as a reminder that a synagogue is a place not to be cut off from the outside world,” he said. 

“This is not a place where you go to escape, but where you go from into the world.”

Rabbi Koplin said the energy consultants involved in the building design were surprised when they were presented with the idea of a highly insulated building with a wall of glass. 

“Once they realized it was something we had to have, they put them in,” the rabbi said. He added that the glass wall consists of thermal glass to cut down on heating and cooling losses. 

In addition to Sunday school classrooms, movable acoustical walls will be installed in several weeks at the rear of the sanctuary for adult education classrooms.

When pulled away, they will open into an area that will seat about 350 people.

“One really for the congregation is that it won’t have to hold holiday services anymore and some other place,” Rabbi Koplin said, referring to the many services and how he functions it was forced to hold in the Jewish Community Center.

A few years after the birth of the congregation in 1972, it bought a large frame house on Huguenot Road for services, congregational functions and office operations.

But, one night during a Purim celebration shortly after Rabbi Koplin arrived, an estimated 90 people showed up. That caused the congregation to seriously consider a plan to relocate.

“We had a great time that night, but half the people were in other rooms and couldn’t see what was going on,” Rabbi Koplin recalled. 

The congregations lifesaver came in the form of the state highway department, whose Chippenham extension was destined to go through the house. 

Rabbi Koplin said that plan send congregational leaders scurrying to Interplan Architects. They wanted the architects to design a synagogue that would satisfy the congregation’s love of symbols and it style of worship that doesn’t guarantee the chairs will be in the same place from Sabbath to Sabbath.

Property was purchased, the congregation raised $200,000 and the highway department handed over its check that – after expenses and mortgage payoffs – netted Or Ami another $113,000. Next, the leaders obtained a bank loan for the remainder.

“The day after the highway department gave me the check, that frame building was gone,” Rabbi Koplin recalled. 

The congregation, dedicated it’s new land on Crystal Night, The day commemorating the Nazi distraction of 70 German synagogues. “It said we’re not defeated and will continue,” the rabbi said. 

The synagogue will be dedicated at 8 p.m. Dec. 11 – The Sabbath before the beginning of Hanukkah, the annual festival commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Koplin said, “In our service we will be read dedicating the synagogue and all that it represents.”

He said these days members of Or Ami or so wrapped up in getting into their new synagogue that the memory of the cramped frame house is fading fast.

He said, “If you ask anyone around here about the old house, they say, “What house?”