Gen. George Washington mustered his troops in Bucks County, PA, en route to their famed crossing of the icy, treacherous Delaware River. When Chabad–Lubavitch of Bucks County bought a building right in the heart of the historic district and refurbished it into the Glazier Jewish Center, there could have been another battle royale. Instead the Center won an Adaptive Reuse Award from the Historic Architecture Review Board (HARB).
“The Jewish Center has been particularly sensitive,” said HARB Administrator Jonathan Mount. “They have upgraded and improved the space but did not alter the essential character of the building.”
“The award opens doors for people to feel free to come to our events,” said Associate Director of Education, Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein.
On the award from HARB, Chabad is praised for embodying a “shared sense of purpose, uniting all of us who value the preservation of heritage.” HARB saluted Chabad for gracefully maintaining heritage by minding the status quo. The forces behind the Glazier Jewish Center are striving to preserve heritage, Jewish heritage, by enhancing its packaging. Designing an open space, free of the “trappings of affiliation,” said Executive Director Rabbi Yehudah Shemtov, is a gateway to “overcoming the fear factor that keeps so many Jews away from Judaism.”
Anyone searching for a traditional dark wood and maroon velvet padded pews would not find it anywhere in the 18,500 square foot Jewish Center. There are cork floors in the lobby. Walls painted in an array of earthy colors warm the space. Light pours in from the windows, even the new stained glass window designed to replace the old one is spare and light. “Rabbi Shemtov charged us to design a space that people relate to and offers something unexpected, not somber,” said Fred Albert, a vice president at SPG3, the architectural, interior design, landscaping design and planning firm behind the Jewish Center’s look.
“It doesn’t scream synagogue,” said community Nadine Simantov, an owner/partner of Keller Williams Real Estate. The building’s redesign is “intriguing,” and Simantov has seen people come inside off the street out of curiosity. “It is inviting enough to walk in, and not scary like you have to pray.” Armed only with a Ping Pong table, the new Associate Director of Youth Programming Rabbi Mendy Lezell recently attracted a crowd of 30 teens, and this is before the Center’s wireless internet network is in place.
A bold departure from standard synagogue décor is what’s needed to tap into the vast majority of Bucks County’s 40,000 Jews who are not affiliated with area synagogues, according to Rabbi Shemtov. Offbeat retail strategies are Rabbi Shemtov’s model for offering Jewish Bucks Countyians a medium through which to explore Judaism. The Center’s Chanukah Wonderland was patterned after the Zany Brainy toy chain, where free crafts drew children with parents in tow. Just as Barnes and Nobles Bookstores place cafes on site to encourage browsing, soon–when fundraising goals are reached–noshers will be welcomed in the Jewish reading room.
Jim Rudolph, CEO of Rita’s Water Ice and past Chair of the Pittsburgh UJF, praised the design of the Jewish Center as “very impressive, very enlightening, and refreshing.” Rabbi Shemtov is “going into uncharted waters” by creating a space where “Jews can shmooze and hang out… I like his vision,” Rudolph said.
On a warm spring day this week, shoppers, dog walkers, working stiffs on lunch break sip their lattes on the curving bench that embraces a stately tree outside the Jewish Center. Cascades from a new water feature in the garden soothe with a lulling trickle. Across the street from a shoe boutique, the borough courthouse, close to an historic inn and charming art galleries, the Jewish Center is situated right in the middle of a hot trend. As more and more people view the suburban dream of 2-acre house plots as an isolating dystopia, where buying a quart of milk requires a gas guzzling drive, cozy, walking friendly neighborhoods like Newtown are booming. When the property for the Jewish Center became available on North State Street, a heavily foot-trafficked browsers’ boulevard, Nathalie and Jason Glazier, formerly the Chief Technical Officer for a Fortune 200 company, were prompted to help Chabad make the down payment. “It’s unbelievable the work you can do in the middle of town. We have been able to really integrate into the community.”
After crossing the Delaware, Washington’s troops fought and won the Battle of Trenton, a turning point in the American Revolution and, thus, in world history. The minds behind the look, feel and experience at the Glazier Jewish Center are striving for no less, a revolution in how Jews relate to Judaism.