Synagogue renovation shines with stained glass

by Carly Rothman/The Star-Ledger

Monday December 29, 2008

For more than a year, George Greene and his wife labored daily over a lightbox in the basement of their Caldwell home, painstakingly fitting bits of colored glass together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Panel by panel, the images emerged: Noah’s ark, a menorah, symbols for each of the 12 tribes of Israel and the months of the Jewish calendar.

This fall, the 136 completed panels were taken from the Greenes’ house and installed a few blocks away in the couple’s spiritual home — the sanctuary of Congregation Agudath Israel.

Congregation Agudath Israel’s $10 million renovation included a menorah in window panels, which George Greene created in his Caldwell home, a few blocks away.

 “If you have a skill that you can give, that’s what you do,” Greene said. “You give.”

Greene has been part of Congregation Agudath Israel since 1943, when his parents moved to Caldwell after emigrating from Austria. Over the decades, Greene said, the Conservative congregation grew from a handful of families to more than 900.

That growth prompted the congregation to embark on a $10 million expansion in 2006, creating more space for worship, religious education for adults and children, and distance learning technologies to link the community to congregations worldwide.

“We are all one people,” said Bill Lipsey, the congregation’s president.

For Greene, the expansion offered an opportunity to serve.

Formerly a manufacturer of latex products such as balloons, pacifiers and gloves, Greene has long made a hobby of stained glass artwork.

When he realized the synagogue’s decorative windows wouldn’t survive the expansion, Greene took a page from the book of the artist Marc Chagall, who designed 12 windows for the Synagogue of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem: Greene volunteered to design new windows for the renovated sanctuary, to the delight of the rabbi, cantor and community.

“They trusted me,” he said.

Greene first sketched his designs by hand, later using software to expedite the process. He planned 12 tall, slender double-layered windows, each representing one of the 12 tribes of Israel, a holiday or major biblical event, and a month of the Jewish calendar.

Throughout the process, he consulted with Rabbi Alan Silverstein and Cantor Joel Caplan to find the right words and images.

Greene said his designs were inspired by a prayer spoken at the beginning of each month.

“We bless the new month, which we hope will be a time of peace, of healing, of well-being, of harmony,” Silverstein explained.

Greene said this prayer “always stuck in my mind as something very special.”

“There’s a renewal of a religious relationship,” he said.

The piece de resistance of Greene’s design is the window behind the Ark, the structure that houses the Torah scrolls: 22 double-layered panels depicting a towering menorah. Sometimes referred to as “The Tree of Life,” the seven-branched candelabra in Greene’s image is surrounded by a hedge representing the tree of knowledge.

“In order to get to the tree of life, you must first get through the tree of knowledge,” Greene wrote about the design.

Although the congregation paid the nearly $30,000 cost of materials and installation, Greene and his wife donated their labor. Greene said hiring an artist would have cost $250,000 per year.

While Greene worked on the windows, the congregation was on the move. During the two years the synagogue was under construction, the close-knit community worshipped in a local middle school and women’s club, held religious classes in nearby churches, and set up administrative offices in trailers in the parking lot of a former car dealership.

“You had this nomad feeling,” said Margie Samuels, 54, whose family joined the synagogue when she was 2 years old. “It was like, ‘Where’s home?'”

Samuels was among the congregants celebrating their homecoming last month, rejoicing under the brilliant light that streamed into the renovated sanctuary through Greene’s windows.

Rabbi Silverstein said the windows seem to change with the movement of the sun, which highlights different colors and images.

“Windows whose aesthetics change at different points in the cycle of the day can help enhance your receptivity to spiritual illumination,” the rabbi said. “They’re really very inspirational.”

The expanded sanctuary faces east toward Jerusalem, and the walls are made of Jerusalem stone — the material used to build the Western Wall, an important site in Jewish history.

It is Greene’s windows, however, that bring the room to life.

“The sun shines through with the rainbow of color … you feel God’s presence,” said Edward Finkel of West Orange. “It makes it a spiritual place.”