In Memory of the Old Kol Emeth

I thought something unrelated to Covid-19 could be nice, so here it is:

As we prepare to enter our new building, a few words of praise for the old. First, a memory. It’s “Making Room for Shabbat.” A three year-old who has come a few times is wearing eyeglasses. She is nervous, unused to them. At Likhah Dodi she dances with me for a minute and I tell her that her eyeglasses look so good on her. She smiles shyly and touches the glasses and then goes off to sit with her parents again. Years later, at a First Friday, I see that same little girl, now a madrichah, dancing with three or four other children.

I have so many memories of that space. My first Shabbat as Rabbi; each of my children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. Intense moments of prayer and learning together. Those memories are tied up with the people involved, but also the space that so lovingly held them.

It was in many ways an innovative space. Designed by founding member Harry Newman, a Palo Alto architect, the old Kol Emeth made use of indoor space that organically connected with outdoor space. Newman’s design invited us into the courtyard and helped make that space a joyous beating heart of our community.

Harry donated his time to design KE. He spent hours on the site, supervising all the details and even doing some of the construction work himself. In the course of his career he designed homes, office buildings, schools, libraries, and hospitals in Palo Alto and the Bay Area, but Kol Emeth was his favorite and most cherished project. 

I learned from talking to his son Mark, a long-time KE member, that Harry designed the entire Synagogue when the first stage was built, including the Sanctuary. Once that project started, they discovered not only that the plans were completed and ready, but that all the necessary permitting had been done at the time of the original building.

The old building invited us to approach God in humility. It was usable, inviting, designed for us to pray, and play and learn together. It was forward-thinking—Harry had designed some future options—but never imagined that our community would triple in size from when the Sanctuary was built. 

For me, the Courtyard was the best part of that Synagogue. I loved being there by the olive tree with people, enjoying kiddush or watching singing underneath the sunshade. I loved seeing Kol Shabbat students rush into the Social Hall to get tea. The Sanctuary too was a place of great spiritual intensity. Our singing and dancing, our joy and our grief, filled that room to overflowing.

I also loved the Small Sanctuary. That space was so inviting for minyan and for learning. There is something for me about being surrounded by books and tables with an Ark at the center that invites great intention and focus. Harry also designed that room very cleverly. It sat at the center of the back part of the building and mirrored the (eventual) Sanctuary. It was in truth a Small Sanctuary that pointed us towards the Courtyard and the main Sanctuary.

I am grateful to the old Kol Emeth. I am grateful to Harry Newman who designed it, to Meyer Scher who got us the land, to Steve Shapiro who made sure we built the Sanctuary, and to so many others who created a place that had room for us to fill it with our joy, with our hopes and prayers, and with our moments of loss. 

The old Kol Emeth lasted for nearly 50 years and it gave us more than we deserved. It inspired our new building, reminding us to keep the Courtyard at the center and to create a space of humility. As we approach entering our new building, may all our thoughts and memories of the old Kol Emeth help inspire us to feel the new with joy and purpose and Torah and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David Booth

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