I met Riki Gruzman, a soft-spoken chareidi woman, at her workplace located on a high floor of an office tower in Ramat Gan, Israel. The office has a glass partition from where she can monitor her employees (who are all frum women) as they pore over architectural designs. She began her career in 2005, drawing plans for libraries, schools and high-end private
homes. She agreed to provide her services for a shul in Pisgat Zeev and has been hooked on designing shuls, yeshivot and holy sites ever since.
Her background gives her a unique advantage. Born in Vienna to an Austrian mother and Israeli father, her family made aliyah when she was a young child. “The members of my family,” she says, “are a full-scale miniature version of Jewish Orthodoxy: We have Litvish, frum Zionists, chasidim, Mizrachi, academics, kollel members and businessmen. This diversity helps me identify and feel comfortable with any type of community that approaches me.”
“What is it about designing synagogues, in particular, that appeals to you?” I ask.
“The fact that I’m in charge of creating a place that has a long-lasting spiritual and religious significance and the idea that I create a home for tefillah and Torah gives me immense satisfaction.
“The professional challenges are also much greater than when building a home. Each beit knesset has a different story, a different identity, and a different challenge.
“For example, clients sometimes have trouble articulating their vision. My challenge is to take the needs of the kehillah, which are often only vaguely formulated, and help them realize what they really want. It comes down to understanding who they are, how they see themselves, what their kehillah is like, and what their vision is. I call it the DNA of a community. All this must be expressed in the design so that the atmosphere of the beit knesset will match their needs and become a place where they can feel comfortable and at home. I often have to scratch past the surface and get to that specific nekudah. “I begin with a vague concept that germinates in my mind. Then I brainstorm, covering my table with ideas scribbled on pieces of paper. There are many factors that contribute to the atmosphere in a shul. The colors, decor, and the proportions of the rooms come together to create the intended ambiance. Once I have a clear concept, I turn it into a detailed plan, and we can start with the building.”
“How do you conceive of a unique design for each shul?”
She walks me through the different shuls she has designed and describes how each design evolved.
BEIT KNESSET ATIRAT YITZHAK
Tel Aviv, Redesigned in 2015
IN THE 1960s a few high-ranking ex- officers of the IDF received a plot of land to build a community. They named it Tzahala in remembrance of their days in Tzahal. The neighborhood is in Tel Aviv and is completely secular.
Yitzhak (Bougie) Herzog, son of former president Chaim Herzog, had seen Riki’s work and wanted her to help renovate the Tzahala beit knesset, which was built in the 1960s, and was beginning to show signs of age.
“From my numerous conversations with the locals, I gleaned that, except for a small group of traditional people who wanted a beit knesset for the chagim and other Jewish mile-stones, this community was completely secular. The existing shul served more as a community center than a place of worship.
“It was also made clear that I must find a way to respect and keep alive the memory and contributions of the generation of founders.
“The challenge was to conceive a place that would convey spirituality—but not too much of it. We didn’t want anyone feeling hesitant about entering the shul. It was also important for the building to remain familiar to its members, and not be imposing.
“We decided to preserve the exterior walls of the building in order for it to remain recognizable. The result was a clean, modern look in keeping with the local villas in which they lived. Additionally, we created an inviting atmosphere by installing a transparent door.
Passersby can see inside the beit knesset, all the way to the aron kodesh. I wanted people to understand that the shul isn’t a closed-off mysterious place where one doesn’t know what’s going on inside.
“On the ceiling, I installed 80 tear-shaped lights that run from the entrance to the aron kodesh to symbolize the emotions of prayer on the one hand and the heavenly bounty on the other. Because the congregants are army veterans, Tzahal (the IDF) is an important part of the fabric of the neighborhood and very significant to them. I, therefore, put symbols of the IDF on the bimah and the aron kodesh. “During the renovations, I found an abandoned case in which they kept remnants of a burned sefer Torah that someone had salvaged from the Holocaust. I reserved a place for these scrolls built into the bookshelf at the entrance. I inserted the pieces of the sefer Torah between two layers of Plexiglas, with a certain technique that gives the impression of the scrolls hanging in the air.
“In a room used for a bomb shelter, I found piles of historical photos, documents and Judaica items donated over the years. The members were at a loss about what to do with them. I proposed turning the basement into a heritage and remembrance room as well as a study room. On one wall, I displayed the items of Judaica. Another wall is dedicated to the founders with a scroll bearing the signatures of the original founders of the beit knesset. I sent it to the Tel Aviv museum where special- ists restored the faded ink, for the original signatures to be visible again. The third wall is dedicated to the cornerstone laying ceremony, which took place in the 1960s, and the chanukat habayit following the more recent renovation. The result is a respectable platform that expresses the history as well as the values of the founders of their community.”
BEIT HAKNESSET HAGADOL
Bnei Brak, 2017
“THE ORIGINAL mitpallelim of this beit knesset were chareidi-Tziyoni who over the years either moved or passed away. Some time ago, a group of graduates of the Chevron yeshivah, now living in Bnei Brak, wanted to move into the beit knesset as a kehillah. They came to an agreement with the local people in the beit knesset, and co- exist nicely.
“They wanted to renovate the shul in the style of their beloved yeshivah in Givat Mordechai. Their intention was not to copy the yeshivah, per se, but to build a reminder of the place for which they felt nostalgic.
“Since the main design feature in the Chevron yeshivah is the impressive aron kodesh, towards which all the students face, I concentrated on the aron kodesh as a focus here, as well. It is six meters high, and as in the Chevron yeshivah, all the seats face it. The crown is a major element in the yeshivah. I, therefore, put a reminder of it on the aron. I also installed a new bimah as well as the amud and a newly designed mizrach wall. I installed arched windows like those in the yeshivah. With this, I succeeded in creating an atmosphere of a ‘home away from home’ for the ex- Chevron pupils.”
MISHKAN YITZHAK SYNAGOGUE
in Pisgat Zeev, Jerusalem, 2009
“SOMETIMES, I HAVE to take into account the differences in designing an Asheknazi or Sefardi shul. This shul was built for a warm, thriving Moroccan community in Pisgat Zeev, Jerusalem. It is easy to recognize the characteristics of a Sefardi shul. For example, the chairs face each other as opposed to in an Ashkenazi shul where chairs face the aron kodesh. Also, whereas an Ashkenazi shul has a slanted bimah, where they place the sefer Torah while reading from it, a Sefardi shul requires a straight table because of the way they lein the sefer Torah. The bimah is also more significant and dominant in a Sefardi shul. In an Ashkenazi shul the chazzan davens before the amud, whereas in a Sefardi shul the chazzan stands on the bimah. Sefardim contribute sifrei Torah
often, sometimes a few in their lifetimes. With this in mind, I have built an especially wide aron kodesh.
“A recurring dilemma when designing any shul is the discrepancy between the number of attendees during the week for Shacharit in comparison to the attendance during Shabbos and Yom Tov. This is because people have different work schedules and therefore come at different hours. “The solution in this shul was to create a space at the entrance as an option for a smaller minyan. For this purpose, a small aron kodesh is incorporated into the door to house one sefer Torah as well as a movable teivah pulled out when necessary.”
KLAL YISRAEL SHUL
Ramat Aviv Gimel, Opening Rosh Hashanah 2019
“SOMETIMES, MEMBERS of a community expressly ask for the design of a shul to be devoid of any typical signs of affiliation. This shul is part of an affluent, secular community. It was important to create an atmosphere of comfort and welcome for each attendee, regardless of his origin. My challenge, thus, was to create a shul with high- quality materials for a congregation that desired to connect to Jewish traditions without any characteristics pointing to either Ashkenazi or Sefardi associations.
“After much thought, I chose a modern design that combines an aesthetic sense of spirituality that exudes comfort and welcome. The theme I chose is a universal symbol that most Jews connect to the Magen David. The central design on the ceiling is two triangles that form the shape of a Magen David. One is a skylight that allows in daylight; the other is a triangle with LED lamps that light up the room after sunset.
“The artistic theme on the wall of the aron kodesh is an original glass artwork with the names of all the shevatim of Bnei Yisrael in a fusing technique, created by the artist Barak Uranovsky. It was selected to convey the inclusion of all klal Yisrael.
RIKI Gruzman has also recently been commissioned by the National Center for the Development of Holy Places, in Israel, to take part in restoring holy sites in danger of crumbling. An example is Yehudah’s kever, which was at risk of collapsing.
THE KEVER OF YEHUDAH BEN YAAKOV AVINU
Yahud, to begin in 2019
AFTER EXTENSIVE specialized restorations, the institute approached her to help make the site a respectful and convenient place for people who come to pray.
“When given such a task, my challenge is to improve the experience of the visitor while tampering the least possible amount with the authenticity of the existing holy place. The ancient site is made out of rough uncut stones. The seven-meter high edifice culminates with a dome that lends an aura of grandeur to the place. I installed benches and shelves for siddurim. I also added pleasing light fixtures as well as air-conditioning.
“Another challenge was to enlarge the 15- meter square space to add room for visitors without changing the original edifice. I solved this problem by adding a pergola around the site. Once completed, the municipality of Yahud will develop the park to further enhance the setting and welcome visitors.”
in Totzeret Haaretz (ToHa)
A TOTALLY DIFFERENT concept is a project under construction on Derekh Hashalom in Tel Aviv, and future home of a new WeWork office space. The Argentinian owner, Eduardo Elsztain, bought six floors for WeWork—an innovative worldwide concept of business centers. Each floor is an open working space that contains desks, sofas and sports centers where individuals are not isolated in small cubicles. Mr Elsztain, a chareidi man, wanted to create a synagogue on the executive floor, intended as the epicenter for the young high-tech employees in the building.
“My challenge was to create a shul in a similar atmosphere to the WeWork concept. It had to generate a relaxed atmosphere that would invite young people far from religion to approach Jewish tradition and values.
“The plan I presented him with was one resembling an informal gathering conference room. To sustain the idea of lightness, I created a footless table, suspended from the ceiling. Two Magen Davids in the center distinguish the room from an ordinary workspace. They slide apart to reveal an aron kodesh.”
Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2016
ONE OF THE IMPORTANT characteristics of a shul is the acoustics.
Mishkan Shilo is a chareidi leumi congrega- tion with a mixture of Americans and Israelis. It was built by the communal effort of all the congregants with strict adherence to halachah. One of their priorities was to have a high level of acoustics built into the walls and ceilings of the space.
“My challenge was to create an acoustic environment that carries the voice of the chazzan but muffles the sounds of one speak- ing during davening. The curved, wooden ceiling is integrated with thin layers of special acoustic plates to fulfill this requirement. Only three such systems exist in Israel.
“There are curtains on the large windows on the side walls and on both sides of the aron kodesh. This is because there is a magnificent view during the day, but at night, darkness turns the windows into mirrors. The rav of the shul said that one is not allowed to davenin front of a mirror—hence, the curtains. “The electrical installation is a sophisticated
Domotica system (think smart home), con- nected to an enormous Shabbos clock that operates according to the shkiah. The curtains move with the clock. Those on the side windows go down half an hour before shkiah, the front ones half an hour after the shkiah. People in this shul hardly consult their watches; they move according to the cur- tains—the side ones signal time for Minchah, the front ones a call for Maariv.
“I try very hard when designing a com- memorative space in shul to create a tribute that is meaningful. As with most shuls, the members of this congregation asked to con- secrate a wall in remembrance of their beloved deceased. For this shul, I designed one in the shape of a branch with its many plaques in the shape of leaves. The special glass, with letters burned in, was crafted by the artist Barak Uranovsky. Some have names engraved, and others are empty to be filled by future generations.”
“How do you handle conflicting opinions from a board?”
“An excellent question! I learned the hard way how to deal with such situations. Once during the building of a shul, one of the main donors approached me, insisting I build an extra window on the front wall. All the other members, including me, vetoed the idea. One day, during my visit to the site, the man suddenly appeared, took me aside, and said, ‘Just tell me the sum you want for adding another window, and I’ll pay you immediately.’ I was stunned into silence. No one had ever tried to bribe me before. “Since then, I add a stipulation in my contract that a congregation must designate one person to represent the community’s wishes, who will be my only liaison. Now, when a member approaches me privately, I send him to the representative. I also insist that all their opinions, arguments and doubts be resolved among themselves before they come to me with a final decision of what they request.
“Furthermore, although he is not involved in the actual work, I make a point of meeting the rav of the congregation. The insights I glean from our conversation are integral to understanding the vision of his congregation.”
“BAAL SHEM TOV SHUL”
Beit Shemesh, starting 2019
THERE IS A SMALL community in Beit Shemesh composed of baalei teshuvah, Breslov chasidim and others. They received a plot of land from the Beit Shemesh au- thorities upon which they could build a shul, Simchat Yitzhak V’Yisrael. The plot is in the shape of a slice of pizza.
Every year, the entire community travels together to Mezhibuzh, in Western Ukraine, the home of the Baal Shem Tov, zt”l. When they planned the shul, they went to Riki Gruzman.
“‘We want an exact copy of the Mezhibuzh shul,’ they told me. I kept on turning the riddle over in my mind: How do I put a square building on this round-shaped plot ending in a point? I tried to give them other ideas, but they insisted they wanted an authentic copy of the beit midrash of their beloved rabbi, and nothing else. Any other building would not suit them; this is the only place where they would feel at home. “Another problem I had was the tall
slanted roof, ending in a triangle—a common shape for Eastern Europe roofs that allows the snow to slide downwards. But in Israel, the highest you can slant a roof is at a 30-degree angle. To circumvent this rule, we applied for a permit for the construction of an iconic building. Such a building, we argued, is not intended to merge with the urban planning of the city. “The shul is under construction. Luckily, I had access to the plans of the recently renovated shul in Mezhibuzh to ease my task. It is a place for about 50 mitpallelim, and although the original beit midrash did not have a women’s section, we added one here. Except for the ezrat nashim, it is almost an exact replica of the original one. We are awaiting permits for a mikvah and a place for gatherings.”
YESHIVAT ORCHOT TORAH
Bnei Brak (work in progress)
“THE BUILDING WAS designed by Naama Malis and a crew of secular architects. At a certain point, they came to me to design the interior because they realized that secular architects had no idea of the fine points of yeshivah life and therefore needed the input of a frum person.
“As a mother of yeshivah boys, I knew quite a bit about the daily practical needs of a boy in a yeshivah.
“Still under construction, the 20,000-square-meter building is intended to hold 1,000 talmidim who, at the moment, study in a crowded rundown place.
“The yeshivah will house a large beit midrash, a dining room, a spacious library, classrooms and a dormitory that occupies seven to eight floors.
“The challenge in planning such a large yeshivah is finding the balance among three important factors: the creation of an impressive building fit for such a renowned, respectable institution; maintaining the aura of modesty and simplicity that the rosh yeshivah, Rav Shteinman, zt”l, exuded; and incorporating a design for easy and practical daily maintenance.
“While designing the space, I needed to imagine hundreds of boys lining up for netilat yadayim before a meal, or rushing to retrieve their hats and jackets before Minchah. I envisioned the congestion in each scenario and worked to foresee a solution for those moments. For example, I planned two openings in the wall of the beit midrash, to mitigate the traffic of comers and goers.
“The same goes for numerous showers and bathrooms, sinks for netilat yadayim and water fountains. I knew from my boys what a headache laundry was for a yeshivah boy. To spare the students the time- consuming search for a place to do their laundry, I designed a roomful of washing machines and dryers, launderette style.
“Since cell phones, which pose a potential distraction from learning, are not allowed in the yeshivah, we installed a room on each floor with land lines for the boys’ use. There is also an innovative high-tech system with voicemail for each student. Large screens in the dining room and other spaces will be installed with the name of each talmid. A flickering light next to his personal code will signal to the student that he has a message.
“From my own boys again, who lived in yeshivah dorms, I understood how important it is for each boy to have a private space to store his belongings. I designed rooms with four beds, a storage box under each bed and shelves for his personal sefarim. At the entrance of each room are individual closets for hanging space. “In the dining room, I put the emphasis on acoustics to absorb the heavy clatter of hundreds of boys gathered in a dining room. “The library will comprise two wings: One will have hundreds of shelves for thousands of sefarim. In the other, I designed dozens of small compartments where one can sit quietly to consult a sefer.
“The yeshivah is a huge and complex project in which every detail is minutely discussed. It’s been dragging on for the last seven years. And no, money-wise, it is not a profitable project. But the satisfaction of being involved in an edifice of this stature for a Torah place that will continue on for generations to come is immense.”
“What is the most rewarding part of your profession?”
“It’s when I watch the actual construction slowly growing in front of my eyes into a three-dimensional building. The highlight, however, and the most exciting moment is on the day I receive an invitation for the chanukat habayit. It is a very emotional event for me. To think that this place of prayer, made to last for decades and maybe centuries, started out as an idea in my mind is overwhelming every time.”