Communities / Sparks of Inspiration

Synagogue Sews a Colorful Fabric Sanctuary: A Tent of Abraham and Sarah

Tent of Abraham and Sarah, Hebrew Beacon Alliance
The world doesn’t have enough sanctuaries; calm, protected spaces to pray, meditate, and enjoy a cup of tea with a friend. One creative Jewish community in New York’s mid-Hudson valley, the Beacon Hebrew Alliance, built such a sanctuary inside their synagogue earlier this year by enclosing part of a multi-purpose room with fabric. They call the space a Tent of Abraham and Sarah, after the first Jewish patriarch and matriarch, who according to Jewish tradition made a point of welcoming guests into their tent. The community originally created the tent for the High Holidays and Sukkot, but they’ve just put it up again for Hanukkah. Yesterday I visited Beacon to see how they put it together.

The synagogue’s education director, Rabbi Shoshana Hantman, envisioned the tent as an enclosed space that would enable members of the community to step outside of the pressures of life and into a space where they could focus on prayer and learning. And while according to tradition Abraham and Sarah’s tent was open on all four sides, Shoshana sees this tent’s closed sides as a virtue. “You can shape a person’s experience by shaping the space they’re in,” she explains. “A closed space shuts out outside images and lets us put aside the outside world for a while. It’s like what Shabbat is supposed to be; it takes us out of weekday work.”

After the tent went up in August, Shoshana noticed that community members often lingered longer after prayer services, drinking tea and talking in the tent, sometimes for hours.

A Focal Point for Community Life

The tent hangs in a large alcove of a larger community room. The synagogue has always used this space for prayer, meditation, socializing, and Hebrew school classes, so these activities now take place within the tent. Lengths of colorful patterned fabric hang across the ceiling and fall to the floor at the sides. On one side, the hanging fabric strips create a colorful sheer wall that separates the tent from the larger room. On the other side, the fabrics cover the wall and color the sunlight coming in through the windows. At one end of the enclosed space is a built-in ark with Torah scrolls and a lectern that can be rolled into or out of the space as needed. On the floor, a carpet, pillows, and chairs make for flexible seating. On the far side of the tent from the ark, the tent encompasses the desk of administrator Elizabeth O’Connell.

The space isn’t always quiet. Young Hebrew school students who walk in almost immediately rearrange the floor pillows into building projects, Shoshana says. Hebrew language lessons are intentionally boisterous, and the kids especially like to shout out the Hebrew word for tent, ohel.

When I visited yesterday, the space was definitely calm and relaxing. I had a cup of tea inside with Shoshana and Cantor Ellen Gersh, and Shoshana showed me how the tent was constructed.

How They Made the Tent

Shoshana chose to construct the tent from saris because of their color and patterns and also because their long, narrow shape makes them perfect for creating long strips. The saris she chose have the added benefit of being lightweight, which helps when hanging them from the ceiling. Shoshana found the saris on eBay, and volunteers from the community sewed sets of saris together end to end to make fifteen separate strips of fabric. Another member who is an engineer devised the method of hanging the strips from the ceiling. At the point where the strips fall to the floor, the sewists reinforced the fabric and added string loops and metal washers. String loops were also tied around the frame that holds the ceiling panels. Paper clips attach the loops on the ceiling to the loops on the fabric. The fifteen strips of cloth are kept separate, and each is attached to the ceiling on its own. A particularly clever detail: along the ceiling, the fabric is held to the metal frame of the ceiling panels with magnets. Shoshana recommends that if you hang tent fabrics close to a ceiling and walls as she did, watch out for heating and air conditioning vents.

Loop detail sew tent of Abraham and Sarah

Loop and magnet hanging system for tent of Abraham and Sarah

The tent is only one of the latest projects from this especially creative Beacon community. Earlier this year they built a seven-and-a-half foot golem and placed him on the bima. The cantor, Ellen Gersh, who grew up in Beacon, learned to play guitar from folk singer Pete Seeger, who, until his recent death, was a member of the congregation. The members include ten film makers. Community leader Rabbi Brent Spodek was named one of the most inspiring rabbis in America by the Jewish Forward in 2013, and during that same year Newsweek/The Daily Beast put him on their list of Rabbis to Watch. Under his leadership, the community built this year’s sukkah in the center of town and hosted eight days of community events. Beacon’s mayor even held his office hours inside the sukkah. I forgot to ask if he’ll hold office hours in the tent.

The tent will stay up through Hanukkah, and Shoshana plans to hang it again in the spring for Purim and Passover.

If your community has created a sewing project, let me know. I’d love to help spread the word. You can reach me by email at maria.bywater{at}sewjewish.com.

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