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Images of Faith

Tapestries at Temple B'nai Shalom depict months, values of congregation.

It's amazing what a little paint, some new chairs and 12 tapestries can do to transform the inside of a temple.

At Temple B'nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, the sanctuary used to look like a meeting room, according to Rabbi Amy Perlin. Now, after a renovation last summer, a dozen colorful tapestries line the walls, six stained glass windows have replaced plain glass panes along the front of the room and in the middle of the windows is a tall, wooden ark in which three torahs are kept, protected by hand-made coverings.

"The sanctuary before was just bare walls, bright lights and maroon furniture," Perlin said. "It looked more like a meeting hall than a spiritual place."

Temple B'nai Shalom, which celebrated its 10th anniversary at its current location on Ox Road in Fairfax Station, was renovated over six weeks last summer, during which time the congregation met at the Lutheran Church of the Abiding Presence, Perlin said. When the temple reopened after the renovations, both congregations met together to celebrate a Thanksgiving service.

ALONG WITH a sound system to help those members of the congregation that needed hearing assistance and new lighting, the highlight of the renovation project are the tapestries, designed and created by Israeli artists Bracha and Menachem Lavee.

"My brother was friends with them," said Donna Courtney, who was chair of the beautification committee during the renovation.

The women are "quite famous" for their art throughout Israel, Perlin said, adding that the tapestries are "their biggest project to date."

Each tapestry reflects a month of the Jewish calendar, which starts with Tishre and the celebration of the High Holy Days and ends with Elul. The tapestries also highlight one of the values central to the families who worship at Temple B'nai Shalom.

"We were able to fine tune the tapestries to really reflect our ability to take ownership of the temple and our congregation," Perlin said.

For example, the tapestry for the month of Cheshvan highlights the value of welcoming the stranger. In order to make the message more reflective of the congregation, the word "welcome" is included on the tapestry in several languages to represent the countries from which children have been adopted by families in the congregation.

"In order to really welcome the stranger, we need to start in our own homes," Perlin said. "One woman who has adopted two children from Korea wept when she saw this tapestry, it just meant so much to her."

During the month of Nissan, the central theme is celebrating the history of the Jewish people. Typically falling around April, the tapestry also reflects Holocaust Remembrance Day and the creation of Israel as a country.

In the bottom corner of the tapestry is a synagogue in flames to represent the destruction of Jewish temples by the Nazis during World War II. The other corner has several black figures standing in front of a prison, striped like the uniforms worn by detainees in concentration camps. Six candles top the prison, one for each of the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

A candle's flame rises up through the Hebrew word for "remember", the black smoke of which winds up through the tapestry to become part of the blue stripe on the bottom of the flag of Israel.

Part of the Israeli flag is covered by a piece of translucent peach-colored fabric, Perlin said.

"She told me that she'll come back and remove the fabric once there's peace in Israel," Perlin said.

Three of the tapestries include images of figures walking along a winding white path to demonstrate the three pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Perlin said. One welcomes converted Jews, another those who are born into the faith and the third is for those adopted into the faith, as in the Cheshvan panel.

Each piece tells a story of the Jewish people and the congregation at Temple B'nai Shalom, Perlin said. Some modifications had to be made from the artist's original drawings, such as trading the World Trade Center for the Pentagon in the tapestry for Tammuz.

"We had 11 survivors of the attack on the Pentagon, but they lost so many friends," she said, pointing to a gray finger of smoke which stretches across the building where it was hit.

"The more you look at the tapestries, the more details you can see," said Courtney, adding that the letters "USA" are included on the Statue of Liberty in the same panel, which may not immediately be noticed.

Additionally, the tapestry for Elul features the theme of "Peace in the home/Peace in the world" was modified to have two gender-neutral faces on either side of a child's face in order to include "all types of families," Perlin said. "As an egalitarian congregation, we wanted to make sure all our families felt welcome and represented," she said.

A NEW WOODEN ark along the front of the sanctuary was designed by Harold Rabinowitz, owner of Sanctuary Design in New York City, who is well-known for his Jewish ceremonial art, Perlin said. The ark consists of the Hebrew word for peace on the left and the phrase "tree of life" on the left, with the five books of the Torah written in the center in five leaves.

To complete the tree theme, two doors in the center open to reveal where the congregation's Torahs are kept, along with a brass tree in the middle. At the top of the ark is the temple's eternal light, a round fixture with amethyst crystals along the edge.

The congregation has fallen in love with its new sanctuary, Courtney said.

"People tell me they come to services so they can sit in this room," she said. "It's so spiritual and calm in here."

Perlin said she's had to get used to not being the center of attention during services. "It's like giving kids a picture book to read. I can see people's eyes looking at the tapestries all the time," she laughed.

Many in the congregation have talked about a greater sense of God's presence during services, said temple president Ken Klimpl.

"Our objective for the renovation was to make the space more Jewish," he said. "Before it was just space and we really wanted to change that."

The father of three children who grew up attending services at the temple, Klimpl said his children are "awed" when entering the sanctuary.

"People come out and they're all smiles," he said. "This has become what we had always wanted for our space."

Being able to relate to stories and teachings by looking at the brightly-colored tapestries that line the walls has added a new depth to services, Klimpl said. "It's a whole lot more meaningful to us," he said.