Last month for the members of Ahavath Beth Israel and for the citizens of Boise in general was a genuinely moving experience.
Well after the conclusion of Sabbath, at around 1 a.m. on a Sunday following a celebratory blast on a shofar the synagogue began to inch away from its home of 108 years, the corner of 11th and State streets, to a new home across town on Latah Street.
The landmark Moorish-style synagogue all 60 tons and 32 vertical feet of it, stained glass, wooden carvings, bimah, pews and everything else included took six nocturnal hours to make its two-mile cross-town sojourn on the back of a flatbed truck.
A crowd of spectators, diminishing from some 400 to 100 as the night wore on, watched as an advance team of workers raised, removed or otherwise repositioned power, telephone and fiberoptic lines and tree branches to open clear pathways for the synagogue. The crowd applauded as the red stone structure cleared these obstacles, sometimes with margins so tight they were suspenseful.
Among those holding their breath was Rabbi Dan Fink, Ahavath Beth Israel's spiritual leader. Asked whether he "worried a little" as he watch his synagogue rolling down city streets, the rabbi still exhausted this week after his all-night vigil laughs nervously.
"We were a lot worried," he admits, "but we were reassured. And the movers were incredibly good. It was like watching a ballet. It was just amazing to watch, all these hundreds of people working together in perfect coordination."
The historic move was necessitated by the unusual fact that although Ahavath Beth Israel actually owned two buildings, neither of them were sufficient for the rapidly growing congregation.
Rabbi Fink explains that today's congregation is the result of the merger some 15 years ago of Beth Israel and Ahavath Israel. Since then, the congregation has used both of the earlier congregations' buildings.
Both buildings, however, have proved too small for Ahavath Beth Israel, which has doubled to more than 200 families in the last decade (reflecting the growth of the Boise Jewish community itself, which the rabbi estimates at 1,500-1,800 people).
The synagogues were both located on land parcels in which no expansion was possible, leading to the decision to buy a new five-acre tract on Latah Street, adjacent to the Jewish Morris Hill Cemetery. The congregation board decided to move the historic synagogue to the new location, selling the land on which it once sat, and both the land and structure on the other site.
The decision to keep the building, and move it, made financial sense, Rabbi Fink says. Moving the historic temple cost around $55,000, while the land on which it stood sold for about $175,000.
After making improvements to the old synagogue in its new home such as making it handicapped accessible, installing new sprinkler and fire systems and putting a library in the new foundation the total cost of the operation will probably run close to half a million, still well below what a suitable new structure would have cost.
But that largely misses the point.
"What decided it in the end was not the finances," Rabbi Fink says, "but the fact that we love this building and didn't want to leave it behind. We have this historic building and the people in this community really love it. We wanted to bring the building with us."
It took weeks to prepare the synagogue for its big move early on a Sunday morning. Congregants received a pleasant surprise when one of the workers unearthed a time capsule buried near the front door for more than a century.
Stored in a wooden licorice box were lists of financial supporters of the original construction (including Marshall Field and Levi Strauss & Co.), an Oct. 4, 1895 copy of the Idaho Statesman reporting the original construction cost of $3,000; copies of legal papers establishing the congregation's founding; and a selection of coins from foreign countries, some dating as far back as 1840.
The contents of the time capsule were revealed to the congregation-at-large only on moving night, when a special service was held across the street from the synagogue's old location.
Ahavath Beth Israel hopes to worship in the completely installed and renovated old building by the end of January or February, 2004.
Once that milestone is reached, the congregation will begin in earnest a $2.8 million project at the new site that will eventually include a multi-purpose hall, which will accommodate High Holiday worshippers, and new classroom and kitchen facilities.
Well aware of the rich store of Jewish metaphors applicable to the physical move of a synagogue, Rabbi Fink prepared his congregation for the move with Rosh Hashanah sermons that spoke of the importance of journeys in Judaism, and of creation, both of G-d and of man. Nor did he miss the parallel with the movable tabernacle, a seminal place of Jewish worship that could be compared to Ahavath Beth Israel's own movable synagogue.
The rabbi's own favorite was a comment made by Boise Mayor Carolyn Terteling-Payne, shortly before this week's move commenced. The mayor noted how Jews have so often been forced to move as an act of flight resulting from persecution and fear. This move, the mayor told congregants, was much more hopeful the direct result of growth and health.
"I thought that was a pretty good way to put it," Rabbi Fink says.