The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture (IFRAA) selected Rabbi David Stern, as the 2017 recipient of the Elbert M. Conover Memorial Award. This award is given to non-architects in recognition of their contributions to religious architecture in order to perpetuate in the hearts and minds of those interested in religious architecture memories of our deceased leader; encourage leaders, outside the architecture profession, to crusade for better religious architecture; recognize outstanding individuals who merit citation for their excellence in fostering spiritual values.
Rabbi Stern is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, a Reform Congregation of 2500 families and one of the largest in the United States. Rabbi Stern has served at Temple Emanu-El since 1989, first as Associate Rabbi and then as Senior Rabbi since 1996. Rabbi Stern exemplifies the spirit of the Conover Award, demonstrating a passion for quality worship and sacred spaces, fostering spiritual values and promoting cross-denominational community.
Under Rabbi Stern’s leadership, Temple Emanu-El has broadened its cross-denominational outreach, both providing education and resources to interfaith families within the Temple community and through shared activities with congregations of other denominations. Temple initiated a program of Interfaith Shabbat events, where Rabbi Stern and clergy from other denominations exchange leadership of their respective services. Rabbi Stern has collaborated for years with his friend Reverend George Mason, Senior Pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church. In addition to education and interfaith community events, the two led a bi-congregational trip to Israel in 2014.
Rabbi Stern is an active participant in Dallas Area Interfaith, and hosted President Obama at Temple when he visited Dallas in 2013 to recognize that organization for its advocacy for Medication Expansion and efforts to educate citizens on the Affordable Care Act. Rabbi Stern was invited by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings to speak at the Interfaith Prayer Vigil after the assassination of five Dallas Police officers in July 2016, and Mayor Rawlings in turn spoke about the importance of inter-denominational community at the dedication of the Our Temple | Our Future project in September. The concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is fundamental to Jewish life, and Temple Social Justice activities support a wide variety of secular and interfaith initiatives.
Temple Emanu-El has recently completed a major addition and renovation project, a ten-year journey from the initial congregational listening campaign through two generations of master plan to design and construction. Rabbi Stern led with vision, passion, effort and engagement in guiding this transformational project.
“In a cultural, societal and spiritual moment when people feel increasingly disconnected, unmoored and fragmented, any spiritual home worth its salt would have to be a place that fostered meaningful connections.” – Rabbi David Stern
Named “Our Temple | Our Future”, the primary goal of the project was to create a place of genuine community, allowing people to connect with one another and with the larger community, with tradition and with sacred purpose. Responding to the fundamental human need to see and be seen, the design removes obstructions to visibility and light, as well as improving functional passage within the building. This sense of transparency, particularly between inside and out, encourages a visual conversation between human creativity and nature’s creation. Emphasizing openness and welcome rather than security or insularity reflects the congregation’s commitment to social justice and connection to the larger world outside.
The project encompassed new spaces for an active early childhood education program as well as intergenerational learning and meeting spaces, new administrative and clergy offices, and renovation of the existing chapel and main sanctuary. Recognized with both the 25-year Award and the 50-year Award from Dallas AIA, the original 1957 building by Howard Meyer and Max Sandfield provided little space for informal interaction and community gathering.
Perhaps the most transformative intervention is a new gathering space which provides a venue for both programmed activities and spontaneous conversations, functioning as a place of arrival and welcome and serving as a hub which connects worship, social and office spaces. The project also includes a new 500-seat chapel, named for Rabbi Stern at the request of the project’s lead donor. While each existing worship space was remarkable in its own right, neither the majestic 750-seat Olan Sanctuary nor the austere 200-seat Lefkowitz Chapel reflected the current needs of the congregation for everyday worship.
The new Stern Chapel provides a “right sized” mix of fixed and movable seating, oriented to allow visibility of other worshipers as well as service leaders, with acoustics to encourage participation. Where the historic sanctuary separated the officiants from the congregation on a narrow high bimah (the platform from which the service is led,) the new chapel provides a wide, low bimah, with movable modular platforms to allow easy reconfiguration and allow placing the service leaders closer to the center of the space for more direct communication with the audience. A serene and beautiful room all of white oak, the chapel faces east where a wall of glass offers views of a garden dominated by four huge live oak trees.
“The space makes the idea of relationship primary in the prayer experience – our relationship to nature, our relationships to one another, our relationship to Torah in an ark of color and light, our relationship to the holy in every dimension of living.” – Rabbi David Stern
The public announcement of the Conover Award will be during the Sunset Social on April 26 during the AIA Conference on Architecture 2017 in Orlando.