An Examination of the Beit Midrash’s Unique Walls
At the heart of the school and exposed behind glass walls, one space functions as numerous others. Possibly the most flexible room in the school, the Beit Midrash provides space for three different davening groups, a handful of classes, community time, town hall meetings, night seder, guest speakers, assemblies, and schoolwide faculty meetings. Its ability to serve so many different functions can be, in many ways, attributed to the air walls that allow for the space’s division into three separate rooms.
The walls currently used to divide the Beit Midrash consist of 10 panels per wall, all of which connect to a track in the ceiling and hang suspended a few inches off the ground. These panels can be pushed along their tracks, turned sideways, and stacked neatly into small cubbies in the permanent walls. When not in their cubbies, they can be locked into place by a key. The key rotates a mechanism within the panels that causes an extension to drop down to the floor, creating an airtight barrier. The panels can then be locked together to create a soundproof wall.
The panels in the Beit Midrash are also floor to ceiling whiteboards. The ability of the walls to function as white boards only adds to their uniqueness and versatility. It provides each classroom created by a division of the Beit Midrash with a large area on which to write notes, instructions, or diagrams.
The Beit Midrash, roughly the size of three normal-sized classrooms in a row, is easily the largest room in the High School, and that is intentional. As Mr. Joel Rojek, the AJA High School’s General Studies Instructional Team Leader, who was involved in some of the decisions that went into designing the school, explained, “We wanted it to be large enough so that if it was a special event or we had more than just the student body in the space, we [would have] enough enough room for extra bodies.” Just this year, events such as 7-12th Grade davening or Martin Luther King Day programming relied on the Beit Midrash’s ability to expand.
Special events, however, do not happen every day. Even everyday davening happens only twice a day. This means that if the Beit Midrash were only used for davening and special events, it would be empty most of the day. To justify such a large space, the school wanted it to be in use more often. Mr. Rojek summarized the building planners’ approach to this problem: “We wanted it to be a flexible space.”
The architecture firm the school worked with suggested that collapsible walls would allow the space to function as either one or three rooms. The first thought was to use accordion walls — walls that can bunch up like an accordion into a small space or be stretched out to form a wall. These walls, however, often fail to stop sound from moving from one space to another. With a plan for three classrooms in one room, the noise from three classes would cause students to lose focus. To avoid this, AJA turned to its now-familiar air walls.
Students at AJA acknowledge the success of the Beit Midrash as a flexible space. When interviewed about them, different students described the Beit Midrash’s detachable walls as “practical,” “efficient,” and even “pretty snazzy.” Their whiteboard capabilities were also admired. As junior Jemima Schoen pointed out, “Who doesn’t grow up wanting whiteboard walls in their room?”
Feedback wasn’t entirely positive, however; there were a few complaints about wanting a davening-only space, more soundproof walls, or walls that can be moved out faster. On the whole, however, when asked to reflect upon a central space whose design can easily be taken for granted, students admired it. Not every student fulfills their childhood dream of whiteboard walls in high school.