Parasha Vayahel Pekudai “Raising the Roof”

This week’s Torah portion finds us at the end of the Book of Exodus. Moses returns from his audience with G-d on Mount Sinai with a set of instructions on how to build the Mishkan – the portable sanctuary that the Jewish people will take with them as they leave Mt. Sinai and travel to the Land of Israel.

Israelites Camped around the Tabernacle John W. Kelchner

G-d has commanded Moses to build this House of G-d so that G-d can have a physical if symbolic presence among the people of Israel. There is a great deal of material needed to build the Mishkan – gold and silver and copper, fine linen and goat hair, acacia wood and ram skins, anointing oil and precious stones, planks and bars and posts and sockets to hold up the tent, pegs and chords material to sew the sacred clothing that Aaron and his sons must wear to fulfill their duties.  The Mishkan was to be built with voluntary contributions – whatever people wanted to give toward its construction, they gave. If they wanted to work on building the Mishkan, they volunteered their time, without getting paid. And, the people gave. They gave so much that Moses had to tell them to stop giving – they had given enough!

The Jewish people were very proud of their first building when it was finally completed. They had an eight day celebration to inaugurate the Mishkan. Several hundred years later King Solomon would build the first permanent Temple in Jerusalem, which would stand for some 400 years before it was destroyed by the Babylonians. That Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and would last another 500 years before being destroyed by the Romans.  After that, Jews would build synagogues wherever they lived.

Model of the Second Temple destroyed by Rome in 70 CE

Jewish communities spread all over North Africa, Asia and Western and Eastern Europe and wherever Jews settled, they built Houses of G-d. The oldest synagogue in the United States, build in 1677, can still be visited in Newport, Rhode Island. But only a handful of Jews lived in the United States in 1677. Over half the Jews in the world at that time lived in Poland. In fact, it is estimated that 70% of Jews alive today, almost 9 million people, are descended from Jews who once lived in Polish territories. Poland had hundreds of magnificent wooden synagogues.

But with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, those that were still standing were burned to the ground.

Fortunately, we do know what some of these synagogues looked like inside. In 1890, a Polish architect named Karol Maszkowski documented a wooden synagogue that stood in a town called, Gwodziec. Just before World War l a Vienese researcher named Alois Breier made drawings, photographs and color studies of the interior of that synagogue. We also have this 1897 painting of the interior of a different wooden synagogue by an artist named Isador Kaufman.

So although these synagogues were all destroyed, we do have a good idea of the elaborate style of their interiors. They were covered from floor to ceiling with the texts of prayers, zodiac signs, messianic symbols and pictures of animals, both familiar and mythical.

That is where things stood until 2004, when Rick and Laura Brown of Handshouse Studio began to study the wooden synagogues of Poland. Rick and Laura, who are neither Jewish nor Polish, founded Handshouse in Norwell, Massachusetts two years earlier. Handshouse is a non-profit educational institution that teaches history through the reconstruction of large historical objects. They decided to recreate the ceiling and bima of the Gwodziec synagogue. Just as in the time of the building of the Mishkan, the construction was done by volunteers – in this case hundreds of college students from eleven countries around the world. For a period of twelve weeks over two summers they painstakingly built the roof structure of the synagogue, in Poland, under the guidance of master timber framers, using the tools, techniques and materials of the 18th century.

The following year painting workshops were held in eight cities in Poland where hundreds of student volunteers worked side by side with an international team of historians, architects, artisans and artists to reproduce the paintings on the ceiling of the synagogue.

The timber framing and ceiling panels were then dismantled, numbered and taken by truck to Warsaw, Poland. Weighing more than 25 tons, they were reassembled, hoisted into place and suspended by cables in the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, a new Museum opened in 2013 that documents the thousand year history of Polish Jewry.

This museum will be our first stop on our Congregation Beth Shalom Jewish Roots Journey to Europe next October.

The Torah tells us that G-d endowed an Israelite man named Bezalel with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge of every kind of craft to supervise the building of the Mishkan. An inscription on the painted ceiling of the Gwozdiec synagogue reads, “See, all this was made by hand, for the glory of G-d and the glory of the community, by the artist Yitzchak, son of Rabbi Yehuda Leyb ha-Cohen from the holy community of Jaryczow in the year 1729. This is my handiwork in which I glory”. The artist could hardly have foreseen the future of the community in which he once lived, nor the couple from Massachusetts who would someday resurrect his work for all of us to admire.

[The story of the reconstruction of the Gwozdiec synagogue ceiling is told in the film “Raise the Roof”. ]

Shabbat Shalom