In June 2006, while attending an apprenticeship programme at Heartwood School of Homebuilding in Massachusetts, three apprentices, including myself, were invited by Handshouse Studio to help construct a replica timber Jewish synagogue.
Handshouse Studio is a non-profit, innovative, educational organization that creates adventurous hands-on projects through community-service, building projects with non-profit partners around the world as a way to explore history, understand science, and perpetuate the arts. Handshouse, co-founded by Rick Brown and Laura Brown in 2002, is located in Norwell, Massachusetts. It has gained international recognition for its pedagogical method of connecting institutions and organizations to carry out bold and complex educational built projects.
The following extract is a description of the project from Handshouse Studio website, courtesy of Handshouse. http://www.handshouse.org/
Handshouse Studio created the Gwozdziec Bimah Project to research and build a full-size replica of the Gwozdziec Synagogue's bimah through educational work shops.
The original Gwozdziec Synagogue bimah was one of the oldest surviving documented bimahs in Europe until its destruction in 1918. The structure was carved and assembled between c. 1710 to 1725 in a regional style that combines late Baroque and Eastern European vernacular motifs. The bimah was brightly painted and located in the centre of the painted prayer hall. It had an eight sided shape with open canopy that reflected the shape of the funnelling and undulating tent-like structure of the interior ceiling of the synagogue. The bimah was a majestic raised platform flanked by two staircases and surrounded by elaborately panelled and spindled railings. Above the railings are mounted eight turned and carved columns that support an Italian Baroque style open canopy crowned by a bold four foot lantern with a spire reaching 16.5 feet. The eight sides are ten feet tall and are topped with eight ornately carved panels depicting lions, deer and floral patterns. The bimah is a elegant example of the synthesis of Polish wooden cultural heritage and Jewish liturgical art.
Like the original, the Gwozdziec Synagogue bimah replica is hand-made using traditional materials and processes of carving, turning, and joinery. University of Wisconsin Professor Thomas C. Hubka, author of Resplendent Synagogue, Professor Rick Brown from Massachusetts College of Art and architect Nat Crosby, worked with thirty volunteers of artists, crafts people, faculty and students to design the bimah referencing an extensive collection of architectural drawings and photographic documentation that survived in several Polish archives. Utilizing this documentation, the team replicated the bimah using panel carving, chip carving, carving in the round, wood turning, furniture joinery, steam bending, stenciling and finally painting.
In 2009 the completed but unpainted Bimah replica was exhibited at Oberlin College with the ½ scale replica of the Gwozdziec Ceiling painting and the Zabludow model and door replica.
Handshouse Studio donated the Gwozdziec Synagogue bimah replica to the Core Exhibition of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw Poland. Then Handshouse and the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute organized a workshop to recreate the painted surfaces that covered the original bimah and then install it in the core exhibition. Referencing archival resources, students and volunteers worked with a team of artists to paint the full-scale bimah using the traditional painting techniques. The completed Gwozdziec Bimah now stands under the ornately decorated ceiling of the replica roof of the Gwozdziec synagogue, which was also recreated by students, volunteers and experts through Handshouse Studio workshops in 2011 and 2012.