Young Philadelphia Artists Central to Recreating Lost Polish Synagogue

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Local artists rebuilding models of Polish synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust are featured in a new documentary.

More than a decade ago, art professors Rick and Laura Brown posted a flyer advertising a new studio art class at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, where they are longtime faculty members. The poster featured an old photograph of an unusual looking 18th-century Polish wooden building, and posed an intriguing invite: “Who wants to build this synagogue?”

Students flocked to sign up.

The Browns, who are not Jewish and have no Polish ancestry, are artists and visionary educators who, in 2000, founded an educational organization called Handshouse, which initiates interdisciplinary projects to recreate large historic objects.

“By looking closely at a historic object and trying to build it as accurately as possible, you inevitably learn about the social, political and economic forces that were present at that time,” Rick Brown said.

That first class was the start of the unlikeliest of dreams: to one day recreate one of Poland’s little-known synagogues — in Poland. At one time, there were some 200 of these majestic architectural gems across the Polish countryside; none survived under the Nazi occupation of Poland.

The Browns first learned about the synagogues at a conference on annihilated history held in Poland in 2003. Drawn to their beauty and tragic destruction, the couple were determined to help bring this nearly lost history back to life.

Over some eight years, the Browns attracted hundreds more students for classes, workshops and study trips, working with other scholars and artists to create small-scale models of several synagogues and a half-scale version of the Gwozdziec Synagogue’s ceiling, many of which have been exhibited at synagogues, museums and colleges around the United States.

“We always told our students, ‘One day, we’re going to build this thing in Poland,’ ” Rick Brown said.

Among the students who were drawn to this unlikely project in its early years were Matt Jeffs and Emily White, then Mass Art students who participated in many of the Browns’ workshops and classes. Now Philadelphia-based artists, Jeffs and White are part of the team which has seen the project come to life.

The inspiring story is told in Raise the Roof, a new, 85-minute documentary by father-son filmmaking team Cary and Yari Wolinsky that will screen on May 4, at the Gershman Y, as the closing night film of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival.

Jeffs and White will join the Browns and the Wolinskys for a post-screening discussion.

The nearly full-scale recreated roof and painted ceiling, along with the hand-carved bimah of the 18th-century Gwozdziec Synagogue, is now the centerpiece of the permanent exhibit of Warsaw’s new Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews that opened in October and which has already attracted some 200,000 visitors.

The recreated structure was built and painted by hand using period-specific traditional tools and methods, over three summers in Poland, where the Browns set up workshops in synagogues across the country and the public was invited to participate. The major undertaking was a partnership between Handshouse, the Polin Museum and the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, supported by the New York-based Kronill Pletka Foundation.

White, 27, said that when she enrolled in her first Mass Art synagogue project class in 2007, she had no prior interest in Poland or Jewish history. After graduating, however, she became a leader of the project and found herself deeply passionate about the synagogue’s history, learning about the complex symbolism of the unusual animal figures that cover the synagogue’s ceiling panels.

Today she works as an assistant mural artist for the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

Jeffs, whose mother is from a Polish-Catholic family in Philadelphia, said of the Browns: They “trick kids into learning about the history.” He also stayed connected after graduating, serving as the paint-mixing leader for the museum replica. Students from all over the world worked under his guidance at the painstaking chore that was pivotal to the entire painting process.

The 26-year-old, who is working locally as a sculptor and is also designing furniture and home goods, said he was struck by how his generation — Poles and non-Poles of all faiths — is now sparking a resurgence of interest in Jewish Polish history.

Alexa Katz, who grew up in Philadelphia, is another artist who became involved in the project, painting the synagogue ceiling in one of the Poland workshops in the summer of 2011, after her freshman year at Brandeis University. Now graduated, she is currently in Italy pursuing her art studies.

For Katz, being part of the painting workshops combined her artistic passion with learning something about her Jewish heritage, she said in a Skype interview from Italy. Her family is originally from Romania, and she grew up celebrating Jewish holidays with her grandparents in Northeast Philadelphia. Her grandfather was an Auschwitz survivor. Her two trips to Poland deepened her spiritual connection to Judaism, she said, especially through the perspective of art.

She noted that the Browns set a high bar for precision, in everything from paint mixing to color tone to accuracy of lines.

“It’s honoring the work of the original people who made this synagogue,” she reflected.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, program director of the core exhibition of the Polin Museum and one of the scholars interviewed in the film, said the “recovery of this lost object is an epic story.” She described the painted ceiling as a “celestial canopy,” reflecting a rich period of Polish Jewish history that contrasts sharply with the stereotypical images of impoverished Polish Jewish shtetl life.

With its pyramid-like roof and square architectural plan, the Gwozdziec Synagogue has been cited as a possible influence in the design of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, noted Cary Wolinsky, an award-winning National Geographic filmmaker who wrote and produced Raise the Roof.

The Wolinskys visited the prominent modern synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, just before heading to Poland to begin filming in the summer of 2012. They were struck by the resemblance, he said.

The Wolinskys, neighbors of the Browns in Norwell, Mass., a suburb of Boston, said they couldn’t resist the opportunity to capture the project on film after following its progress.

The film parallels the discovery that was central to this project, according to Yari Wolinsky. “You go through the process as the students did, learning a bit, needing to know more, why they were built this way, what did the paintings mean, what were the tools they used.

“You also come out” with “a good sense of the world around it,” he added.

Jeffs credits the Browns with giving him and others an extraordinary opportunity to do something “larger than yourself.”

“They did teach me how to dream bigger” about “what one person can accomplish in a lifetime and the impact you can have.”

INFO TO GO

Raise the Roof
May 4, The closing night film of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival
Gershman Y
401 S Broad St, Philadelphia, PA 19147
gershmany.org; 215-545-4400
 

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