Designer’s Notes about the Ark

While designing the ark and its surroundings for the Brotherhood Synagogue, my thoughts were stimulated by those portions of the Holy Scriptures that deal with religious services in ancient Israel. The objects that were required for these services (the ark, the menorah, the table displaying the breads and other items) are described there in detail, but it is the ethos by which the Israelites lived that becomes apparent and is most important.

Skill as well as striving for perfection, if not perfection itself, was required from the artisans who fashioned these furnishings. Blemishes on the objects or the lack of integrity would have made these objects unfit for use.

The same standard applied to the offerings that were made in the temple. These offerings were an expression of devotion. As long as the ancient temple was the center of religious life, the making of offerings was one of the means that brought man close to God. With the destruction of the temple, the rites of offering ceased. The giving for the benefit of the new communities of the diaspora became the new form of offering.

As the Torah is timeless, so too, are the principles by which we should live today. In our offerings we should give from the best of ourselves and from the best we have in terms of material. In this sanctuary project, this tradition has guided all who have been involved. The congregation provided means and guidance. The craftsmen who built the ark provided the best in workmanship. The rare woods were carefully selected. The inlay work is delicate and crisp.

The furnishings of the ancient temple are gone, but they have taken on a new life as symbols. These symbols bring the past which they represent close to us, and in new forms of rendering they bring together past and present. Decorations at synagogue at Dura Europus and Beth Alpha achieved that fusion of past and present for their times. I have seen my task to find a solution for this sanctuary in that same tradition.

The panel that crowns the ark has the words Holy Holy Holy in Hebrew and in English. These words dedicate the sanctuary and remind the congregation of the divine nearness. The lower part of this panel is filled with the Hebrew letter Shin, the symbol for the name of God. The long frieze below carries the ancient blessing in Hebrew welcoming those who are present.

The panel further down shows a composition of the eternal light succumbed by the symbol for the blessing hands of the Cohanim. The Hebrew blessing of the frieze is repeated in English translation above the ark doors.

The ark, the container and shelter for the Torah scrolls, is the center of the Bimah. Its doors are inscribed with the abbreviated form of the ten commandments, symbol for the extents of the five books of Moses. Flanking these doors are two panels which are filled with the symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel, the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob.

The source for these symbols is found in two places in the Torah. The first, the main one, is Jacob’s last address to his sons. The second is Moses, farewell blessing of the twelve tribes. The symbols are simple: a tree, a donkey, a ship, a lion, etc.; However, the twelve tribes together are symbolic for the earliest beginning of the Jewish people, long before they became a nation. The design of the rosettes relates to decorative elements that once enhanced ancient Jewish objects.

And some words about the columns. They are elements of support as well as symbols of support. As such they have been used in some early European synagogues.

A rare feature in this sanctuary will be a ramp that will lead to the elevated Bimah. It will allow full participation in the services for all, including those who cannot negotiate steps. But this ramp is also a link to the past. Not steps, but a ramp led to the elevated altar platform of the ancient temple.

The Menorah, fitting into this scheme but still missing, will complete this project.

This synagogue in its rejuvenated state will serve its community in many ways. It will continue to be its religion, its cultural and its social center. But it will also serve as a link to the Jewish past and as a building block for the future of Judaism.”

Posted in B