Local Couple ‘Raises the Roof’ on Polish Synagogues

October 29, 2015
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By Penny Schwartz

Almost 10 years ago, the Vilna Shul hosted an exhibit, “Continuity:  Traditions of Jewish Art and Architecture,” that featured handmade models of one of Poland’s historic 17th-century wooden synagogues. It was accompanied by a series of newly recreated half-scale panels of the intricately painted, richly colored ceiling of another wooden synagogue, from the early 18^th century.

The models of these Polish wooden synagogues were created by Rick and Laura Brown, along with their students from Massachusetts College of Art, as part of a project initiated in 2004 by the Browns to explore the little-known world of Poland’s historic wooden synagogues. At one time, there were some 200 of these architectural gems that dotted the Polish-Lithuanian countryside.

None of the wooden synagogues survived the Holocaust. Along with their tragic destruction went much of the knowledge of the buildings and the culture that gave rise to them. It was an era now known as the Golden Age of Polish Jewry.

These early models created by the Browns and their students were part of a dream to explore these little-known synagogues by building models based on the surviving documentation. The Browns lead an educational non-profit called Handshouse that delves into history by recreating large buildings and other objects that have been nearly forgotten.

“One day, we’re going to build one of these synagogues in Poland,” Rick Brown would tell his students.

He repeats those words in the opening frames of “Raise the Roof,” a new documentary that follows the Browns’ unlikely decade-long endeavor to recreate the roof and painted ceiling of the Gwozdziec Synagogue, one of the most magnificent and well documented of all Poland’s wooden synagogues of the era.

The 85-minute Trillium Studios film, distributed by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, will screen at the Vilna Shul on

Sunday, Nov. 1, at 7 p.m. Rick and Laura Brown, as well as filmmakers, Cary Wolinsky (writer and producer) and Yari Wolinsky (director and editor), will lead a post-film discussion. The Wolinskys are neighbors of the Browns in Norwell.

The completed roof and painted ceiling, along with the intricately hand-carved bimah, the synagogue’s prayer prodium, is now the centerpiece of the permanent exhibit the POLIN Museum of the history of Polish Jews that opened one year ago in Warsaw.

The dazzling structure was built by an international team of more than 300 students and several dozen highly skilled woodworkers and artists steeped in traditional methods. All of the work, completed in two summers in workshops in Poland, was done by hand – using tools and materials that would have been used at the time the original synagogue was built and painted.

The film – and its subject – fits in perfectly with the Vilna Shul’s cultural center, according to Barnet Kessel, executive director of the Vilna Shul.

“It has interesting parallels to the history of our building, and to our present and future,” he noted, as the group is in the midst of a major restoration.

The film screening also offers another opportunity to forge connections with residents of Beacon Hill and neighbors of the Vilna Shul.

“If you live on the Hill, you’re living history,” Kessel noted. “We’re hoping to make further connections with our neighbors.”

Featured in the film is noted architectural historian Thomas Hubka, whose book, “Resplendent Synagogue,” documented the architecture, history and art of the Gwozdziec Synagogue. Hubka spoke at the Vilna Shul during the 2006 exhibit.

“This film is about a remarkable dream and a journey of re-discovery. It is a story of larger-than-life characters —one that starts with tragedy and ends in triumph,” said director Yari Wolinsky. “It highlights the cautious optimism of a new generation and a growing dialogue between

Jews and Poles about the past and the future, providing a unique and positive way to connect with Jewish history.”

Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture is located at 18 Phillips St. For tickets, visit www.vilnashul.org. For more information on the film, visit www.polishsynagogue.com.

Penny Schwartz is a Boston-based journalist specializing in Jewish subjects and the arts. She is a contributing writer for JTA.org, and writes for Jewish Journal of Boston and the Jewish Advocate and others.

You can follow her on Twitter @PennySchwartz.

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