I am driving south on the New Jersey Turnpike at six-thirty on a Sunday morning. I am alone in a large, white panel van that I rented in Paramus on Friday. I’m on my way to Baltimore, Maryland to pick up the Mishkan, the Tabernacle the Jews used to worship G-d in the desert, and bring it back to New Jersey. I kid you not.
From left, Dr. Elliot Prager, Moriah school principal, Tina Freiman, Dr. Morton Freiman, and Chana Stiefel discuss the model of the Mishkan with Judah, Abby, and Maya Stiefel. photo courtesy of the Moriah school
A flight of biblical blogging fancy, perhaps? No, Larry Stiefel’s entry from Feb. 18 (at themaggidofbergenfield.com) is for real. It’s the Mishkan that’s a fake.
But it’s an impressive fake. It’s an 8-by-4-foot faithful scale model of the Tabernacle whose every detail is described painstakingly in several chapters of Exodus starting with Terumah, read the same week Stiefel made his journey. And just as the Jews carried their Mishkan with them through decades of wanderings, so this traveling model has made a series of stopovers in the past 30 years.
Its new home is the Moriah School in Englewood, where the Teaneck resident’s three older children are students.
Stiefel’s father-in-law, Dr. Morton Freiman of North Miami Beach, started building the model in 1976. Freiman remembers this date well, because in order to fashion the cherubim on top of the ark, he took little plastic bicentennial souvenir eagles and pinned dolls’ heads between the wings.
The project was conceived when Freiman, a plastic surgeon and expert Torah reader, was asked to record a bar mitzvah tape for a boy in his shul. The double portion, Vayakhel-Pekuday, includes many of the Tabernacle building instructions.
"I told the father of the young man that it’s very nice to lein [chant the portion], but you should understand what you’re saying," recalled Freiman, who came to Moriah last week to tell some of the classes about his model. "As I made the tape, I realized I didn’t understand it at all. It was just a lot of measurements and details."
With the help of his own father, Freiman pored over the text and consulted Moshe Levine’s 1969 work "The Mishkan," with its color pictures of a scale model. "But the two dimensions weren’t enough for me, and I started the idea of building my own model," Freiman said.
All told, the six-month project was completed with the help of six people. A non-Jewish carpenter who was a patient of Freiman’s made the walls out of redwood. An air-conditioning contractor made the menorah from copper tubing. Two women made the needlepoint curtains and the clothing for the figurine kohanim (priests), and a dentist made the tzitz (head-plate) for the high priest’s forehead.
"Once completed, the Mishkan became a wonderful educational tool," said Freiman. "It was on my porch for a long time."
Freiman’s daughter, Chana Stiefel, remembers feeling "very important and special" to have the model on her front porch. Her younger brother used to parade his plastic animals up and down the miniature ramp to the sacrificial altar.
For Israel’s jubilee in 1998, Freiman displayed the Mishkan at the Miami Convention Center and from there it went to the federation building and then to a synagogue, and finally to the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami.
Its next stop was Yeshivat Rambam of Baltimore, where Freiman’s older daughter, Toby, and her family lived. Last summer they moved to Israel, and so it was time for the Tabernacle to travel again. That’s how it landed in Englewood.
Freiman’s grandchildren Judah, Abby, and Maya Stiefel all are Moriah students (15-month-old Joshua still has a few years to go). Judah, 11, was born on Parshat Terumah, so the family feels a special connection to the project.
The timing also was propitious because the Mishkan’s arrival coincides with the upcoming dedication of the day school’s new synagogue, said Moriah’s principal, Dr. Elliot Prager.
Freiman said he wanted to impress upon the students that the biblical Tabernacle was of great significance. "God created the whole universe and gave just a couple of pages to the whole creation," he said. "And yet one half of the book of Exodus is given to the details of the Mishkan, so it must be important."