Stained glass windows reflect the Jewish journey
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Stained glass windows reflect the Jewish journey

A view from inside the sanctuary of Temple Emanuel. The windows were designed so that congregants could see the illustrations imposed over the backdrop of nature. Photos by Anne Pinzow

Opening the door to the sanctuary of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley on the hill in Woodcliff Lake is almost like entering a meadow grown for the purpose of worship, especially when viewing the north wall, which looks out over lush forested areas as well as a garden.

But this open-air view, while valued by the members of the congregation, came at the price of high environmental control bills, as some of the windows, more than 40 years old and left over from the original building, St. Alphonsus Catholic Women’s College, were cracked, while some of the frames were broken.

While replacing the windows with energy-efficient ones was long on the “to do” list, it was the idea of Enid and Ed Ruzinsky, congregants for more than 40 years, to make them stained glass.

A design committee was formed, composed of the Ruzinskys and congregants Sylvia LeVine and Ilene Pakett, as well as Rabbi Benjamin Shull and Cantor Mark Biddelman. While researching stained glass and synagogues, Ruzinsky found Mark Liebowitz of Wilmark Studios in Pearl River, N.Y., to execute the project. The committee then selected Nancy Katz, an artist with experience in community art, to design the windows.

But the idea of installing stained glass met resistance because people felt it would obscure their view of the outdoors. “The congregation is very attached to that feeling of communing with nature,” said Pakett. In fact, LeVine said that the rabbi had encouraged congregants to stand by the windows and enjoy the view when saying the Amidah.

That’s when Katz offered the solution of using muted colors instead of the intensely bright colored glass usually seen in houses of worship.

She said this would show “that the beauty outside was God-given as well,” and worshippers would be able “to see through the glass to the garden and vista outside, to get the message of the windows across without detracting from the outer beauty.”

As to what the congregation wanted depicted, Shull said, “As Jews, we are always on a journey, both collectively and individually, and the synagogue is a place to connect with others on that journey. This is expressed in the title plaque with verse taken from the book of Numbers 33:1: ‘Ayleh Ma’asay V’nai Israel – These are the journeys of the descendants of Moses and Aaron.'”

In the very first panel is the beginning of a Torah scroll that is “unrolled” through the panorama. Shull said the first of the five panels is from Genesis 12:1, “Abraham’s Journey,” “Lech L’Cha”: God said that Abraham and Sarah’s descendants would become “as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore.”

The next one is “Mi Chamocah” (“Our Journey Out of Egypt”) from Exodus 15:11: “Celebratory song and dance, represented by the harp and jubilant figures, accompany our miraculous sea crossing.”

The center panel is titled “V’Shamru V’nai Yisrael” from Exodus 31:15 (“Our Journey Through the Year”). “The holidays are both celebrated by and guard the Jewish people.”

The fourth panel is “Kedoshim Teeh’yoo” (“Lifecycle Journey”) from Leviticus 19:2, meaning “you shall be holy,” and depicts tallit surrounding life events.

The last panel brings the story full circle, “Y’rushalayim Hab’niah” (“Journey to Jerusalem Rebuilt”), with the concept coming from Deuteronomy, said Shull. It’s illustrated with a yellow star for the Shoah, the Israeli flag flying in Jerusalem, the Kotel, and a dove for peace and the end of the Torah.

A workman helps Mark Liebowitz install the stained glass windows at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley while Ilene Pakett of the project committee watches with Nancy Katz, the artist.

Throughout the windows the illustrations are entwined with a tallit from which tzitzit can be seen.

Shull said the particular scenes were chosen so that each of the five books of Moses would be represented, to make not only historical and spiritual references but to provide images that people could relate to.

“Historically, Abraham’s journey and the journey from Egypt were essential to understand,” Shull said, adding that the journey started with Abraham’s attaining spiritual freedom while the journey from Egypt brought physical freedom. The holidays mark the journey we make through each year while seminal events mark the journey through life. Returning to Israel is the journey to an ideal of “an almost messianic time of a rebuilt Jerusalem of peace and world repair, the ultimate Jewish destination of our journey.”

However, the journey to achieve the windows had only just begun. Harvey Rosenzweig, the executive director of the temple, said that the idea “didn’t take on traction until Enid and Ed said they’d take on the fund-raising. The idea is one thing, but raising the money to do it, that’s the real work.”

The Ruzinskys brought on Melanie and Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, members of the congregation for 29 years and both past presidents, who volunteered to take on the task of raising funds. Mounting a campaign, brochures, and pledge amounts were sent out and phone calls were made to the 650 member-units of the congregation.

Melanie Cohen said that donation amounts were listed as anything from $540 all the way up to $200,000. With a payment period of three years, donors could “buy” the panorama, the scroll, the panels, the tallit, any one of 33 Judaica items, Hebrew phrases, panels, and even pieces as well as just having their names listed.

Pakett said, “Five donor families purchased each of the five windows…, then it was broken down” – not literally – “to rows or sections, down to even a small piece of glass, so that everyone who wanted to could participate in the fund-raiser.”

All of the 150 donor families are also represented on the new donor wall at the rear of the sanctuary, which bears a replication of the stained-glass windows, said Ruzinsky.

Cohen said, “People were able to dedicate their gift to people or events that were meaningful to them. It’s very touching to see, after people make a donation, the thought process of what and who and why they dedicate something. It becomes very personal to them.”

With the concept of the windows in mind, the lead donor made a significant donation dedicated to the continuity of a strong Jewish community.

Taking into account all wishes, history, and dynamics of the congregation, Katz worked on how to represent that in glass. “I was able to help them focus in on the design,” she said. “I asked them what makes them special as a community and they talked about their journey from their old building in Westwood and carrying the Torahs several miles. I picked up on that, and … I envisioned an open Torah scroll as a connecting mechanism from one to the other.” This idea of flow was right up Katz’s alley, and indeed the scenes have more soft curves than most stained-glass designs. “That’s the way I make art,” she said. “The space, with the large surface area – it made sense, it needed to flow from one surface area to the next.”

Once the scale drawing of the design was completed and approved, Katz and Liebowitz enlarged the design on paper to full size, using a digital projector to project the design onto a wall where the paper was. Then Katz drew the outline, adjusting and changing things to bring out the beauty of the work. This took about a month.

Then the decisions had to be made as to where the lead lines would go, the shape of every one of the more than 2,000 pieces of glass, and what type of glass and what colors would be used for each piece.

Liebowitz began his work by making a pattern for each piece of glass he cut. He ordered hand-blown glass (called antique glass because of the way it’s made) from Glashuette Lamberts in Waldsassen, Germany. LeVine said she learned that as much glass as was used was wasted, because “when you cut glass there’s a lot of loss.” Once the pieces were cut they were enhanced with various techniques such as sand-blasting, silver stain, and traditional glass-painting, which is fired into the surface.

Then the pieces were held together with strips of lead channeling to make the 60 modular panels to cover five windows, each 13 feet by eight feet. Eight of the panels used in each window were three feet by three feet and four panels were two feet high by three feet.

Installation began on July 7 and was completed on Aug. 26.

In order to achieve the energy efficiency required by the congregation, Thermopane (consisting of double panes of glass) was installed in thermally-broken frames (the process makes the aluminum resistant to energy transfer). These separate the outside metal, exposed to the elements, from the inner layer by a gasket so that the temperature is not transmitted.

It was over this layer that the stained-glass windows were installed, actually making up three layers of glass per window.

Liebowitz said these windows can be opened but seal tightly when closed, preventing temperature exchange. He said that the new frames and thermal windows were actually installed in eight windows, only five of which received the stained glass.

Except for finding a hornets’ nest, the process of creation and installation went on without a hitch, unless you count the fact that the two artists decided to get hitched.

Katz and Liebowitz had met two and a half years before at a biannual conference of the lay leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism in Houston, Texas.

Up until this time, Katz had been specializing in textiles and facilitating community art. She was working with painted silk, and many people told her that her pieces looked like stained glass. One of those people was Liebowitz, who had a booth across the way in which he was letting people know that he could create stained-glass windows for them.

Katz said, “One thing led to another,” and they found themselves working together on this project. “We decided that if we could work together on the windows, we could do anything,” and so they became engaged.

“We made a shiddach,” said LeVine, just another of the lifecycle events, appropriately represented in the stained-glass windows.

The couple’s simcha was recognized at the dedication, which was attended by more than 300 people.

Though originally scheduled for the evening of Sept. 12, the event was switched to Sunday morning, Sept. 7, because it was discovered that the light color of the stained glass can’t be seen well during the evening hours.

Rosenzweig said the synagogue plans to install exterior lighting to shine through the windows, illuminating the God-given vista and the manmade scenes both day and night.

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