Who made that bima?
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Letter from Israel

Who made that bima?

An eye-opening visit to world’s largest synagogue furniture factory

The handiwork of Lavi Furniture Industries is displayed on the wall of the showroom at its factory in eastern Galilee.
The handiwork of Lavi Furniture Industries is displayed on the wall of the showroom at its factory in eastern Galilee.

The first time we spent Shabbat at Kibbutz Lavi, in 2007, my jaw dropped when I entered the hotel’s synagogue on Friday night.

There were photographs on its walls of synagogue interiors — including that of Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck, where we had been members for 20 years!

And then I remembered why: Kibbutz Lavi is the home of Lavi Furniture Industries, the world’s largest designer and manufacturer of synagogue furnishings. Beth Aaron is one of more than 5,800 shuls across the globe outfitted by Lavi Industries since 1962.

“We have done work in 70 countries, from Tahiti to Venezuela, Moscow to Panama,” CEO Micha Oberman told my husband and me as we took a tour of the factory during one of our recent return visits to this pastoral place in the eastern Galilee.

“Most of our overseas customers are in the United States and after that France and England,” Mr. Oberman said. “Right now, we are doing a job in Germany. Wherever the customer is, we ship door to door, and our installation team comes to handle everything.”

Kibbutz Lavi was founded in 1949 by members of Bnei Akiva of England and it is part of the Orthodox branch of the kibbutz movement. Like most kibbutzim at the time, its bread and butter were agriculture and dairy farming. But in 1962, its two most successful enterprises were begun: the kibbutz hotel and the synagogue furniture factory.

“We started a small workshop, and from there we grew and grew,” Mr. Oberman said. “In Israel there are now 5,000 synagogues we have furnished. Our first export was in the 1970s, to Australia. Every year, we work in around 200 synagogues from very traditional to very modern in design, and in every segment of Judaism. Each one is custom designed.”

The factory’s biggest project so far is the 5,500-seat Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. Israel’s largest shul, dedicated in 2000, Belz holds a world record for the size of its Torah ark: 12 meters (39.3 feet) high and 18 tons in weight. Lavi soon will add another 1,600 seats to the sanctuary.

At the Forest Hill Jewish Centre in Toronto in 2015, Lavi Furniture Industries worked from photographs to replicate the entire interior of a Polish shul that the Nazis had burned to the ground in 1939. The piece de resistance is the replica of the Polish shul’s 11.5-meter-high Torah ark.

Among other special projects: outfitting the largest synagogue built in the last 15 years in Russia, in a Moscow suburb near President Vladimir Putin’s residence; putting new interiors in a renovated 300-year-old synagogue in Carpentras, France; and furnishing a London Chabad shul built in memory of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, the Chabad emissaries murdered in Mumbai in 2008.

Seating was the factory’s main product for decades. “In 2008 we started to go more into craftsmanship,” Mr. Oberman told us. “In 2012, we acquired Avraham Fried Studio in Kiryat Gat, the largest craft studio in Israel, and moved its factory here in 2016.”

Lavi Furniture Industries annually handcrafts about 100 Torah arks and 60 bimas (the raised platforms on which the Torah is read). All the wood is imported, mostly from Eastern Europe, and reaches Israel through Haifa Port.

“We work only with hardwoods,” Mr. Oberman said. “Mainly beechwood, and also oak, cherry, walnut, and mahogany.”

Walking around the factory, we saw a carpenter named Eli working on a Torah ark and a craftsman named Vladimir creating decorative beaten metalwork. A worker named William was sanding; every wooden piece is sanded and painted twice, customer service manager Ortal Leshem said.

She showed us huge drying racks for small wooden items that reminded me of the racks used in large bakeries to cool loaves of bread. She showed us the lathe that shapes wood into massive columns for the arks. She showed us a bookshelf system under construction for the customer in Germany, and rows of upholstered pews wrapped in plastic, waiting to be shipped. The upholstery is done in a workshop in Katzrin, about 33 miles northeast of Lavi in the Golan Heights.

The Lavi factory employs about 80 people in design, engineering, production, shipment, and installation. Most, but not all, are Jewish; some live on the kibbutz and others, like Ms. Leshem, in surrounding villages.

This being the land of innovation, the synagogue furniture factory always is enhancing its offerings. Stackable, foldable chairs — more versatile than pews — will soon be sold online. An emerging line of accessible furnishings for congregants with physical limitations includes a Torah ark with low, pullout shelves, lecterns and bimas that can be lowered and tilted mechanically with a foot pedal, and retractable mechitza dividers for one-handed setup.

Mr. Oberman said that Chabad Lubavitch synagogues represent the company’s fastest-growing client segment, especially in the United States. But there’s no cookie-cutter approach to any synagogue interior here. “Each is very different from the other,” he emphasized.

Next time you’re in Israel, take a trip up to Kibbutz Lavi to see the workshop for yourself, and maybe you’ll spot your own synagogue in the pictures on the wall.

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