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An Ark Grows in Norwalk

By Cindy Mindell

NORWALK – Over Thanksgiving week, while most Americans were concocting holiday feasts, wood worker Jordan Matthei was in his Norwalk workshop crafting 80 perfectly identical pieces of Douglas fir, then fitting them together into a round aron kodesh – the holy ark used to house Torah scrolls. The piece was then transported to the Pratt Community Synagogue of the Arts, housed in the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center serving the Pratt Community in Brooklyn.

It was the first-ever aron kodesh for the seasoned craftsman, and the second for Leon Moed, the architect who designed the unusual piece. The founding principal of the Manhattan-based MdeAS Architects (formerly Moed de Armas & Shannon Architects), Moed designed an ark 30 years ago for his country home in Lakeville, Conn. Moed and his grandson, Eric, both graduates of the Pratt Institute School of Architecture, co-designed the aron that now hangs on the wall of the Brooklyn shul. Eric also works at MdeAS.

The Lakeville ark was designed to hold the Torah scroll that Leon’s father – also an architect – had given him as a house-warming gift. The three generations of Moeds constitute (more than) a minyan during family visits to Lakeville, and the aron is also used during services with neighbors and friends.

Eric took inspiration from the family aron when designing the one for the Pratt Community Synagogue; while the forms are different – the Lakeville aron is a cube; the Pratt one is a cylinder – the detailing is similar.

Jordan Mathel

Craftsman Jordan Matthei at work in his Norwalk workshop.

The aron project follows on the heels of the new Jewish student union space at Pratt, designed in 2011 by Eric and fellow Pratt student Huddy Schulman at the behest of Rabbi Simcha Weinstein of Chabad of Clinton Hill and Pratt Institute, with Leon serving as licensed architect of record.

“We decided that we should make it both an art gallery and a shul, to speak to Pratt students,” Eric says. “Creativity can be a very holy thing and davening and our relationship with Hashem is something we all create and we wanted to fuse together both of those things.”

The 1,000-square-foot storefront space has a small kitchen and kiddush area but is otherwise open, with furniture and a mechitza – a partition traditionally used to separate men and women in synagogue — brought in for davening. In 2013, a Torah scroll was donated and housed in a temporary aron on wheels. Eric’s father, Samuel, and Leon decided to sponsor a proper aron.

The shul is on the border between Satmar Williamsburg and “Hipster Williamsburg,” according to Eric, and has come to serve a wide variety of Jews, thanks to Weinstein’s outreach.

“Now, every Shabbat, it’s the most diverse minyan I’ve ever been a part of,” says Eric. “There are people in shtreimels (a fur hat often worn by Chasidic men on Shabbat and holidays), there are people without yarmulkes on, there are people with all types of yarmulkes on.”

Once the aron sketch was complete, Leon commissioned his go-to architectural woodworking firm, the Harlem-based William Somerville, owned and run by Merna Miller and her daughters, Beth Miller-Eidman, Robin Miller, and Elise Miller. Miller-Eidman handed the job to Matthei.

The aron is four feet tall and four feet across, big enough to hold two Torah scrolls. Matthei stretched linen behind the wood slats on the two front doors, but couldn’t get the fabric to conform to the inside curve of the cabinet. As an alternative, he used a thin panel of Italian poplar.

The aron was dedicated on Dec. 10, the fifth night of Chanukah, attracting 300 members of the surrounding Jewish community. “Because there wasn’t anything in the shul space in terms of furniture, once we installed the aron, it radically charged the space and changed the whole feeling,” says Eric. “It went from a white-box room to a shul.”

CAP: Architect Eric Moed with the holy ark he designed with his grandfather, Leon Moed, also an architect.

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