There is nothing holy about it. Just four pieces of reddish-brown wood forming a cabinet frame, a nylon cord belted around the middle, standing vertically on a table, the empty aperture waiting for a console television, perhaps, or maybe a subwoofer.
But if all went as planned, in just two weeks, instead of holding an entertainment center, those humble pieces of mahogany would store what Jews consider to be the most precious of objects: the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew bible, handwritten on a parchment scroll and encompassing all aspects of Jewish life and law.
“It’s a box,” says novice ark-builder Trevor Higgins about the structure on the table. “I don’t want to oversell it.”
Actually, it’s an Aron Kodesh, as it’s called in most American synagogues: a Holy Ark. It is a symbol that stretches back to the Ark of the Covenant, which held the tablets of the Ten Commandments and was carried by the Israelites in their wanderings, according to the Book of Exodus. This portable version was one of two recently commissioned by Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. The synagogue was hoping that the arks — usually time-consuming to build and expensive to obtain — would be ready before its perpetually sold-out High Holidays services, the first of which would be held the evening of Oct. 2.
For the past few years, Sixth & I, also a performance venue that hosts readings and concerts by the likes of Madeleine Albright and Elvis Costello, has offered four kinds of High Holidays services at its 1908 Byzantine Revival building in the District and nearby off-site locations. There’s a traditional service, with a Conservative-style prayer book and open to all; and three services geared toward 20- and 30-year-olds, using Conservative, Orthodox or Reconstructionist prayer books. This year, there was a fifth option, a Reform service, with more prayers in English. That service at Calvary Baptist Church created the need for another ark.
Then came the discovery that one of the synagogue’s existing portable arks was broken, leading to the need for a second new ark. That one would be going to the Chinese Community Church, where Rabbi Scott Perlo would lead the 6th in the City Participatory Service.
“It was from Ikea,” says Perlo of the broken ark. “It didn’t hold up over the years.”
Torah arks can be as simple as, well, a particleboard cabinet from Ikea or as ornate as a two-story construction with motion-sensitive lighting, and doors activated via garage-door opener (Perlo has seen one like this but declines to name the synagogue). The ark in Sixth & I’s main sanctuary is built into the wall with 8-foot-tall sliding doors made of unadorned cherry wood; it’s as organic to the synagogue as its bimah— the platform from which the services are conducted — and Star of David stained-glass window. Portable arks need to be more compact and lightweight.
“In the last 10 years, portable arks have become a more popular item,” says Alexander Gruss, a Brooklyn-based artist and designer of sanctuary furniture. In addition to satellite services and gatherings in rooms other than the main sanctuary, “rabbis travel around to nursing homes and hospitals and need something they can lift,” Gruss says. He has built one for the U.S. Army.
They don’t come cheap. Gruss, who has also made charity boxes for two popes and an inlaid Passover seder tray for $30,000, won’t reveal how much he charges for the 300-plus hours he spends crafting something that resembles a Danish modern sideboard. The average price for a portable Torah ark on the website Ahuva.com is more than $4,000.
“You don’t think about it until you have to think about it,” says Perlo.
when that time came, the staff turned to Trevor Higgins, a 37-year-old audio engineer, skateboarder and woodworker who has dreadlocks half the length of his body and is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (otherwise known as Quakers).
“He was the first person who I could think of that might be able to pull this off,” says Matthew Weiss, Sixth & I’s director of live entertainment.
It’s not as odd as it might seem. Higgins works for Sixth & I subcontractor Potomac Sound and has been coordinating audio for the synagogue for nearly a decade, first for a Shabbat service and then for a book talk with Toni Morrison. The door leading to his home workshop in Monrovia, Md., is plastered with credentials from performers such as Adele, Amy Schumer and Art Garfunkel.
Higgins, Weiss knew, has a knack for working with his hands; he regularly offers to fix broken odds and ends around the building. And he has an affinity for the rabbis and staff at Sixth & I. “They’re just good people,” Higgins says, adding that he appreciates that they serve congregants from all of Judaism’s traditions.
Unlike creating a Torah, for which there are hundreds of rules, there are few rules about building an ark. For a Torah, you need parchment made from the skin of a kosher animal, a devout scribe, a special ink and a special quill, and all the letters must be a specific style. ...
“To build an ark, you just need wood, cloth and love,” says Perlo.
And Sixth & I has great faith in Higgins.
At the moment, Higgins, who has the countenance and laid-back surfer vibe of Matthew McConaughey, seems a little behind schedule. He began working on the first ark at the end of August, before the discovery of the broken Ikea version. “Doubling the order was a surprise,” Higgins says.
Apart from the outer frame, there are the double doors and back panel to consider. Although Perlo discussed symbols that could be depicted on the ark in separate carvings that Higgins will apply to the doors — the pomegranate’s sweet seeds as a reminder that every human can be filled with kindness; grapes, olives and dates symbolizing joy that comes from the land — those will have to wait.
In addition to asking that the ark stand 47 inches tall, Perlo requested that it be 26 inches wide. “Wide enough for him to get his arms around the Torah,” explains Higgins. “The one that Rabbi Shira uses is too narrow.” Shira Stutman, Sixth & I’s senior rabbi, is a petite brunette whose favorite T-shirt, according to her bio, reads: “This is what a real rabbi looks like.”
Higgins will make the curtains, which further protect the treasured Torah, from organic cotton left over from wife Wanda Perkins’s wedding gown, which she sewed herself. Higgins also sews; he learned from his mother, an avid quilter. His father, a plumber who wrote the plumber apprenticeship manuals that sit on his son’s bookshelf, died in 2001, but his presence is still felt in every corner of Higgins’s workshop.
“My studio is pretty much a duplicate of the one I grew up in” near Damascus, Md., says Higgins, who uses his father’s hand tools, various planes and scrapers, a chisel and brace. “I was allowed to use anything that didn’t plug into a wall,” Higgins says. “I learned how to do everything by hand before I got the machine that did it.”
Grabbing one of his father’s old scrapers, Higgins begins smoothing the mahogany along one side of the ark. Overseeing the project are more childhood holdovers: figurines of Stan Laurel, W.C. Fields and Chico Marx, standing like centurions on the windowsill. “My father sat me down one day and said, ‘Comedy is the most important thing you’ll learn.’ ”
Higgins might need a sense of humor in the days ahead. He figures he will spend about 30 to 40 hours on each ark and plans to complete one before starting the other. The mahogany for the first ark came from Exotic Lumberin Frederick, Md., but the second ark will be made from white oak, milled from a tree in his back yard. His acre-and-a-quarter lot also features red oak and hickory. “We’re tree people,” Higgins says, looking at his forest. “I always have some kind of plan,” he muses. “And the trees have a different one.”
So, it seems, does God.
Higgins finished only one ark by Rosh Hashanah. It was sent to the Reform services. At his services, Rabbi Perlo used a Torah wrapped in a prayer shawl.
Although Higgins knew this was a possibility because of his day job — “Shows come up and I am on call all the time” — he describes telling Perlo that the second ark wouldn’t be ready until Yom Kippur as a “gut-wrenching” experience.
“Scott was very comforting,” Higgins says. “He told me, ‘We’re friends. It’s okay.’ ”
Despite that trauma, Higgins was happy with the finished ark. He was especially proud of the removable curtain rod, which clicks into the sides, and the fitted floor, a scooped-out section of mahogany where the scroll’s handles rest securely. His wife helped by sewing and pressing the curtains.
Entertainment director Matthew Weiss visited the completed ark on the first day of the New Year.
“It’s really beautiful,” he said. “Even the curtain rod.”
Cathy Alter, a frequent contributor to the Magazine, last wrote about cyclotrons.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.