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It began with a photograph.
More than a decade ago, Rick and Laura Brown, a husband-and-wife team of artist-educators, first learned about the little-known history of Poland’s 17th- and 18th-century wooden synagogues.
Attending a conference in Poland on annihilated history, they saw old black-and-white photographs of some of the 200 architectural gems that once dotted the Polish-Lithuanian landscape.
The Browns are neither Jewish nor of Polish descent, but they were struck by the majesty of the synagogues and the tragedy of their destruction while the Nazis occupied Poland during World War II.
“It was a startling world of Hebrew text, colors and animals — both mythic and real,” according to Rick Brown, who, along with his wife, specializes in re-creating historic objects. “These elements come together into art and architecture that rivals the greatest wooden architecture any time in history.”
The Browns, both of whom teach at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, initiated a project in 2003 to gain an understanding of these little-known synagogues and the culture that gave rise to them.
“One day, we’re going to build one of these synagogues, as accurately as possible, in Poland,” Rick Brown told his students over the years.
He repeats these words in the opening frames of “Raise the Roof,” a new documentary by Trillium Studios that tells the inspiring story of how his improbable dream came to life.
This engaging 85-minute feature will have four screenings at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The Browns will be on hand along with filmmakers Cary Wolinsky (producer and writer) and Yari Wolinsky (director and editor) at the July 25-26 screenings. Joining them will be Savana Vagueiro da Fonseca, a graduate of Mass Art who studied with the Browns, became one of the painting leaders for the project and now lives in San Francisco.
“Raise the Roof” chronicles how the Browns led an international team of 300 students and other artists and woodworkers to re-create the nearly full-scale roof and luminous ceiling of the Gwozdziec Synagogue, which dates back to the early 18th century and is one of the most magnificent and well-documented of Poland’s historic wooden synagogues.
This was the dreamed-of culmination of the Making History project, through which the Browns led study trips to Poland and offered courses and workshops at Mass Art and Handshouse — the educational nonprofit they founded in 2000 — where their students worked with other artists and woodworkers from the international Timber Framers Guild to build models of some of these synagogues.
The completed structure of the Gwozdziec Synagogue roof and ceiling, built and painted entirely by hand over 2 1/2 years beginning in the summer of 2011, was made with traditional techniques and materials that would have been used by the original makers. It now stands as the centerpiece of the permanent exhibit at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened last fall in Warsaw.
“It is a story of larger-than-life characters — one that starts with tragedy and ends in triumph,” said director Yari Wolinsky. “It highlights the cautious optimism of a new generation and a growing dialogue between Jews and Poles about the past and the future, providing a unique and positive way to connect with Jewish history.”
The Wolinskys, neighbors of the Browns, witnessed and filmed the development of the project, including a short film of a 2006 Handshouse workshop to re-create the synagogue’s hand-carved bimah, an eight-sided prayer pavilion flanked by two staircases.
The re-created synagogue roof “represents a world that was lived in color, in contrast with the image we have from black-and-white photographs,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the Polin Museum’s chief curator, also a professor emerita of performance studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, among the expert commentators in the film, considers the re-created synagogue a valuable artifact and not a mere copy because of the way it came to be.
By engaging hundreds of volunteers and experts and using traditional techniques, “we recovered the knowledge of how to build this lost object,” she wrote in an email. “For those who had the privilege of working on this project, it was a life-transforming experience.”
The Browns expressed a tremendous sense of satisfaction from nurturing the hundreds of students who participated.
Among those students was Vagueiro, one of the lead painters for the project, who relocated to San Francisco a year after her graduation. Now the studio and internship manager at BAYCAT, a community media nonprofit that educates low-income youth in digital media arts, Vagueiro said she valued the collaborative environment the Browns created. In making aesthetic decisions, they encouraged students to offer their own ideas, but they had to back it up historically, she recalled.
“As educators, we encourage our students to set their goals high,” Rick Brown agreed.
Vagueiro is now taking that lesson to another generation. “My biggest takeaway is something I try to teach my students,” she wrote in an email. When presented with an opportunity “to push yourself creatively, do it,” she wrote. “You will never regret it!”
“Raise the Roof,” 6 p.m. July 25 at CinéArts@Palo Alto Square; 2 p.m. July 26 at the Castro; 4:30 p.m. Aug. 6 at the California in Berkeley; and 12:30 p.m. Aug. 8 at the Smith Rafael in San Rafael. www.sfjff.org
More information on the project is available at www.polishsynagogue.com and www.handshouse.org