Rick and Laura Brown are neither Polish nor Jewish.
Their religion is making things. Their background is the Christian South. Both were students at the University of Georgia, where they met and married.
They teach college students art by resurrecting marvelous objects lost in the past, and in 2003 they fell in love with a wildly-painted 17th century wooden synagogue, burned by the Nazis. They decided to rebuild it, and engaged their students at the Massachusetts College of Art with the project.
A film about the undertaking, “Raise the Roof,” will make it’s world premiere at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which begins Jan. 28.
A nearly full-sized synagogue is not the strangest object they’ve created. The Browns, and their students, have also built a first century human-powered crane and a Revolutionary War submarine. (Yes, there was once a one-man Colonial sub, carved by patriot David Bushnell out of a single tree trunk.)
But the synagogue is the most ambitious. The Browns were drawn to the project because the structures were gorgeous. There were, perhaps, 200 wooden synagogues in 17th century Poland, pieced together from hand-hewn timbers and painted on the inside with a hallucinatory explosion of animals, flowers, figures and text.
Today the synagogues are utterly gone. Bringing one back — with 17th century hand tools — would either be impossible or a great learning experience.
After years of research, thousands of volunteer hours featuring hundreds of students in the U.S. and Poland, a serendipitous connection with a Warsaw museum and a last-minute save by a generous philanthropist, the Browns brought forth a miracle.
Traveling to Atlanta for the premiere of the movie, “Raise the Roof,” brings Laura Brown, 63, back home to see her large Catholic family and her fellow alumni from Westminster School.
Though she studied sculpture at UGA, she was not a hammer-and-saw type. “I never built anything until I met Rick Brown,” she said. “It’s not one of the things as a Georgia Southern belle that you’re encouraged to do.”
Her future husband, a Salem, Va., native, was a former football player still unsure of his path. At UGA she told him to switch majors and join the art department. “It was the best advice I ever had,” said Rick Brown, 66.
They married, raised three children and went into teaching. Their method concentrates on action, plus thinking. Don’t study history: build it. “We realize a lot of information is embedded in the material world,” said Laura Brown. “We do reverse engineering. You go backwards, try to remake what was made, become informed about what it is, why it was made, who made it.”
The Browns eventually created a nonprofit called Handshouse Studio, sheltered in an enormous barn they built on their Norwell, Mass., property, 20 miles south of Boston. Handshouse allowed them to pursue their hands-on learning method on a larger scale, attracting volunteers from around the globe and the attention of filmmakers from Discovery and Nova.
Two of those filmmakers are the father-and-son team Cary and Yari Wolinsky, who also happen to live in Norwell. Encountering the Browns while walking in the 116-acres of conservation forest that surrounds Handshouse Studio, the Wolinskys began documenting their neighbors’ projects, including one that took them to the Wolinsky’s ancestral land.
“It was the roots journey I never wanted to make,” said Cary Wolinsky. Born in 1947 of Polish Jewish parents, the elder Wolinsky said the history of Jews in Poland is dominated by the Holocaust, in which 90 percent of the community was wiped out. “It is the most horrific baggage you could be born into.”
But Jews did more in Poland than die. The community existed for more than 1,000 years, and Poland was, at one time, the center of global Judaism; by some accounts the majority of modern Jews trace their history there.
The surviving community has begun to celebrate that fact, notably with the creation in 2013 of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. While the museum was still in its planning stages an encounter between its director, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, and the Browns proved lucky.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett wanted a restored wooden synagogue as a central exhibit. “Barbara needed a synagogue, the Browns were building a synagogue, it was an accident of history,” said Cary Wolinsky. “When they met in New York there was this instant love affair.”
The film details the growth of the project, and Rick Brown’s unorthodox teaching style, in which he invents courses to go along with the project at hand. “The students become the motor,” said Laura.
The synagogue they decided to recreate was built in the 1600s in the southeastern Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, in the town of Gwozdziec. Polish architecture students had photographed and sketched the building in the 1920s before it was destroyed, offering key information about the structure and painted motifs.
The Browns decided to remake only the synagogue’s wonderfully-vaulted roof and its elaborate interior, hence the title of the movie.
Funded by a million-dollar gift from philanthropist Irene Pletka, the project began in earnest in the summer of 2011. Students from the U.S. and Poland traveled to the Polish town of Sanok, and, with guidance from professional timber framers, used axes and a pit saw to render 200 felled trees into square timbers. They then cut joints to fit the rough-hewn lumber together like a beautiful puzzle.
The following summer volunteer crews in seven Polish communities along with professional artists, recreated the phantasmagoric ceiling panels of the synagogue’s interior. They used pigments ground from dried flowers, mixed with rabbit-skin glue.
The 25,000-pound roof was then disassembled, loaded on trucks, and reassembled at the Warsaw museum, where it is suspended in a central gallery.
When the Pletka gift came through, the Wolinskys had to hustle to arrange a quick trip to Poland to tag along, relying on Kickstarter to fund the filming. “We knew they were doing something quite amazing,” said Cary Wolinsky, who summed up the Brown teaching technique this way:
“Take something really big, something nearly lost in history, and something nearly impossible: That’s what will draw people in. They’ll work their butts off to make it happen.”