A woodworking shop in Manayunk features several Jewish-themed classes to make items such as mezuzot and challah boards, run by a local rabbi.
On a blustery Tuesday evening in late February, five Jewish Philadelphians of various ages and levels of observance converged on the Philadelphia Woodworks shop in Manayunk to take a mezuzah-making class.
They clustered around a wood table so that 35-year-old Ari Silver, a father of six, a rabbi and the class instructor, could explain how the class would work and show off some of the display pieces — tzedakah boxes, challah boards and candlesticks, to name a few — housed in the shop’s entry room.
Just before entering the shop’s work area to distribute safety goggles and kick off the class, Silver, who is Orthodox and sports a black kipah and tzizit, admitted to being a bit nervous, even though he has taught the class several times before.
So what was different about this particular class? His wife, Netanya, was one of those five apprentices.
“I’m his harshest critic,” Netanya teased her husband, adding that he had surprised her with the class as a “date night” activity.
Philadelphia Woodworks, which recently celebrated its third anniversary, is owned by Michael Vogel, who grew up in Elkins Park, where he attended Beth Sholom Congregation, a Conservative synagogue, and Gratz College’s program for high school students.
Unhappy with his job in investment banking, Vogel said that he found himself reflecting on the enjoyment he experienced from doing woodworking during his time as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and the business plan for his own woodworking shop was born.
The idea, Vogel explained, offered him the possibility to combine his experience in finance with his woodworking hobby.
When a neighbor showed Silver an advertisement Vogel had posted searching for people with woodworking experience to join his new project, Silver decided to get on board.
“I’ve been woodworking since I was a kid,” said Silver, a native of Wynnefield. “I always enjoyed building, so one of my parents’ neighbors showed me how to use a circular saw at the age of 15 or 16, and it just kept on going from there.”
In fact, Silver helped with the buildout of Philadelphia Woodworks, where there is an entrance hall for reception and item displays, and two large workrooms, both of which have long work tables, equipment and the distinct smell of wood shavings, glue and other woodwork-related aromas. He spent the first year teaching regular classes such as pen-making and box-making. But two years ago, Vogel took note of the strong Jewish attendance among class participants and approached Silver about starting a workshop to make mezuzot.
“It was less of a business decision and more of a cultural decision,” Vogel, 35, explained. “The mezuzah-making class was the first idea and it immediately sold out.”
Classes to create wooden challah boards and tzedakah boxes soon followed, as did the occasional specialty session like a recent dreidel-making class.
Vogel said that he uses his Conservative and Reform contacts, and Silver, who is a teacher at Torah Academy and the youth director at Lower Merion Synagogue, uses his Orthodox connections to spread the word about the theme workshops to Philadelphia’s Jewish community.
He surmised that Jews’ urge to constantly learn new things and continually better themselves was the impetus behind the demand for the courses.
Beyond having regular sign-up courses, Silver often teaches private sessions for area synagogues’ men’s clubs and sisterhoods, Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, and the rare day school delegation.
For anyone who finds the idea of a Jewish woodworker to be strange, or even paradoxical, Silver is quick to point out that Jews have quite the biblical history of working with their hands.
“There’s Noah — you don’t get much bigger than that,” Silver said, referring to the biblical ark. “I mean, look, all the temples and the Tabernacle were built by Jews.”
In fact, Silver has built a scaled version of the Tabernacle that he keeps at home and uses to teach his children and students.
As for his February class of mezuzah-makers, Silver needn’t have worried. The session went off without a hitch as five blocks of walnut were carefully turned and shaved down into simple, but delicately beautiful, mezuzot. And five pleased customers walked away from the shop sliding their fingers up and down the smooth mezuzot.
So what did Netanya, Silver’s wife and “harshest critic,” think of his class?
“It was really nice,” she said, though she did slip in a last little quip that even on a “date night,” Silver had found a way to get her to sweep — class participants were expected to clean up the mounds of scattered wood shavings upon completing their mezuzah projects.
But Silver’s wife wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the class.
“It was great,” exclaimed Michael Lewitt, a 66-year-old physician from Berwyn.
Lewitt’s involvement with Philadelphia Woodworks began a year ago, he explained, after he returned from a kaleidoscope-making course in Arizona. A longtime admirer of the cylindrical devices that use mirrors to shift colors into ever-changing patterns, the course inspired him to make his own.
Since then, he has taken several courses at Philadelphia Woodworks to become better acquainted with woodworking — such as the mezuzah-making course and an earlier pen-making class that was also taught by Silver— and Lewitt said he plans to become a full-time member of the shop in hopes of completing an ambitious project to create his own wooden kaleidoscopes.
Lewitt added that he would give the mezuzah he made during the class as a gift to his brother, who recently moved into a new house.
Gift-giving appears to be typical of participants in the classes, which range in price from $59 to $299 depending on the course. Many also visit the shop more consistently as members, which costs $129 a year for unlimited access, according to Vogel.
“I’ve made a few gifts which I put more energy and love into than anything I could think of, for my now-fiancée,” Vogel said. “More than half the projects made in the shop are designed for gifts alone; they’re overwhelmingly made in the spirit of love and giving.”