On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Vayak'heil-P'kudei: Creating the Power of a Space with Michael Arad

Michael Arad, the visionary architect who designed New York’s National 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site, joins Rabbi Rick Jacobs in this episode of On the Other Hand. They discuss the double portion of Vayak’heil-P’kudei, what it means when a space fosters community, and Arad’s design for a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares his thoughts on the Torah portion, and some weeks, he has a guest. This week is a very special guest indeed: he's joined by Michael Arad, the world-renowned architect perhaps most well-known for his design of the National September 11th Memorial at the World Trade Center reflecting absence, though he is now actively involved in the memorial of the Charleston Church Massacre in 2015, and even in discussion about the new designs for the Kotel. But what's interesting about their conversation is how they talk about holy space and what creates it.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week we focus our attention on Parashat Vayak'heil and the very last parashah, P'kudei, it's actually a double-portion. These are the two concluding portions of the Book of Exodus, is the two portions that really describe the actual building of the ancient Mishkan, the ancient Tabernacle that our ancestors built and carried and erected in their journeying through the desert.

And what a gift today to be sitting with Michael Arad, one of the most gifted architects and visionaries, really, in our day. Michael designed the World Trade Center Memorial, the 9/11 Memorial that is in lower Manhattan that has just been inspirational to millions of people. You've also had the opportunity over the last couple of years to work on a project of great importance to the Jewish people. Specifically, you've designed an extraordinary design for the egalitarian pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall. So, I'd like to just sort of step back, I feel like I get a chance to talk to B'tzalel, who in the Bible is the one behind all of the -- not only with design but the building [of the Mishkan].

And can I just ask you Michael, first of all you're not B'tzalel, you're Michael. But what is it in the project that you've done that feel like they're sacred? There's a sacred dimension to the planning, to the thinking, and to the actual project itself.

[Michael:] Thank you. That's a big question and I'm not sure how to answer it with humility but... I think if I can be specific, a lot in Parashat Vayak'heil is about specificity. What I tried to do is create places that foster a sense of community. And if you look at the name of the parashah, Vayak'heil, it is rooted in this notion of a community. What brings us together as individuals, makes us part of something greater. And it is about taking very concrete elements and [in] Vayak'heil, there's this whole very sort of tedious list of so many posts, and so many planks, and so many sockets. But it is about creating something that in its totality creates a space that brings people together in a sense of community. And the 9/11 memorial there was about creating a public space for people to gather. And what drove me and the design of that space were my own experiences in New York and places like Washington Square and like Union Square. And I think those places were essential to New Yorkers in the aftermath of that attack. They were the places where you could walk to alone and be in the presence of others. And the presence of others, in the days that followed the attack, was what gave us, I think, this sort of collective sense of ability to..to understand or to respond to, not to understand -- the aftermath. It gave New Yorkers, I think, a sense of stoicism and compassion and perseverance. So, that's one thing that I was looking to do in the design of the 9/11 Memorial Plaza, was to create a public place of assembly that you could come to alone, but not be alone at. It was, you know, as an architect, just before our talk, I sort of read the chapter again, and you know, it struck me almost like a set of specifications that any project nowadays that I'm engaged in would have. You know, the dozens of drawings and then a big thick tome of specifications, you know, this copper wiring needs to be this thick, and you know, this door needs to be rated to this little sound translation. But at the end of the day it's you know, as an architect, you work so often with the most basic materials and the most rudimentary sense of construction technology. But what you can do with that can be great. I think that's where creativity comes to the forefront, it's and in the constraints that exist.

[Rabbi Rick:] So, let me just share a story as to how you came to work on the Western Wall. I mean, the 9/11 memorial is for all of us to draw strength from and to find community -- just as you describe it, Vayak'heil, it really makes us into committee when you're there with strangers, you have the people were remembering, you have the moment that many of us vividly remember. You've succeeded to create a sacred community, over and over again as we go through it. We were sitting in the prime minister's office a couple of years back, and we were we were complaining to the prime minister that we didn't have a design that was worthy of one of the most consequential places on the planet, the Western Wall, and particularly the egalitarian, pluralistic space. And the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, said "We need someone like Michael Arad." And I remember that moment vividly, my face lit up. "Yes indeed! We need someone like Michael Arad."

The question was, would Michael Arad help, not only think about it, but get inside and look at the ancient stones and the setting and what it could be? What was that project like? It sounds like it was different than some of the others, but maybe there were some common elements to how you thought about it and what you were able to create. Just to be clear, that design has not yet been accepted or built, but if one day there would be your design in that space, I can tell people -- it would be one of the most transformational spaces that we would ever experience.

[Michael:] Thanks again. You know, when you reached out to me and told me about that conversation and the project, I began the project with a lot of apprehension, because I think there are many hurdles and difficulties to its realization. In a project like this, I think being engaged with groups like the Reform Movement here and in Israel, and with Women of the Wall, and all the other stakeholders, was very important to me as a Jew and as an American Jew and as an Israeli Jew, and in some ways I feel like I'm sort of in-between and in betwixt here. I grew up both in Israel and in the U.S., and I can see things from both perspectives. And are certainly more than two perspectives, not one for each. But I see in this project the potential to really broaden the definition of what it means to be a Jew in Israel. And I feel that that definition is extremely constrained right now and not fair to many people. So that's what drew me to participate in this project, because I think it does have the ability to change society, to change the community, to change the country. I think the odds of success are very slim, but the effort is nonetheless very important. And I think even if the project doesn't get built, if it changes the conversation around these issues, if it allows this sort of a more pluralistic and egalitarian agenda to make some headway in Israel, then it will have been an effort well spent.

[Rabbi Rick:] So one of the great moments is when Anat Hoffman, the amazing leader of Women of the Wall and also the executive director of Israel's Religious Action Center, just a force for change in Israel. When Anat, who was very resistant to the idea of leaving the women's section, that she really was fighting with Women of the Wall for the right to be fully free to pray in whatever way in which Women of the Wall wanted in the women's section, and she was resistant to go to the [other] site -- until you unveiled your drawings. And Anat's quote was, "I thought by going to the egalitarian pluralistic prayer space at Robinsons Arch, that we would be, in a sense, putting ourselves in the back of the bus. And I refuse to be on the back of any bus," she said. "But, with the design being so anchored in the archaeology and in the history, but also in a sense of aesthetic beauty," she said, "this is no longer the back of the bus or the front of the bus -- this is a jet plane. This is an entirely different way to experience something ancient, but something very modern same time.".

Which is your definition of changing the way people think about what it might mean to be Jewish, be a person of faith in the 21st century, and frankly, how they might encounter the ancient and the modern simultaneously. And I think you have to have changed that conversation. And to think of course as the Temple that was built in Jerusalem is the Temple that was built on the model of the Mishkan and the Ohel Mo’ed that we carried through the desert. There is a continuity for the Torah portion, and for this design in particular, but also the way in which space -- sacred space -- can change not just a person's view of that space, but maybe even their view of the world, and what's sacred in that world.

[Michael:] I was very happy with Anat's reaction to such a key part of this whole effort. And when we started this process, I think there was this phrase that was battered, you know, bandied around, which was sort of, "separate but equal." And that did not sit well with me, and I didn't feel like we could create a separate but equal space. It had to be separate, but different. And that's what drove me in its effort. And if you look at the Kotel today, and let's call it the northern Kotel and the southern Kotel, which is the northern Kotel which exist today and is considered, you know, controlled by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, it is this kind of hard place, in many ways. It's about this vast stone plaza that kind of came about after '67 with the removal of an entire neighbor that had been there, and the space it had been somewhat intimate and small before. The sort of narrow, but very tall space became something very different.

The site that we were directed to look at is remarkable. It sits right at the corner of the Temple Mount, and I think that as you approach it today from Sha'ar Ha'ashpot, from the Dung Gate, and you come up that hill and you look up at, it towers over you. Much more than the other Kotel. In part because of the archaeological excavations, which have exposed the Herodian-era streets. And so, as you're walking on the stones, which were the street beds 2000 years ago, you can see the stores which flanked the Temple Precinct, you can see the enormous stones which are part of the Temple that were, you know, that was destroyed by the Romans -- and the stones cascaded down from up above to the street level, and they're lying there, enormous stones. You feel it, in my mind, at least, a much more visceral and direct connection to the history of this site. Which is not to negate what's happening at the other Plaza, but it's to say that it's a different space in many ways. It had a series of challenges associated with it because you are at the level of the Herodian street.

And the other Kotel is some, probably, 30-40 feet above it. The visibility of that space as you approach the northern Kotel is constrained. There is also the sort of the queuing to get on that ramp that leads up to the Mughrabi Gate, which is the only gate that's open to tourists who visit the Dome of the Rock. And there is some very sort of basic logistical and topographical problems that had to be addressed right away. What we suggested was that instead of one vast plaza, you would have a series of terraced spaces that made their way from the level of the Herodian street up to the level of the contemporary street. And these platforms would create shade below them, so you can still have access to this entire archaeological site, which has tremendous significance and over many years it's been carefully and laboriously studied and excavated, but also create spaces above them. Some of them even verdant spaces, which would create shade, and allow for groups to either segregate themselves sort of organically, or group themselves together across multiple levels.

[Rabbi Rick:] So we think back to the Torah text from Exodus where it says "vayak'heil," right, the process was a building of community. And it happened in the ancient building because the people came together, they freely offered their talents, their open-heartedness. They became participants and collaborators in giving the materials and helping to create the space, and it made them into a community. Let's say that process also in the aftermath of 9/11, when we were simply bereft, overwhelmed, that in that process and in the building your design, has helped to bring together our community, and I think --

[Michael:] I thank you for that, but I actually think where you saw that sort of organic community happening was actually in the rescue and recovery effort. Where people just came. Anybody who had tools or talent just came to the site. And that happened organically. The rebuilding. It was a little more complex, or a little more complicated.

[Rabbi Rick:] But I'll just say that the Kotel. Everyone was asked to bring tov b'libo, everyone was asked in the ancient building to bring the best that they had. And I think your project and the project to create this new space is to create a larger sense of "we," the larger sense of who is our Jewish community, how can we make a place for everyone, how can everyone be a part of it? And I think some of that is a larger spiritual challenge, but some of it is actually an architectural redesign -- which you have done. So, I want to thank you not only for helping us to think about Parashat Vayak'heil, but to rethink about some of the ways in which sacred space can help us live in this moment, but also turn our attention and expand us to live in a more whole way with others with whom we disagree, with whom we have different ideas about what being Jewish is, what even that space is. So, you ask us to reach deep in and far to be able to follow you.

So, we just continue to be excited about what your journey will unveil along the way. And thank you for all that you do -- and whether we build that site at the Kotel, which I pray we still will.

[Michael:] B'shana haba'ah b'Yerushalayim!

[Rabbi Rick:] We have that faith! You have already changed the way we do that, to modern-day B'tzalel, todah rabah, thank you so much for today, for yesterday, and for tomorrow.

[Michael:] Thank you.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including ritual, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!