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Westmoreland artist fashions "ark" from recycled wood for Reed Shul 

DAVID F. ASHTON - Rabbi Dov Bialo of the Southeast Portland Chabad House, left, is clearly pleased with the unique Aron Kodesh fashioned by Westmoreland resident Lenny Hoffman, at right, which will soon hold the schuls Torah scroll. When not working at his vocation – as a motion picture lighting director – Leonard “Lenny” Hoffman can often be found in his garage/workshop/studio at his Westmoreland home playing jazz music, building fanciful bicycles, and making furniture from reclaimed wood.

Throughout this past summer, Hoffman has been building a cabinet with religious significance – a Torah ark for the Southeast Portland Chabad House Jewish Student & Community Center, on S.E. Steele in the Reed neighborhood.

“I am very much part of my culture,” Hoffman told THE BEE. “I can’t separate myself from it. I argue with God all the time; because that’s what we do! I love the Rabbi and his people; they are wonderful people. Since I moved here they've been my ‘family’.

“I am the shammes [caretaker] of this schul [Jewish synagogue or temple],” Hoffman continued. “I was commissioned to build an Aron Kodesh [Torah ark, or cabinet] for the schul.”

Being the creative craftsman that he is, Hoffman said he wanted it to be unique. So, in keeping with the Portland spirit, he sourced out old-growth, locally-harvested Douglas fir, black walnut, maple, and oak wood, reclaimed from deconstructed homes in the area.

“I studied furniture-making in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I lived as a teenager and early adult life,” Hoffman explained. “This tradition of furniture-making combines crudeness and elegance. For decades, I’ve built hand-carved doors for mansions, pie safes, hoosier cabinets, tables, and benches.

“So, for this Torah ark, I’ve chosen to leave the wood as I found it, nail holes and all,” Hoffman said. “Instead of hiding them, I featured the imperfections. I think that’s where the beauty lies in the wood – in the imperfections.”

The carpenter who nailed the reclaimed wood in place 100 years ago thought his work was over, and no one would ever see it again, he added. “I've chosen to make it part of this, so his work becomes part of the blessing in this ark.”

The design of the cabinet, including a cupola, is a design reminiscent of the architecture seen in his father’s shtetl [a small town with large Jewish population], called Apshitsa, in Ukraine, Hoffman remarked.

Coming to see the progress of the project was Rabbi Dov Bialo of the Southeast Portland Chabad House. He smiled broadly as he looked over the cabinet that would soon hold their Torah scroll.

“We have programs at our schul for students in the area from age of 18 months to the age of over 100 years,” Bialo said. “In any schul, you'll find the Aron Kodesh, right in the front, on the east wall, to hold the Torah scroll. The Torah has the five books of Moses – every word, from beginning to end. If there is even one cracked letter, it needs to be fixed before it can be used again.

“And, when the Torah has a proper ‘home’, it imparts an unbelievably good feeling for everyone participating, because it creates a certain space – where you feel that you’re in a place that you need to be, just like the Torah is in a place that it needs to be,” Bialo explained.

This is also a story about how Hoffman is giving back to his community, Bialo commented. “He’s using the talents that he was given. The idea of ‘making a donation’ is one thing; but the giving of his sweat and creativity is something exceptionally good.”

Learn more about Hoffman’s many interests online: www.lennyhoffman.com.

And, more information about Southeast Portland Chabad House Jewish Student & Community Center is available online at: www.seportlandchabad.com.