Architect Stephen Schwartz and his wife, Bunny, hauled 70,000 Lego pieces from their Building Blocks Workshops in New Jersey to Beth El Congregation last weekend to host Lego Jerusalem — an event one had to see through to the end to believe.
At 10:15 last Sunday morning, about 130 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from Beth El’s religious school and about 60 grandparents and parents entered the synagogue’s Offit auditorium. On the floor lay a 400-square-foot architectural map of Jerusalem. It included details where walls, gates and historic landmarks were to be constructed, filling in the streets of the Old City. The multigenerational builders, expertly shepherded by Schwartz and his wife, were tasked to finish building the Old City by 11:45 a.m.
“I don’t think it’s going to work,” said Betty Cohen of Owings Mills, who attended with her grandchildren, Avery and Merrick Porter.
“Too much frutummel,” echoed her husband Norman Cohen.
According to Schwartz, he is used to hearing these comments from people at the outset. He admits it can seem like a daunting task and said “it looks like total chaos. However, I have this so orchestrated I know where we need to be at every minute.”
Schwartz began creating building-block events when his daughter, a second-grade teacher at the time, invited him to talk to her class.
“When I saw you could teach second-graders about city planning with Legos, I knew I was on to something,” said Schwartz. “I saw that people understand three-dimensional models so much more clearly than a two-dimensional drawing. It turns on the light.”
Someone at his synagogue heard about it and asked if he could add Jewish content. That was 18 years ago. Now Schwartz and his wife travel around the country hosting the construction events and have expanded to include cities and landmarks such as Masada and the Warsaw Ghetto and, most recently, a windmill map of New Jersey, helping people visualize where the windmills will be placed.
In the auditorium, grandparents, parents and children were shuffling around in stocking feet — a requirement for participation to protect
the map they all worked on — scooping up armfuls of building blocks and spreading out at tables or on the floor after receiving their structure assignments.
“I think it’s fabulous,” said Marlene Nusinov, attending with her granddaughter, Ella Nusinov. “I think it’s really smart, bringing grandparents and kids together. It brings families together and brings out the best in all the families.”
Brendan Collins attended Lego Jerusalem with his grandparents, Rona and Larry Snyder. Collins is a Lego fanatic and has a bin full of 450 Legos at home.
“I’m excited,” he said after being assigned to the team building David’s Tower.
Bernard Fox was hard at work on a section of wall around the city. His granddaughter, Jenna Aiken, was working with him.
“I didn’t start off excited, but I was curious,” said Fox, adding that working on the model was reminiscent of his childhood.
Lego Jerusalem was sponsored by Beth El’s Israel Affairs Committee and the Berman-Lipavsky Religious School. The event was designed for a Yom Hashoah remembrance and Israel celebration.
“We’ve taken the approach that we want to provide programs and activities that help educate and inform people about Israel, and that can take many forms,” said chairwoman Hedy From. “[The programming] is an opportunity to broaden our congregants’ and community’s understanding of all things Israeli. … This is not like anything we’ve done before.”
Lego Jerusalem was also intentionally scheduled in conjunction with the Bring Your Grandparent, Parent or Special Friend to School Day.
“In order to educate, we need to bring in hands-on activities that involve grandparents and children,” said Dr. Eyal Bor, director of education at Beth El. “Grandparents now have a greater impact on a child’s Jewish education than parents, different from what I witnessed 25 years ago.”
Matthew Sachs is a seasoned builder, and when his grandmother, Gloria Luchinsky, heard about this event she thought it was a perfect fit. Sachs likes to build 2,000-piece structures and has visited Jerusalem but said he has “never seen a bird’s-eye view of the city” like the map he worked on at Beth El. His grandfather, Ira Luchinsky, was seated on the floor opposite Sachs, working on his own section. Luchinsky laughed when he explained he grew up using Lincoln Logs and erector sets because “Legos hadn’t been invented yet.”
To the astonishment of most people in the room, right on time at about 11:45 the whole city really began to take shape. Groups that had been working “off the map” on the perimeter of the room began to place structures on their designated spots. The wall around the city was complete, the gates were in place, David’s Tower was in view.
“I didn’t think it would come together,” said Gerard Title, grandfather to Emily, Jessica and Rachel Bowers.
Then about 150 additional religious school children entered to partake, as Schwartz conducted his “walking tour” of Jerusalem for the group.
“So they get this amazing visual picture. Now they understand the city; they’ll never forget the Jaffa Gate because it’s on the Jaffa side,” said Schwartz. “I give them geography [during the tour] as well. And it stays with them as a visual lesson.”
Schwartz said in addition to the educational component, Legos have a creative component.
“I say, ‘I want you to use all your favorite colors. Because when we’re finished, I want you to be able to see what you contributed,’” said Schwartz. So it’s an activity that incorporates teamwork and individual expression.
At the end of the activity, as buildings were deconstructed and the blocks sorted back into bins, Israel Affairs Committee member Robert Cherkof observed of the event, “It went across all generations, just like the Ravens and the Colts.”