Home December 2011 More than a Symbol

More than a Symbol

Who will ever forget that Tuesday, September 11, 2001, when we all watched our television sets in horror for 102 minutes as terrorists in planes, hijacked from American Airlines and United Airlines, crashed into the World Trade Centers North and South Towers in Manhattan and then headed into the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania?
The trauma of that day still resonates among us when the date rolls around.  The loss of life was overwhelming, and the sight of those towers coming down almost unbelievable.  Now, ten years later, how many of us know of two six-and-a-half foot high menorahs, commissioned in 1981, which stood in the lobbies of those buildings, waiting to be lit for Chanukah?
Recently, I received an e-mail from Oregon describing the menorahs and putting me in touch with the artists who had designed and executed these favorite holiday symbols.  The menorahs, sadly, met the same fate as the towers and the victims; the caller suggested that something should be done about it.
The original menorahs, I learned from Bonnie Srolovitz Berkowicz, were requested in 1981 by the Port Authority of New Jersey and New York who said they would be lit during the holiday celebrations in the Twin Towers.  “I thought that would be easy,” said Bonnie in a phone interview from the Berkowicz Studios in Mt. Vernon, N.Y.  “I planned to buy one ‘off the shelf’, so I went looking to purchase one.”  But she soon found none available in the size she needed.  “That surprised me.  I discovered there was little in the way of outstanding Judaica, so I decided to design one myself.”  Her original ones were used that year.
New Jersey born and a graduate of Rutgers and Syracuse Universities in engineering, art and industrial design, Berkowicz had been hired by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to work in their small engineering department right after graduation, so it was not unusual for the managerial staff to ask her to come up with menorahs for the Twin Towers.  “There were already Christmas decorations — trees and other holiday decorations.  But the Shomrim Society [the local Jewish Port Authority Police Society, meaning ‘guardians’] had requested that there should be a Jewish presence also.”
The menorahs were used for several years, when, suddenly, due to a challenge by some citizens that the menorah was a “religious symbol,” thereby an issue of separation of church and state on public land, it was declared they should not be in the Twin Towers, and the menorahs were ultimately banished.  Apparently, trees and Christmas balls were okay, observed Bonnie, but menorahs were not.  Furthermore, it was not known who broached the issue in the first place.
In 1989, however, there was a reversal of the court decision, Bonnie recalled, and the menorah once again became acceptable as a holiday decoration.  But in the interim, the old ones had been put into storage by the Port Authority and “disappeared,” laughed Bonnie.  “We didn’t know what happened to them.”
Also by 1989, Bonnie and Michael Berkowicz were working together as a company, Berkowicz Designs (after an auspicious introduction), and new menorahs were created of brass, stainless steel and marble, six-and-a-half feet high – handsome and contemporary to fit the times – and ready to be lighted for Chanukah 1991.  They were lit for the last time in the World Trade Center during Chanukah of 2000.
Earlier, Michael was managing a showroom in the New York Design Center as a furniture designer when Bonnie, on the suggestion of a mutual friend and photographer, went to the showroom thinking she would put her Judaica items on sale there.  The rest is history.  They formed a team that to date has won innumerable awards, co-founded the American Guild of Judaic Art and is widely known for outstanding designs of synagogue sanctuaries and furniture.  Michael also was honored with the American Institute of Architects Award for a piece that he designed.
Michael was born of Polish parents in Siberia, where they had fled during the Holocaust.  “It wasn’t so bad,” admitted Berkowicz, “and actually my father did pretty well there.”  But after the war, the family returned to Poland and Wroclaw (Breslau) and found that their entire family of sisters and brothers, 15 on both sides, had perished among the millions.  He went to a Yiddish school and got involved in the scouting movement and the Yiddish theater.  “I grew up in an anti-religious society in Siberia, and then I moved to Poland and learned Yiddish, attended summer camp and read the Torah.  Who would imagine I would read the Torah?”  By the time he was 19 and a student at a technical school in Poland, he, his brother, mother and father moved to America.  Here he studied physics at City College of New York and established himself in various companies, in managerial positions and, interestingly, in design.
Lured into Judaica design by Bonnie with her passion for her love of Jewish life and industrial design talent, Michael said their goal is to bring the awareness of artistic and contemporary Judaica up to a level of acceptance and aesthetic to the American Jewish community.  “We are building the heirlooms of the future,” said Michael.
Bonnie’s parents were founding members of the New Jersey Temple Emanu-El where she grew up, and when the congregation decided to build a new synagogue, she learned how much “the power of the design of a building can have on the experience within.”
Today, they not only have a gift line of Judaica, but have evolved into synagogue interiors and furnishings …and menorahs.  Michael explained that it is “most important that the new menorahs have a similar design to the former ones.  They will be made of stainless steel with brass details, granite and marble and 8 or 9 feet tall, larger than the first ones, in order to reflect more of the proportions of the actual towers themselves.”
These will not be just any menorahs, he said.  “They should give a message.  The new ones have a certain symbolism, rededication; suddenly they have become far more than a sacred object.  The renewal is no longer a symbolic element of our past history, but our own today’s history.  Those modifications that Bonnie mentioned will underscore the connection with the WTC renewal celebration.  We are thinking of a couple of approaches.  Weaving four strips of the American flag [into the branches] will relate to our history here.”  As they work on a scaled down model of the new menorah design, Michael said they want the materials to reflect the towers in a more contemporary way for today’s generation.
They also are working on a commission for a Holocaust Memorial in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  “The Jews there felt it was the proper thing to do.  It’s right across the street from the capitol building, a prestigious site 150 feet wide and 55 feet deep.  You can see this isn’t just a business; it’s a way of life,” Michael insisted.
He said they expect the menorahs to be part of the rededication ceremonies in New York sometime in 2013 when the new Towers are completed.  The Shomrim Society is working on this.  “It’s only right,” added Bonnie.
Bonnie and Michael Berkowicz can be reached at Berkowicz Designs or info@designs-ltd.com.

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