One-of-a-kind commission fills a Jewish temple's 'Sacred Space'

New Mexico woodworker/sculptor Michael Semsch carved a unique 'Tree of Life' for a Washington, DC-area synagogue.

By Helen Kuhl


Custom woodworkers generally give each job they are awarded a great deal of care and serious attention. But when the project is to create suitable furnishings for a religious sanctuary, it becomes an even more challenging task.

Such was a project undertaken by woodworker Michael Semsch of Eagle Nest, NM. Semsch was commissioned by Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD, to provide a majority of the furnishings for a renovation of its sanctuary "Bimah" area. Working from an idea presented by Joan Koslan-Schwartz, a tapestry artist who also worked on the renovation, Semsch created a hand-carved "Tree of Life" to fill the synagogue's "sacred space." It provided an inspiring and symbolic ambiance reflective of the temple's religious and environmentally activist beliefs, as well as serving the practical functions of pulpit, Ark (in which the Torah scrolls are held), seating, reading desks and wedding table/music stand. The three-year project resulted in a unique artistic creation.

"Throughout human existence, all peoples and cultures have created sacred space," said Rabbi Warren Stone of Temple Emanuel in writing about the sanctuary project. "Sacred space, the sanctuary throughout Jewish history has always been a central emotional, spiritual and deeply symbolic place for the Jewish people. There, prayer, Torah study, community and life's celebrations, speak to the soul of the Jew."

Rabbi Stone said that his congregation is environmentally active and wanted the new sanctuary to reflect that. "We wanted to use a wood species that is not endangered. We also have an energy policy in the Temple and have a solar-powered 'eternal light,'" he said. A stone "Wall of Remembrance," which is at the back of the sanctuary, was made using indigenous Maryland stone.

Semsch said that Koslan-Schwartz had the idea for using the banyan tree as the model for the sanctuary's Tree of Life. He went to a local library and found a picture of a banyan in a children's encyclopedia and worked from it.

"The ancient banyan tree is found on many continents. It is a huge tree that sends out branches which become rooted and grow out," Rabbi Stone said. "We like that image as the Tree of Life that holds our Torah and Ark -- the image of reaching out. We also believe that as we face the future, clergy and lay people need to be partners in life. So the sanctuary does not have any high seating for the clergy; it's all on an equal level."

Close to 10 tons of tulip poplar were used to create the Tree of Life. Eleven asymmetrical verticals create an interconnected outer rim and an inner "sanctuary" of trees. The tree spans the sanctuary and is about 42 feet across, stretching 16 feet from the wall. Its highest point is about 191Ú2 feet.

A series of benches flow from the tree. Ritual objects, including candles and spice boxes, rest on niches in the tree. An Ark holds the Torah and is decorated with a hand-woven tapestry on which are stitched 25 verses of ancient Jewish wisdom. Tree "roots" are used for podiums for the religious leaders and one holds a synthesizer keyboard.

Semsch, who has been a furnituremaker/sculptor for more than 20 years, said that this was his biggest undertaking to date. "I approached the tree as if it were already there," Semsch said. "Most of it is connected, with the exception of the pulpits and a few pieces. I built a one-inch scale model of it, because I had problems with it when I tried to draw it. I designed things for balance and for visual effect."

To accommodate the size of the project, he rented a large warehouse near his shop. "It wasn't deep enough. But it had a dirt floor, so I dug it out and recreated the synagogue area. It was very cold to work in. But I had to be able to put it together, because the ceiling of the sanctuary is angled. There were three different angles in the space I was dealing with and the tree hits it at 14 different places."

Poplar for the project was supplied by Kitts Enterprises Inc. in Albuquerque, NM. Kitts' business manager, John Mortensen, called the project "one of the seven woodworking wonders of the world." Semsch said that he "guesstimated" how much lumber to order based on his scale model. "I was fairly good at that," he said. "I ended up with only about 12 extra boards at the end."

The tree was built piece by piece, starting with the central area and adding on to it, Semsch said. It was all hand carved using hand tools. Semsch laminated the poplar to create curves or turns. The actual construction took about 11Ú2 years and encompassed about 50 different pieces. It is finished with tung oil.

"I did it alone and the individual pieces were heavy. It was an engineering feat," he said. "When it was finished, I rounded up some people to help me take it apart. We wrapped each piece with plastic bubble wrap and put it on a truck. I drove it to the temple and put it back together."

Semsch said that it took him about four days to reassemble the tree on-site. "I was lucky that it fit perfectly; I didn't have to adjust anything," he said.

The tree was installed at the end of July and, after the installation, Semsch was married under it on July 31. Formal dedication ceremonies for the entire sanctuary renovation were held November 15.

Semsch said that as an artist, the project was a real challenge. But once he had created the model, he knew how to go about the actual construction. He said that the most difficult part of the project was its size.

"Because of its size, it took so much longer to do everything," he said. "It became a challenge to figure out how to move the pieces once I had them glued up. A lot of learning went on. That was the hardest. And then, just physically, there was so much whacking (the chisels) with a mallet. It became a robotic function. It was physically hard."

The end result is a provocative and unique "sacred space" that matches the spirit and beliefs of the congregation.

"There is great power when you go into the sanctuary," Rabbi Stone said. "You feel the power of the beauty of the wood, the stone, the fabrics, the bronze work and the fused glass. They all say that we are connected to the earth. We need to find the light in the forest that gives us strength and renews our spirits.

"Michael is an extraordinary wood sculptor and has a tremendous sense of vision," he added. "He is a mighty artist, as mighty as the Tree of Life he created."

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