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Wednesday
Feb102016

“AND YOU SHALL MAKE AN ARON”

The boy from the vocational school in Kfar Chabad, when asked to construct an Aron Kodesh for his father’s shul, blazed a new trail in shul furnishings. To mark the sidra in which we read of the design of the aron and the Mishkan, we met with Pinchas Lachiani, owner of “Finish” synagogue furnishings, who has devoted his life to beautify miniature sanctuaries in Eretz Yisroel and abroad. * Lachiani shares moving stories and tells of the life altering month that he spent with the Rebbe, about his personal encounter with the Rebbe, the mysterious blessing he received as a boy and which was understood years later, and which aron kodesh required rappelling to construct.

By Zalman Tzorfati

When you ask Pinchas Lachiani what his dream is, he immediately responds with  furnishing the Beis HaMikdash. He has no doubt this will happen, but until the Beis HaMikdash in Yerushalayim is built, speedily in our days, he suffices with building  furniture for miniature sanctuaries in Eretz Yisroel and abroad.

“At any given moment, we are working on between seven and fifteen projects simultaneously,” he says.

When he says “we,” he refers primarily to the “Finish” company under his ownership, which constructs furnishings for shuls. When he says projects, he means holy arks, bimos (Torah reading platform), lecterns for the chazan, libraries, chairs and tables and dozens of other items that are used to furnish a shul.

Thirty plus years in the business means he has quite a few stories. In honor of the weeks in which we read about how the Mishkan was constructed with all its furnishings, we heard some behind the scenes stories about the making of holy arks and about Pinchas Lachiani himself.

UNUSUAL PRIZE

The field of shul furnishings has undergone a major transformation over the past decades. Throughout Jewish history, starting with the construction of the Mishkan, then later with the Beis HaMikdash in Yerushalayim, and finally with the great shuls in the Diaspora, craftsmen fashioned furnishings out of wood and decorated them with exquisite carvings.

Whether it was due to financial pressure or the physical and emotional state of life in Eretz Yisroel fifty and sixty years ago, very little was put into furnishings for shuls. The furnishings were mostly made by ordinary carpenters who used simple materials and without any special design. Shul furnishings began looking more and more like simple home furnishings.

Over the past three decades however, things began to change. Many factories have sprung up specializing in furnishings for shuls. One of the people leading the way in this industry is Pinchas Lachiani, a graduate of the carpentry track in the vocational school in Kfar Chabad, who became the owner of one of the biggest manufacturing companies in the field.

Pini was a young boy from Kiryat Gat who was sent to the vocational school in Kfar Chabad. From the time he can remember, he was drawn to woodworking. As a boy, he spent hours building small models and furnishings out of wood, so choosing to enroll in the carpentry track was a natural outgrowth of his hobby.

In 5738, something happened which turned out to be a watershed moment in his life. He was chosen, along with seven other boys, as outstanding students of the year. To acknowledge their excellence, they won a most unusual prize, especially for those days. They flew to 770!

“We spent an entire month with the Rebbe together with our Hebrew subjects teacher, R’ Shlomo Giladi. We arrived before Purim and returned home Erev Pesach. I remember nearly every moment from that visit to the Rebbe. I remember the path when the Rebbe came down for davening. We waited for the Rebbe and there was a huge crowd. It seemed like not even a pin could fit and I wondered how the Rebbe would get through. Suddenly the path opened like a zipper in the crowd and the Rebbe went through the center. It was extraordinary.”

BE INVOLVED IN KODESH

Lachiani has another memory of that visit.

“I remember that one time a young guy came in for Mincha who looked homeless. He had long, matted hair, wore colorful clothing, and acted strange. I followed him and he stood not far from the Rebbe. Throughout the t’filla I noticed how the Rebbe glanced at him. I was very surprised because the Rebbe usually looked in his siddur, but this time, every few moments, the Rebbe looked at him.

“Suddenly, toward the end of the t’filla, he burst into tears. He stood there and cried even after the Rebbe left. A week later I saw him again in 770. This time he came dressed normally and had a haircut. He looked like a genuine baal teshuva.”

Although he had many powerful experiences, the most powerful event of that visit was the personal encounter he had on the day he returned.

“The Rebbe came out to us in the hallway near his room. We all stood there and each one of us passed by the Rebbe. The Rebbe expressed interest in the personal details of each one of us and blessed us with a good trip. When I passed by, the Rebbe asked me what I was studying and I said carpentry. The Rebbe said, ‘Be involved in holiness,’ an answer that I understood only much later.

WORD OF MOUTH

Pini returned home and finished his schooling and military duty and began to work in carpentry. A month later, he heard about an older carpenter who wanted to sell his carpentry business. Pini mobilized all of his resources and bought the small business. He built furniture of all kinds but divine providence guided him toward something more significant.

“A short while after I began working independently, congregants in my father’s shul in Kiryat Gat asked me to build a new aron kodesh for the shul. The gabbaim were very satisfied with my work and word got around. I suddenly found myself working exclusively on furnishings for shuls. I looked around and discovered that no other carpentry business specialized in this. Until then, carpenters made shul furniture according to the standards of household furnishings. The results were shul furnishings that were simple and basic. I saw there was a demand and I began focusing on this specialized field. It was the demand that engendered the idea and we expanded more and more until we set up a real factory.”

That is how the “Finish” company was born. Finish today is one of the largest designers and manufacturers in the world for synagogue furniture.

“Our company is in the Kanot industrial park. We build everything for shuls and also do special, custom projects. Our motto is realizing the dream of anyone who builds a shul. Sometimes it’s the gabbai, sometimes the donor, rabbi, Admur, or interior designer. There is no job we’ve gotten for which we haven’t come through.”

HANDMADE

The company specializes in carvings and engravings which are all done by hand.

“We have an engraving machine called CNC. This machine works with a special computer on which you design a sample and the machine makes it, but we don’t work with it. I think that computerized engraving takes all the soul out of the carvings,” says Lachiani.

The business employs close to thirty craftsmen in carving and engraving on various levels. Most of them are from the former Soviet Union.

“Once, while putting together an aron kodesh, a Russian immigrant with a background in copper engraving came over to me and asked whether I was looking for an engraver. I asked him to make me something with the twelve tribes and since then, he has become one of the head craftsmen here. The great aliya from the former Soviet Union brought many craftsmen who worked in sculpting and engraving. They did this in all sorts of disparate fields. I took all these talents and directed them to k’dusha.”

Lachiani takes special pride in his work for the shluchim around the world. One of the things that moves him is when he is asked to build a replica of the Rebbe’s chair.

“We recently finished a big project in Hungary where I was asked to make a chair like that for Moshiach.”

It’s not only shluchim. Many communities, rabbanim and Admurim around the world prefer to order from Eretz Yisroel.

“Our company has an international reputation,” he says. In those cases, they arrange for transport in a shipping container, pack the furnishings well, and send an assembly team to put it all together at the destination. “The assembly is no less important than the construction,” he says. “Sometimes, unprofessional assembly can ruin the whole thing.”

THE SHAPE OF THE LUCHOS

I wonder whether Lachiani runs into disagreements concerning the design of the luchos (tablets). He says, “As a graduate of a Chabad school, my default choice is always square luchos, unless the customer explicitly asks for another style. More than once, this topic has led to fascinating discussions with Torah greats. R’ Avrohom Kook, head of the yeshiva Orchos HaTorah in Rechovot, once came to the factory to see how the work he had ordered was coming along. While he was here, R’ Eliezer Brod, rav of the yishuv Karmei Yosef, was here too. R’ Brod tried to convince R’ Kook to change the shape of the luchos he had ordered to square ones. The two of them began to discuss the topic of the shape of the luchos and the menorah. In the end, R’ Kook stuck to his position, but it was interesting to see the discussion between the two rabbis.”

Lachiani has worked for known rabbis in Eretz Yisroel and the world over such as R’ Mordechai Eliyahu, R’ Ovadia Yosef, R’ Shlomo Amar and Admurim and roshei yeshiva. Often, these jobs entail long meetings with the staff and sometimes with the rabbanim themselves who get involved in the small details.

THE ARON BUILT HANGING FROM A RAPPEL HARNESS

When you ask Pinchas Lachiani what has been the highlight of his career, he unhesitatingly says furnishing the Churva shul. Although he has more than thirty years of experience working on complicated and impressive projects, refurbishing the old aron kodesh of the Churva shul in Yerushalayim which soars twelve meters high is his greatest source of pride.

“The auditorium of the old Churva shul in the Old City of Yerushalayim is twelve meters high, and parts of it are gilded in pure gold. We placed a bid at tender along with seven other craftsmen. We had long meetings with professionals and architects and showed them our work and detailed for them our methods. In the end, we were chosen thanks to our engraving done by hand. The work was so complicated that no machine, as advanced as it might be, could have done it.

“We got a pile of hundreds of photos from museums and other collections. We began processing them one by one with special computer programs. We enlarged the pixels and made corrections so the etchings could be seen clearly. Through painstaking meticulous work, we managed to reconstruct the unique designs on the aron kodesh photographically. Then we began the implementation stage which was not at all simple.”

Trucks and cranes cannot make their way through the narrow passageways of the Old City, so they had to contend with endless technical challenges that kept cropping up.

“It was complicated work the likes of which we never experienced before. We had to think about every detail. You cannot drive in the Old City and we had to think about how to transport materials through the narrow lanes. In the end, after we brought all the parts, we built scaffolding, as is done in jobs like this, but then we saw that because of the conditions of the place, the scaffolding at that height was moving like leaves in the wind. My son eventually came up with an original solution; he lowered himself from the roof with rappelling cables and that is how we assembled the aron kodesh.”

MOVING STORIES

“One time, gabbaim from a certain shul came to me and said they have a donor for a new aron kodesh. I arranged a meeting with them and the donor, who was a respected businessman and quite affluent. He seemed to be quite impressed by our work, and in the course of our meeting he told me that he was donating an aron kodesh to his father’s shul.

“He said that his father was one of the founders of the shul and that he had davened there all his life. Since the aron kodesh was first built it had undergone a number of renovations, and since his father died recently, he wanted to donate a new aron l’ilui nishmaso.

“We filled the order, built the aron and brought it to the shul. The old aron was built into an alcove. The walls in the alcove were covered with tapestries, which apparently were added during one of the renovations of the old aron.

“When we peeled off the tapestries we discovered an old memorial plaque where it said that this aron kodesh was donated in the merit of the newborn child as a merit for him and his success in life. The donor of the first aron was the father of the donor of the present aron and the baby was he himself. It was quite a moving moment.

“A similar story took place at a furnishings exhibit that took place at a large convention center in the center of the country. We built a big, special aron kodesh for the exhibit. During the exhibit, gabbaim from a shul in the south came and were very impressed by the aron. They measured it and saw that it perfectly matched the size they needed and they wanted to buy it.

“The next day they returned with a donor who came to see the aron for himself. He looked it over and then suddenly burst into tears. After he calmed down somewhat, he said he was donating the aron kodesh l’ilui nishmas his wife who recently died. He said, ‘When I came in, the hall was familiar to me but I did not remember from where. Then I suddenly remembered. This is where I met my wife for the first time. And here I am standing and choosing an aron kodesh to memorialize her.’”

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