Nature and numbers inspire temple’s stained glass

Photo by Justin Katz
Photo by Justin Katz

Temple Isaiah sits in a rural part of Howard County. In the sanctuary, two tall, narrow, clear glass windows flank the bima — and by extension the Torah.

That’s how things stood since the Reform congregation moved in 13 years ago. Last week, those windows were replaced by six custom-made stained glass panels. One side of panels is decorated with pomegranates, the other with figs and grapes.

“This sanctuary has always been a beautiful place,” said Temple Isaiah Rabbi Craig Axler. “One thing that was not a part of the original design was stained glass windows.”

That’s where longtime members Ken and Cindy Hankin enter the story.

“The goal was to have stained glass [eventually], and for years, no one had the desire to see it come to fruition,” said Ken. “My wife and I talked about it, and we said that’s what we should do.  We weren’t solicited, we volunteered and said the sanctuary needs those stained glass windows.”

The Hankins funded the project. They worked with Axler and two California-based stained glass artists, David and Michelle Plachte-Zuieback. The project took a year and a half. When it was complete, the Plachte-Zuiebacks delivered their work by car — the only way they’ll transport their stained glass — and installed it.

Axler and David Plachte-Zuieback said that many of the design choices were influenced by gematria, or Jewish numerology. The background for the glass are stars of David laid out in a honeycomb; they total 27 stars on each side, giving a total of 54, representing the number of weekly Torah portions.

The glass also shows five pomegranates, representing the five books of the Torah. According to rabbinic tradition, a pomegranate is filled with seeds in the same way the Torah is filled with mitzvot, Axler said.

“Everything [is] intentional in its number,” said David. “In that way, it brings a level of symbolism that may not be obvious to someone. But as a teaching experience, it adds more meaning to the work.”

The uppermost panel of each window contains a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, the temple’s namesake.

“My spirit, which I’ve placed upon you, and my word which I’ve placed in your mouth,” reads the right-hand panel, “shall not be moved from you, or from your children, or from your children’s children, from now and for all time,” continues the left.

“[David and Michelle have] done some amazing projects and Cindy, Ken and I were really blown away by the beauty of their art,” said Axler. “Particularly, one of the things that all of us resonated with was the symbolism of nature in the Judaica art that they did.”

Ken Hankin said that when the artists were creating the design, he and his wife wanted a lot of imagery associated with nature because of Temple Isaiah’s rural location.The glass was installed in time for the synagogue’s annual meeting on May 24.

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