For seven demanding hours, Jason Gross hunched over his K'NEX model and painstakingly connected more than 2,000 colorful pieces. As each plastic pair snapped snugly together, the 13-year-old from Commack, Long Island, felt a surge of satisfaction. Nothing, he thought, beats the thrill of watching a model emerge out of nothingness.
During the past two months, these moments of creative joy had kept Jason enthused about his ambitious bar mitzvah project: to build K'NEX models of 12 historic synagogues-one for each table at his bar mitzvah reception.
The elaborate undertaking required hours of online research. Jason searched for synagogues with interesting design features or fascinating histories, or those which existed during defining moments of Jewish history. His hunt led him to discover that the chain of Jewish tradition has stretched around the world. "There were synagogues in countries, cities, and towns that I never knew existed," he says. For example, he was amazed to find that Jews had lived in Kaifeng, China, during the mid-17th century. Their elegant synagogue, which Jason chose to include in the project, borrowed design features from Chinese architecture.
Congregation Beth Elohim, built in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1841, also made Jason's final list; it was the first Reform congregation in the United States. Finally, a project of this magnitude would not be complete without at least one of the great synagogues that the Nazis destroyed in Eastern Europe during World War II. Jason honored the Tlomackie Street Synagogue in Warsaw, Poland.
With his research complete, Jason outlined plans for each model. "I had to be the architect, building manager, and builder all at the same time," he told BABAGANEWZ. He estimated that it would take more than 10,000 K'NEX pieces to finish the entire project. Fortunately, the company offered to donate as many pieces as Jason's mom could fit in her car, so she drove to K'NEX headquarters in Pennsylvania and crammed 50 boxes-about 1,000 pounds of K'NEX-in her minivan. Friends and family, including his sister Rachel, helped Jason unload and sort the pieces, and then, the master builder took over. In a whirlwind of creative energy, Jason finished all 12 synagogues one month before becoming a bar mitzvah in October 2004. As a finishing touch, he wrote a placard describing each synagogue's history.
The magnificent centerpieces have attracted attention from museum curators around the country. Since premiering at his bar mitzvah party, the models have been displayed at New York City's Yeshiva University Museum, the Lisa Ann Watson Children's Discovery Museum in Miami, and various other places.
"I am glad," says Jason, "that I could help other people learn about Jewish history."