NATICK — They prefer to work in circles. In their three decades of volunteerism together, a group of amateur woodworkers have refurbished their Temple Israel with furniture and fixtures designed not with right angles, but curling shapes that suggest the scrolls of the Torah.
The curves suggest something else, too: the natural flow of life that has come to define the group’s unusual route to community service. In a roundabout, unplanned manner, the Ark Builders (as they call themselves) have become something of an institution around town.
There’s a phrase, tikkan olum, that means “repairing the world,” says Jay Ball, one of the four original members of a group that has grown to include the help of at least 20 volunteers.
“We feel we’re trying to do that,” he says. “But mostly we do it because we have fun working together.”
Ball and his son David have just published a book, “Ark Builders: Worship Through Woodworking,” commemorating the group’s work. It traces the builders origin to 1985, when the temple was trying to figure out how to accommodate nearly a thousand congregants expected during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
When a task committee recommended mounting a tent in the parking lot to accommodate the overflow crowd, Ball and fellow congregant Jon Miller looked into buying a new reader’s desk and an ark to hold the Torah in the temporary space.
But Ball says the two men decided that the options on the market were pricey, uninspired, and impractical — the temple had no real space to store furniture that would be used just three days a year. So they suggested building collapsible pieces of their own design.
A handful volunteered to do the work, including Ball, Miller, Fred Merkowitz, and Ben Greenberg. There were reasons for misgivings about the group, however.
“None of us ever were or are master woodworkers,” says Ball. “We were engineers, and one guy who owned a paint shop [Greenberg]. Only one guy [Miller] had any woodworking experience at all.”
At least, they told themselves, the engineers were used to reading schematic designs, and they felt confident they could learn to work with wood. Greenberg had a big space on an upper floor of his paint and wallpaper business that they could use as a workshop.
Their enthusiasm proved more than enough to overcome their lack of experience. “We said, ‘We don’t know that we can’t do this,’ ” recalls Ball. “And we’ve gotten progressively better. We have reasonably good skills at this point, but it’s taken us three decades to get here.”
Emboldened by those first projects, the initial group of about a half-dozen volunteers offered to begin renovating the main sanctuary. Rabbi Harold Kushner, known outside the temple community as the author of the 1978 bestseller “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” (he’s now the temple’s rabbi laureate), gave them the go-ahead. The men dove into the work, producing a new ark for the Torah, a new reading desk, a tallis chest, and more. Eventually they built new steps to the bimah (the raised platform for Torah readings) — curved, of course.
“There is no structure, no precedent,” says Greenberg. “Somebody has an idea, and they pitch it.” Enjoying the weekly camaraderie over bagels and coffee, they never rushed themselves. “We never worked beyond 12 on a Sunday,” says Greenberg. “The longer it took, the more fun we had.”
What was originally intended as a one-time undertaking quickly became an ongoing commitment. Over the years, the group expanded from its work at the temple to gifts and commissions for schools, churches, and the Town of Natick. They offered their services anywhere they saw a need.
For the Morse Institute Library, the group took over an unfulfilled project, a large playspace for the children’s room in the library’s 1997 addition. Contractors had drawn up plans for a structure that would look like a castle and double as a puppet theater; with a $35,000 price tag, it never got done. Backed by a donation the Balls made to the library in memory of the mother of Ball’s wife, Erica, the crew bought the materials and built the castle — uncharacteristic right angles and all.
“There would be a huge hue and cry from our youngest patrons, and I suspect their parents as well, if anything ever happened to their beloved castle,” says librarian Dale Smith. “I see the castle as a permanent reminder of the good people can do for one another and an example of a group of people who live their faith.”
Allen Block is one of the many community members who have caught on with the Ark Builders after joining the temple.
“It’s more than just lip service when we say, ‘Yeah, we helped build that,’ ” he says, taking a break from his part-time job driving a van for handicapped children. “It’s a very deep investment. It’s not a lot of muscle or time, just the love that goes into it.”
That is, the builders discovered, a sentiment not exclusive to the group.
A few years ago Erica Ball asked the builders whether they could help with a renovation project for the town. A member of Natick’s Housing Authority, she’d learned of dozens of units for low-income families that had been made inhabitable after years of neglect. The group agreed, and they welcomed the help of some neighbors, the congregants at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
“There’s another dimension when we work for people outside the temple,” says Jay Ball.
Block, who joined the temple in 2000, notes that other temples have asked the Ark Builders to help them form similar groups of volunteers.
“You know,” he says, “it just never came off. They had maybe one or two meetings, but it just didn’t hit them.”
It was David Ball’s idea to document the group’s work with the book. He was interested in asking whether the group’s successes could be “reproduceable” in other communities.
Ultimately, he decided that while the instinct to pitch in and help might be human nature, the Ark Builders, “in terms of small-group functioning, are really quite extraordinary.”
That’s why he uses the phrase “building communities” in lectures he now gives about the book and the group, he said.
“That part is not about woodworking, and it’s not about Judaism.”