Congregant Brings the Sparkle Back to Congregation Agudas Achim’s Silver
David Finkel restoring one of Congregation Agudas Achim's large antique Torah crowns. Credit: David Finkel Photography.
By Joe Winer
David Finkel recently completed a multimonth project of restoring the silver Torah adornments at Congregation Agudas Achim.
The jeweler who used to annually clean CAA’s silver was no longer available.
“I had learned how to properly clean silver from my mother, so some other volunteers and I cleaned all the items ourselves,” Finkel said.
During that process, Finkel realized that the silverware was damaged. Pieces were at risk of literally falling apart. Every item was missing parts, and each had mismatched bells. With no budget for repairs, Finkel took on the project himself, signing up for classes at Austin Community College and setting up a home workshop.
“This project was very challenging, but also lots of fun,” Finkel noted. “It also connected me with my parents and grandfather, of blessed memory.”
Joan Finkel, David Finkel’s mother, ran a small jewelry shop in Dublin, Ireland, where he worked at as a teen.
“Real jewelry repair work was sent to a professional jeweler, and I was often the courier,” he said.
John Finkel, David Finkel’s father, was a wholesale jewelry representative, but neither parent was actually a jeweler.
“Regrettably, my parents passed away before I started my silversmithing career,” David Finkel said.
David Finkel’s grandfather was a mechanical engineer. When he died, David Finkel was left a few of his tools.
“During this project, I realized that I actually had a use for those items, and so it’s special for me to be using his antique tools,” he said.
David Finkel also took an introduction to jewelry making course at ACC.
“We were encouraged to bring in jewelry that needed repair,” he explained. “I brought all of CAA’s silver, and the instructors were really impressed by the pieces, although they weren’t sure exactly how they might be restored.”
The teachers were used to working with jewelry but silver Torah ornaments are more similar to hollowware, such as tea sets. Thus, there were many times when the answer to a problem was not readily evident, but by brainstorming, David Finkel and his instructors were able to come up with solutions.
During the project David Finkel flew back to Ireland, which has a 500 year history of silversmithing. He met the owner of the last Irish manufacturer of large silver goods and was told that their shop had just closed as they could no longer find qualified apprentices. However, the owner was able to give David Finkel hints on how to handle some of the specific challenges he had been facing.
Back home, David Finkel made about 40 replica bells and copies of several other parts. Two pairs of adornments that sit on top of a Torah scroll were missing finials and another set was missing its crown and a shield representing one of the 12 tribes of Israel.
To replicate existing parts, David Finkel molded an identical intact part enabling him to make wax replicas that were then assembled into a tree of interconnected items. This tree was set into a flask and covered with a special plaster. He heated the flask in a kiln to melt out the wax and cure the plaster, then transferred it to a casting machine. Meanwhile, silver was melted down at 1,764 degrees Celsius, and cast into the cavity of the flask. After the flask cooled, the rough cast items were cleaned, refined and finished to a high polish.
Besides replicating existing parts, David Finkel also had to create several original items. Rabbi Neil Blumofe, CAA’s senior rabbi, liked the idea of using lions for finials, so David Finkel located a 3D model of a lion and printed it on ACC’s high resolution 3D resin printer, then cast it in silver.
The most labor intensive fabrication was replacing the missing tribe shield and new crowns for the 12 Tribes’ ornament. David Finkel created original designs, then hand cut the patterns out of silver. He refined the pieces with files, formed them into appropriate shapes and soldered them together.
Although David Finkel donated his time on this project, there were significant expenses including purchasing silver, supplies and special tools.
He explained, “I was inspired by the Torah portion Terumah, where G-d instructs Moses to accept donations from the Israelite people to build the Tabernacle.”
A request for synagogue members to donate old silver items brought a great response, and those donations will complete the funding of the project.
David Finkel discovered that a few of the donated items were antiques. After informing the donors, they each chose for those items to remain as donations. David Finkel suggested that CAA sell those items rather than melt them down so as to preserve the antiques.
“The star item,” he noted, “is a piece that initially looked like it might be cheap plated silver.”
The item is a box with strange marks, and it arrived almost completely black from tarnish. After cleaning and extensive research, he realized that it was from Vienna, pre-1877, of 82 percent silver content. David Finkel found a similar piece selling online for $1,600 that was described as a sugar or Etrog box.
“It would be great if a group chose to buy this item and donate it to the synagogue to be used at Sukkot,” he said.
A full listing of the items still available for sale can be found online at https://theaustinsynagogue.org/2019/02/26/caa-silver-project/.
The silversmith has no plans to give up his work at David Finkel Photography.
“The photography work mostly happens on weekends,” he explained, “so it gives me time for my new DJF Designs jewelry business.”
David Finkel has already made several commissioned items; his goal is to create unique pieces of jewelry that are not available elsewhere.
“Designing and creating metalwork is a great left brain – right brain activity as it requires creativity, technical and problem-solving skills to fabricate the product. This is similar to the effort needed for photography, so perhaps the two disciplines aren’t quite as unrelated as it might seem at first,” he explained.
David Finkel intends to continue his metalworking education and is already enrolled in another class at ACC this fall. ■