Bob Burns, the Bezalel of Congregation Beth Shalom

By Stuart Snow

As I write this article, we read parashat Vayakhel. This relatively brief parasha is almost entirely a recapitulation of the instructions for fashioning the Tabernacle and its furnishings. After the communal donations were brought by those “whose hearts moved them” to donate, we are told in 35:30-32: “And Moses said to the Israelites, See the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel (in God’s shadow), son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehudah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft.”

I mention this for a spark of Bezalel surely exists in the person of Bob Burns, a valued member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington. Bob was born into a secular Catholic home in Pittsburgh in 1947. He served his country proudly as a member of the Air Force, eventually receiving his commission as an officer in 1982. He served three tours including Vietnam, leaving the military in 1982. Bob also served as a police officer for a short stint, graduating from The Ohio State University with an accounting and economics degree along the way.

Bob was visiting Boston in 2008. While eating in a nearby seafood restaurant, he looked up to notice six tall glass towers of the Holocaust Memorial and felt compelled to visit it. There were inscriptions etched in the glass. Bob told me he had an epiphany when he arbitrarily touched #2023029, when in his words, “a voice spoke to me and said, I am a Jew, carry it for me.” With that Bob’s life was forever changed. He entered Congregation Beth Shalom in 2009, and “I knew I was home.”

Bob’s first entry into woodworking was by necessity; he needed a home repair to close a doorway and decided to do it himself — after all, necessity is the mother of invention! He was forever hooked. From there, Bob started decorating wood cutouts, increasing his projects and complexity through time. Bob’s home is his workshop, and his workshop is his home. His personality and artful expression permeate throughout.

Bob is the kind of person who plies his craft not for personal recognition, gain or glory, but solely out of love for his craft and his community.

The first project he donated to Beth Shalom was a tzedakah box. Like all the furnishings that Bob has donated, it was crafted of maple and walnut hardwoods. Bob told me that he wanted to create a design that would inspire an individual to contribute.

Next, Bob donated a Star of David. This was created using 12 pieces of wood to represent the 12 tribes.

This was followed by a menorah. When asked how he came up with this image, Bob replied that the image appeared in his mind and he took it from there.

The mezuzah, while not an original design, still reflects the love and devotion that goes into all of Bob’s art.

This mezuzah will soon grace the front entry door of Beth Shalom’s building at a lower height in order that children, and those who utilize a wheelchair, can kiss the mezuzah upon entry.

Finally, in 2021, the confirmation class asked Bob to make a collection box that they would donate to our congregation, to replace the plastic totes for donations brought in by the Beth Shalom community for various social action drives. This collection box is the pièce de résistance and reminds me of the Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark) that contained the Tablets of Testimony. It is truly a culmination of Bob’s skill set and exudes the love and care that went into making it.

As it was for Bezalel, Bob said, “I’ve never had instructions, training, classes or even suggestions on how to do woodworking projects in my life. The Man above has always helped me figure things out.” May Bob continue to be inspired, advancing in his craft and love of the Jewish people. Kein yehi ratzon!

Photos: Courtesy Congregation Beth Shalom

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