By Gerhard Schneibel

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the Old City of Jerusalem was built in less than two hours Jan. 30 on the floor of the Davis Academy gymnasium.

“It’s kind of crazy just in two hours, because I would imagine it would take a couple of days because it’s so big. … But since we’re all working together, it’s going to be a little less,” said Rachel Fechtermurray, one of about 100 Davis students who gathered that afternoon to build a 400-square-foot scale model of the Old City out of 60,000 Lego blocks.

The activity was part of a program organized by Livingston, N.J.-based Building Blocks Workshops and its owner-operator, architect Stephen Schwartz. He ran the program twice that day at the Reform Jewish day school in Sandy Springs, then again the next day for families from several Reform synagogues, including Temple Emanu-El in Sandy Springs.

Schwartz laid out a map of the city on the gym floor, gave the students a couple of instructions and let them get to work. Some built landmark walls, gates and the ancient Second Temple, while others constructed buildings that were later placed in the city.

Rabbi Micah Lapidus, the director of Judaic and Hebrew studies at Davis, told the students: “Today you worked together, each and every one of you, to create an amazing thing.”

He later said the project is a way for students to become engaged in learning about Jerusalem on many levels.

“There are so many different ways to learn. … We teach them about Israel, and our students study Hebrew, and we show pictures. We sing songs, and we celebrate holidays. But it’s always a challenge to make it come to life. And so creating out of Legos and building with their own hands I think just unlocks their imagination,” he said. “The teamwork element, the building element … I think they’re learning how 100 children together can work with minimal instructions to create something that’s beautiful.”

Lapidus also said the project is “very democratic” because it requires each child to contribute the unique skills he or she has.

“So much of what we want for our children is subtextual,” he said. “The message that I shared with the children is what they’re seeing and what they’re participating in is building old Jerusalem. Our Jewish ancestors came and built a place where they could live and experience their Jewish life, and the challenge that our children will face is what are they going to build in their own lifetimes.”

Schwartz told the children about his experiences visiting Jerusalem, which he described as an “amazing boiling pot of people who are all coming to visit something they consider to be holy.”

Student Jacob Lewis said the project was good because of what he was learning.

“It’s going to be really fun, and it’s going to be really cool when we’re done,” he said. “I’m learning a lot about what’s in Jerusalem … because the architect that’s here is going to show us where everything is.”

Schwartz does similar programs with scale Lego models of other Jewish landmarks, including Masada, the Second Temple, the Warsaw Ghetto and the “World’s Tallest Lego Menorah.”

“I do these things sometimes three or four times a week, but the beauty of it is it’s like new each time,” he said. “When we start the program, no one ever believes we’re going to finish it in time.”