Two men, one Jewish and living in south Florida, and the other not Jewish and living in the Netherlands, share an unusual passion for building Jewish-themed LEGO® creations.Yitzy Kasowitz was born to a Chabad-Lubavitch family serving the tiny Jewish community in Des Moines, Iowa. The oldest of eight children, his parents sent him to neighboring Minnesota to attend a Jewish school at the age of seven. The rest of his family eventually followed.His passion for building goes back to age two. He started with Tinkertoys, blocks and LEGO. “Everyone knew LEGO was my thing,” he noted. “I could sit and do LEGO all day.” At age 15, he graduated from LEGO to wood and metal. As a trained carpenter, he built kitchens, custom pool tables and more while teaching himself Web design, animation and programming.While searching for a new job, he happened upon an ad for a public art project – constructing a LEGO mosaic of a Van Gough painting owned by the Minneapolis Institute of Art. His childhood passion for all things LEGO resurfaced and he excitedly joined the project.Through that project, Kasowitz met Daniel Siskind, the owner of BrickMania, a Minneapolis-based company that creates custom projects using LEGO bricks. Siskind, a LEGO master builder, offered Kasowitz his dream job, working among 20,000 square feet of LEGO parts.
Over the five years they worked together, Kasowitz learned the official names of all the pieces that LEGO manufactures, how to create custom sets made with LEGO bricks and how to write clear user instructions.Early in their work together, as they were creating custom Christmas displays, Siskind suggested that Kasowitz create a LEGO menorah. And that’s how JBrick was born. A celebrity endorsement from Mayim Bialik helped Kasowitz sell out the original JBrick menorah sets in one whirlwind week during November 2014.Today, JBrick produces and sells over 50 Jewish-themed items and building kits made with LEGO bricks, including dreidels, Seder plates, tzedaka (charity) boxes, a working Purim gragger, mezuzah cases and a sukkah. Kasowitz intends for his customers to see JBrick kits as something more than, “just a fun project to build. I want all the JBrick projects to actually be used.”Every item he sells is made in small batches of no more than 100 sets at a time and uses only authentic LEGO bricks, produced in Denmark. “LEGO makes the highest quality bricks. Knock-off are not good quality,” he emphasized. JBrick recently relocated to North Miami Beach where the Jewish community is significantly larger than the one in Minneapolis, offering new opportunities for growth. Kasowitz is considering opening a LEGO museum. And as a master LEGO builder, he’s available for private parties, during which he creates LEGO projects with the party guests.
WITHOUT QUESTION, his most ambitious project to date is a model of the Second Temple. “It took me three and a half years of research to make it correctly,” he noted. “There are many different opinions of how it looked, including Josephus and the Rambam. My model now actually puts them all together.”The model was done one a 6:13 scale, which is a nice tie-in to the 613 mitzvot (Biblical commandments) that God gave to the Jewish people. “If you see my presentation, it is as accurate as possible,” he confidently asserted. “I did it on the back of everyone else’s research. It’s the most accurate [model of the Second Temple] in the world today. I challenge anyone to find a mistake. If someone has information [that proves an error], I’m happy to fix it.”Kasowitz travels with his personal model of the Holy Temple, using it as a teaching tool. Although he tries to keep the larger sections together, it takes him 45 minutes to an hour to rebuild it at each location.
He’s already done about a hundred such workshops for a variety of audiences, including children and adults, Jews and non-Jews. He gears the presentation to the audience and prefers groups of no more than 50 to 100 participants. For kindergarten-age children, his presentation lasts no more than 15 minutes. For adults, it can be an hour or more. He’s offered this presentation, based on his original model, all over Minnesota, but also in New York, London, California and Montreal. Not one to rest on his achievements, Kasowitz is working on a LEGO model of the entire Temple Mount. It isn’t released yet because he’s still learning new information and wants to get it right. Consistent with Kasowitz’s mission to teach, the instructions that will eventually be released with the Temple Mount set will include facts about the site itself, in addition to the actual building instructions.He is also almost finished with a 1:35 scale model of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that preceded the First Temple. It’s due for release in early 2020.Finally, a representative of the City of Hebron approached him to create a replica of the Cave of the Patriarchs using LEGO bricks. That project awaits the receipt of details of the size of the building, since accuracy is one of Kasowitz’s trademarks.“When I was a kid, I dreamed of buying a Jewish-themed LEGO set,” he explained. “JBrick is fulfilling a need. It’s not about the money. It’s about knowing this is available for Jewish kids and families. That’s why I only use genuine LEGO bricks. I want to maintain quality, even if that’s at the expense of the bottom line.”
MORE THAN 7,000 km. away, Harro Bos, a non-Jewish man from the Netherlands, recently completed a mosaic replica of a photograph of an Israeli soldier and a haredi man standing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It took Bos 200 hours, over a period of seven months, to complete the project, which is comprised of 23,500 LEGO bricks.Bos is the owner of ShalomBricks. Though he isn’t Jewish, he openly states that two of his passions are “LEGO and Israel.” Unlike Kasowitz, ShalomBricks isn’t his full-time job. “I work as a social worker, specializing in youth,” he said. “LEGO is just a real big hobby.”In contrast to Kasowitz, who has been recognized as a LEGO master builder, Bos has no formal training. “There’s no training for it,” he explained. “You just have to practice a lot. A friend and I used different kinds of software to edit the photo first. After that we converted it into LEGO plates.”About this mosaic, Bos wrote, “I feel like this is a piece of art that’s all about the beauty of contradiction. An Orthodox man and an army man – they seem so different at first sight, but both are praying to the same God. A piece of art made of LEGOs, which most of us consider as just a toy, not as something you can create art with.”Bos believes that the original photo was taken by a photographer named Alex Ragen, but he has not yet been successful contacting Ragen.“I’ve been thinking about what to do with this piece of art after it’s finished and I decided I want more people to see it,” he said. “That’s why I want to donate it to a foundation or institution, for free.” He’s currently trying to raise funds that will enable him to donate the mosaic, which measures 193 cm x 116 cm.“I have put my heart and soul in this project,” he noted. “And now, I want to touch other people’s hearts too.”Like Kasowitz, Bos said he “fell in love with LEGO when I was a little boy. Later, when my son Nathan started collecting LEGO mini figures, I rediscovered it, too. It became our mutual love that we used to do together and bond over.”Bos traces his connection to Israel to his mother. “I fell in love with Israel and Judaism through my mom,” he explained. “When I was 18 years old, I came to Israel for the first time and it felt like coming home! Later on, I lived in Israel for a couple of years with my wife and kids.” ShalomBricks gives Bos an outlet for combining his passion for Israel and for LEGO. “I do more Jewish-themed LEGO art,” he said. “I’m currently building a replica of a synagogue that’s here in the Netherlands.” He’s also made a menorah, and replicas of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock from LEGO bricks.Reflecting on his mosaic, Bos explained more about what inspired him. “It was something in the beauty of the contradicting similarity. While both [men] appear to be completely different, they’re both praying for peace to the same God. That, and the fact that the Kotel is a special place for me, made it an obvious choice for this project.”