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The Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Transformation of KI

On July 1, my final year at KI will begin. This summer will be a time of reflection for me and for all of us. Several programs (Rabbi’s Talk and Zoneg) this year made me realize that one of the dimensions of our synagogue that has evolved significantly during the last twenty years has been in the area of the visual arts. Of course, the Temple Judea Museum was already well established before my arrival in 2001 and our building was already adorned with wonderful and largely originally art. But something has changed in the last twenty years and now art plays a still larger role in the Jewish culture of our congregation.

As many of you know, early in my time at KI I went to a multi-day seminar in Baltimore entitled “The Welcoming Synagogue.” The facilitator began by stating his worst-case scenario: “the synagogue has a very large lobby, it is lined with marble walls and hanging from those walls are dead rabbis!” My jaw dropped. Was he a fly on the wall at KI? I liked the richness of the marble and the large space was a statement of congregational significance but something needed to be done and I set out on a journey of artistic transformation. Now, two decades later, our lobby is still large, still has marble and still has portraits of former, distinguished rabbis but somehow it is warmer, more inviting, more colorful, more textured and, most importantly, spiritually more significant in the life of the synagogue.

Of course, we know the old (sexist) quote, “no man is an island” and the work of re-envisioning the KI lobby was not mine alone. First and foremost, Rita Poley, our indefatigable Temple Judea Museum Director was ready and eager to join with me and do the lion’s share of work! Then there were artists and Museum volunteers. Karen Schain Schloss, Joan Myerson Shrager, Marlene Adler, Robert Dennis and too many others to count, all contributed to the effort as well as ‘the team’ from the Keneseth Israel Archives. It is important to note that both the TJ Museum and the Archives have both developed significant websites.

Perhaps the most striking “art” change was the addition of lobby banners each representing a congregational value as defined by a previous Strategic Plan. Then we redistributed the portraits of the former rabbis into different sections and corners of the lobby. We also changed and modernized the lobby furniture and added an iconic picture of Albert Einstein being sworn into KI membership during a Hanukkah program in December 1934. Stan Singer’s special effect, large photographs of our sanctuary added sanctity to the lobby. Bonnie Kane then accepted a commission from our Inclusion Committee led by Ellen Sklaroff to create an Inclusion Quilt. At this very moment, a new full size mosaic of the “Seven Species” designed and produced by members Ricki Lent and Robyn Miller is being installed over the Chapel entrance. Inside the Chapel, there are now magnificent paintings on display from the KI collection on the east wall as well as a new installation of antique German Jewish Shabbat lamps on the rear (north) wall.

Perhaps nowhere in congregational life has the introduction of the visual arts been more dramatic than at services. Now, in both the sanctuary and chapel we have large screens, projectors and cameras. KI has been a true pioneer in “Visual Tefillah (Prayer).” Most of our B’nai Mitzvah students illustrate their own services. Rita commissioned a graphic novel artist to create a new, literally “novel” introduction to our stained glass windows and the windows themselves were chosen as the subject of a major art book published by Penn State University Press this year (2021). We also have new, handmade Torah covers in the Sanctuary and Chapel and a dramatic Holocaust Memorial in the Tyson Foyer.  Everywhere you go, everywhere you look in the KI lobby, Chapel and Sanctuary, there is now beautiful, challenging, engaging, original art. Even the second floor now has an “art lobby,” “art gallery,” “art office” and is the new home of the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center (HAMEC).

My campaign for art at KI also extended to Adult Education. Along with Joan Myerson Shrager, I created several series on Jewish art beginning with a six-part program on the history of Jewish art from Biblical times to the present. The survey of Jewish art was followed by a three part series on art before, during and after the Holocaust. I also created Adult Ed programs on individual Jewish artists like Marc Chagall. Increasingly confident in my knowledge of Jewish art history, I published a number of scholarly and popular articles on art in the Jewish tradition including a feature article debunking the idea of an “artless” Judaism in the old Reform Judaism Magazine. Subsequently, Gratz College invited me to teach a seminar on the history of Jewish Art in its Summer Graduate Institute.

Finally, transformative art projects have also been completed on the exterior of the building and on our grounds. A massive mosaic created by Ricki Lent in honor of my 10th anniversary with the congregation graces the entrance to the Melrose/Rothschild entrance including the “Lion of KI.” Our Memorial Garden has been transformed by the Brantz and Bedrick family into a place of beauty worth visiting at any time, especially in the spring. We have benches and additional gardens at our main entrance as well as a waterfall installation that exudes a sense of peace and calmness.

The Psalmist taught us to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” KI was already beautiful long before I arrived. I loved the family statute in our traffic circle from the minute I saw it for the first time. But now there is more, much more and I hope and pray KI will continue to be creative, inclusive and artistic in our attempt to create a living Judaism at our synagogue for many years to come.

Have a safe, happy and renewing summer!

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.