Primary Contact: Eric Schulmiller
The inspiration for this project began when our congregation undertook a capital campaign to raise money to renovate and refurbish our sanctuary and adjacent spaces. Our community placed a high value on creating spaces which would engender participation and belonging, and to that end, one of the additional rooms that was renovated was an adjacent basement area that had been underused and in need of a complete structural overhaul. Upon completion, we were left with a lovely open space, which we dedicated to fostering connections among our youth and teen community. Filled with comfortable seating, games, and media, we have already begun to use this space for fun-filled, enriching programming. But there was one feature of this new space that cried out for attention – a giant, blank, white wall that spanned the entire length of the room!
In order for this space to truly feel like a home, our leadership began to brainstorm ways to engage our entire community in order to not only beautify and personalize this space, but to foster dialogue about our community’s most deeply-held values in the process. We decided, at the suggestion of our Rabbi, Jodie Siff, to reach out to mural artist and Jewish educator Jennifer Levine, whom Rabbi Jodie has known for many years through her connection to the Leadership Institute. As Robert Bangiola, General Manager of the Dance and Theater Programs at Bard College said about Ms. Levine and her work: “Her graceful line and creation of drawings-within-drawings, continually guide the viewer on an unusual journey of things familiar and unfamiliar. Gentle yet bold, her work has come to define what a sense of community can be for all of us.” After an initial conversation with Jennifer Levine, we decided that the theme of the mural would be inspired by the Values of Spiritual Peoplehood that many of our youth have encountered at Camp Havaya and that are emphasized in our own educational programming. We began planning a series of encounters with these values among different groups of stakeholders, as we sought to democratically decide on three core values that would form the thematic foundation of this mural. Over a period of several months, we have engaged in dialogue with teens in our Boys’ and Girls’ Rosh Hodesh groups, faculty and staff in our synagogue school, our seventh grade b’nei mitzvah families, and our leadership team.
After these values exploration sessions, led by our clergy, our community decided upon three values that represent our community’s core identity: Kehillah (Community), Tikkun Olam (Social Justice/Social Action), and Kavod (Inclusivity – a derivation of Derech Eretz which focuses on our seeing the Godliness present in each human being). Of course, the value of Hiddur Mitzvah would also be ever-present in the artistic process of designing and painting this mural, as the value of Hochma was instrumental in its conception!
The intergenerational conversations created by these values explorations are proving to be tremendously beneficial to our community. And with the goal of creating a lasting artistic and communal tribute to this process, it has energized large segments of our community in a deeply impactful way. We believe that the curricular materials we are developing for moving from values exploration to mural creation can be widely replicated in other Jewish communities, and that the successful funding and completion of this process will not only create a beautiful gathering space for our youth, but can also be used as a springboard for ongoing conversations around the Values of Spiritual Peoplehood as the mural itself becomes a living document to be encountered anew by subsequent generations in our community.
As Mordecai Kaplan wrote in Judaism as a Civilization, “The art of a civilization is its individual interpretation of the world in color, sound and image, an integration that is familiar and profoundly interesting to the people of that civilization. This art contributes a unique expressive value to each object of the spiritual life of that people.” We believe that our Mural of Living Values project fulfills Kaplan’s vision by enabling our community to define, express and interpret its most deeply-held values in a way that is intergenerational, innovative, and profoundly interesting to our learners. By engaging broad swaths of our congregation in this values exploration journey, we believe we have found a way to bring meaningful Jewish learning to segments of our community that aren’t typically engaged with each other in an innovative, deeply Reconstructionist way.