Hillels foster Jewish connection through art exhibits



March 20, 2020

University of Southern California Hillel presents “Bread & Salt,” an exhibition exploring the connection between food and Judaism.

Stanford University student April Ball, class of ’21, traveled around the Netherlands and Belgium for three weeks in 2018 asking a dozen Holocaust survivors the same question: “What do you want my generation to know?”

Many of the answers were timeless: always say goodbye, keep learning, never exclude others.

Ball, a student leader at Stanford University Hillel, sees value in learning from and about these Holocaust survivors because they “have experienced the worst thatlife has to offer.”

The 20-year-old wanted to preserve the survivors’ messages using art. She was joined in the Netherlands and Belgium by Los Angeles-based photographer Stephanie Jacobs, who snapped portraits of the survivors.

Ball and Jacobs paired the survivors’ answers with their portraits and shared them in an exhibit at Stanford Hillel. For the exhibit’s April 2019 opening, Stanford Hillel hosted L’Dough V’Dough, a program connecting students witha Holocaust survivor for intergenerational dialogue and challah baking.

Like Stanford Hillel, many Hillels across the country have incorporated art into the student experience, hosting exhibits that foster Jewish connection and understanding, and that strive to inspire change.

Professionals at University of Southern California Hillel believe their Hillel was the first in the country to create an art gallery featuring Jewish artists. Since the early 1970s, USC Hillel has been home to art exhibitions, showcasing work created by prominent Israeli artists and college students.

Driven by a mission to foster creativity and expressiveness through a Jewish lens, USC Hillel organizes three exhibitions each year, including one dedicated to student artwork.

Eden Burkow, class of 2021, said the USC Hillel art gallery provides a space for students to express their relationship with Judaism, whether those feelings are simple or complicated. Exhibitions such as “Bread & Salt,” which explored the connection between food and Judaism, draw dozens of students and community members to Hillel.

“The gallery reminds me that I am connected to both my immediate Jewish Trojan community and a diverse and colorful international community that celebrates Judaism,” said Burkow, a 21-year-old communications major.

Trinity College Hillel has also engaged students with artistic experiences. Its fall 2019 exhibit, “Regeneration: Jewish Life in Poland, 1975-2018,” featured images captured by photographer Chuck Fishman of a dwindling Jewish community in Poland in 1975. The exhibit also showcased Fishman’sphotos of the revived community that stunned him during his 2013 visit.

Photos wove through Trinity Hillel, telling the story of Poland from past to present. Eve Pollack, class of ’20, of Trinity College found the visual storytelling compelling.

“Pictures are worth a thousand words,” said Pollack, co-president of Trinity’s Hillel Leadership Council. “You can talk about things, but really seeing it in a photo changes a lot of people’s perspectives or enhances them.”

Pollack, 21, visited Poland in 2015 to honor her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. She participated in Ride for the Living, a four-day program featuring a 60-mile bike ride from Auschwitz-Birkenau to JCC Krakow.

The past/present photo exhibit deepened Pollack’s understanding of Poland. She also saw the exhibit as a point of connection for Trinity Hillel and surrounding Hartford communities.

“It’s very important for Hillels to have exhibits like this because it’s a great way to bring people together,” she said.

Community members visit University of Southern California Hillel to view the “Bread & Salt” exhibition, which explores the connection between food and Judaism.

At University California, Los Angeles Hillel, too, art exhibits are key to community building.

UCLA fine arts graduate Felipe Navarrete, class of ’19, has brought together two worlds — his Hillel community and fellow art students — to create several powerful exhibits that attract Jewish and non-Jewish students alike.

“The art brings everyone together,” Navarrete said. “Wecan get together and show art, and the community grows.”

UCLA Hillel has hosted several art exhibits, each featuring a Jewish theme or artist through media-like sculptures, paintings and photographs. Navarrete, who is 23 years old, curated two of the student fine arts shows and an exhibit showing students’ depictions of mentalhealth titled, “Breaking the Taboo: The Unspoken Epidemic,” among others.

The exhibits give “students a voice to express themselves,” Navarrete said. “Art is perfect for that.”

Students can also create and share art at Metro Chicago Hillel. Its Jewish Learning Fellowship Arts and Judaism class engages students in discussions about art and Judaism,capped with an end-of-semester project allowing students to craft their own Jewish art.

Columbia College student Lev Caruso ’20 wrote a song: a new melody and lyrics to the blessing Hashkivenu, a prayer thanking God for being merciful. New lyrics like, “I lie down to sleep at night / And thank the stars in the sky,” touch on gratefulness.Metro Chicago Hillel featured his song alongside other JLF students’ audio, visual and performative art during the event.

     (A recording of Hashkivenu.)

“There are many students who feel the need to express their Judaism and want to be able to express it on their terms,” Caruso said. “The JLF Arts program is a great way to do that.”

The musical theater major also said art can bring about understanding and action.

“I think it’s really vital for the Jewish community and for global issues to keep supporting the arts and creating more art because those are the ways in which people get emotionally spiked to act and to feel,” he said. “When wetouch our emotions with art, I think we are more likely to turn that emotion into action.”

Metro Chicago Hillel has hosted other art-related events, including a Chicago Justice Series program. It explored the connection between art and social justice in Chicago with slam poetry, a writing workshop and a Q&A about art’s ability toinspire change. Metro Chicago Hillel also continues to offer JLF.

USC Hillel and Trinity Hillel hope to continue engaging students in the arts through social, cultural and religious programming.

UCLA Hillel will host several exhibits this year including “Between Heaven and Hell, Fears and Desires,” “Story Line: My Family’s History” and “India through a Jewish Lens.”

And April Ball’s Holocaust survivor portrait series is still on display at Stanford. She plans to bring the exhibit to USC this spring and wants to pair it with a L’Dough V’Dough event.

She hopes students will take the exhibit’s messages to heart.

Ball said, “If a message resonates with someone, I hope that they can live with it and live by it.”