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JFS Rocks!

New community initiative uses art to promote well-being

By Stacey Dresner

WEST HARTFORD – If you find a beautifully painted rock on the grounds of Jewish institutions around West Hartford in the next few weeks, you will have been touched by “JFS Rocks!”, a community initiative designed to use art to improve individuals’ physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

JFS Rocks will be launched next week at ”Embracing Possibility for Mental Health Awareness: A Conversation with Patrick J. Kennedy,” also featuring NBC’s Jenna Bush Hager, presented by Jewish Family Service of Greater Hartford (JFS) and Tara’s Closet on Thursday, May 17, 7 p.m. at Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford.

Rocks that have been painted by Jewish community members of all ages – from students to seniors – will be on display at the event. Those attending the May 17 event will also be able to participate in JFS Rocks! – they each will receive a JFS rock to take home and paint.

This is the second annual event that JFS and Tara’s Closet have presented to educate and raise awareness about mental health issues in the community.

“Through JFS and Tara’s Closet, we hope to stop the stigma of mental illness and begin to influence a change in perception,” says Barbara Roth, founder of Tara’s Closet. “Mental illness does not discriminate. It affects people of all ages, race, religion, socio-economic and demographic profiles. We are thrilled to welcome Patrick J. Kennedy, who has been personally affected by mental illness.”

The idea for JFS Rocks grew out of a national program called “Kindness Rocks” that was introduced in 2015 by a mother of three from Cape Cod who began painting inspirational messages on rocks and leaving them in public spaces for people to take home in an effort to create kindness and cultivate compassion. Others began painting their own rocks and “hiding” them in public places for others to find and the trend grew to include communities all over the country.

It was further inspired by Shayna Ull, a child and adolescent clinician at JFS who often uses art therapy, including rock painting, with her clients.

Ull has also used the practice to ease her religious school students at West Hartford’s Beth El Temple into discussions about death during lifecycle study. After painting their rocks, students would deliver them to local cemeteries, leaving them for mourners to lay on graves. Other rocks were left at Jessie’s Garden at JFS and Beth El Temple, or in a basket at JFS where clients were encouraged to choose a rock to paint, sometimes replacing it with a rock they had previously painted. The rocks became so popular that JFS clients began asking for more of the painted rocks when the basket ran out.

At a planning meeting, JFS staff marveled at how successful rock painting was with Ull’s clients. They decided that the entire community, faced with the recent violence around the nation that engendeared feelings of fear, anxiety and anger, might benefit from expanding the effort.

“At the time we started this, in the wake of all the violence that has happened around the country, it seemed like the right time to do something that would be a community building project. Every organization that we asked to participate said yes,” says Anne Danaher, CEO of JFS. “People really wanted to get involved with something that was positive and that would remind all of us about all of the good in our lives.”

While the effort is being launched at the annual mental health event, the intent of JFS Rocks is not only to help people express their feelings through art, but also to “promote and further these Jewish values: honor and respect, kindness, generosity, character and community,” says Danaher.

“As president of the Mandell JCC, I find JFS Rocks important because it really does [bring the community together] in a very feel-good way,” said Gayle Temkin, adding that the project – like the missions of both the JCC and JFS – is about “sharing kindness and sharing concern and taking care of each other.”

Rock painting kits, including the rocks, instructions, and discussion questions, were created and distributed to 12 local Jewish institutions: the Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy, Solomon Schechter, Sigel Hebrew Academy, Hebrew High School of New England, the religious schools at Beth El, The Emanuel Synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel and Temple Sinai, JT Connect, the JCC’s Early Childhood Center and afterschool program, the Jewish Association for Community Living, and Summerwood.

Each was given a month to decorate their rocks before they were collected by JFS.

“We were thrilled to be part of JFS Rocks,” says Andrea Kasper, Schechter’s Head of School. “At Schechter we encourage using art as a means of processing and relaxing the body, mind and soul. This is a practice that our counselor uses and has found successful for our students. Additionally, participating in acts of goodness is part of who we are. Our students practice our core value of Lev Tov (Good Heart), so that it becomes a habit and they become role models for good. This fit in beautifully with our philosophy.”

Students at Solomon Schechter painted a variety of messages on their rocks. Some examples: “look for the light,” “stay positive,” “be happy,” and “no electrons only positive protons.”

“When I heard about JFS Rocks, I said, ‘Of course they do!’” jokes Denis Geary, executive director of the Jewish Association for Community Living (JCL).

The art project was a perfect activity for the residents of JCL’s group homes for developmentally and intellectually disabled adults.

“It was very hands-on, concrete, colorful, manipulative…” Geary says.

“We’ve had a lot of great collaborations with JFS and so any time we can have the opportunity to work with JFS we do.”

Anne Goldman, a resident of Summerwood in West Hartford, thoroughly enjoyed the project. The great-grandmother of two says she hates listening to the news today, with so much of it filled with reports about natural disasters and terror attacks, especially the violence in schools.

“It is frightening. I hope things turn for the better,” she said. “I think the rocks are wonderful…I wrote peace and chai, things that are meaningful to me. I think having them in the garden where things grow, that is very meaningful – to have a nice message there where the flowers grow.”

Artist Amy Genser in her art studio.

Local artist Amy Genser came on board the project to give her perspective.

“I thought the program sounded appealing, number one, because I like to make things and I thought it would be fun to paint rocks,” Genser explains. “Second of all, I like the idea of getting everybody in the community engaged in a making-process and it’s a really approachable way to begin to create a product. It’s not intimidating. Here’s a rock; paint it, color it, do whatever you want. Anybody can do it.”

The rocks also have meaning, she said, “obviously because of the symbolism that rocks have in Judaism, both in the Wailing Wall and when we bring rocks to visit a grave, it shows evidence that we have been there.”

Genser says that her art, in which she uses paper as the medium for sculpture, keeps her “sane and balanced and focused.”

“I feel like art has helped me through hard times,” she says. “Not content-wise – it’s the process itself that has been therapeutic.”

Genser went back to school to study art two years after her brother, Matt Eisenfeld, was killed in a terrorist bombing in Israel. “Needless to say, I was in a very fragile emotional state,” she says. “I didn’t realize it then, I can only say this in hindsight now that it was [through] making my artwork and keeping my hands busy that I found myself feeling better.”

In the next few weeks, organizations participating in JFS Rocks will decide how they will display their rocks, with many “hiding” them around community institutions for people to find and enjoy.

“We will walk out of a building and see these beautiful rocks outside of every institution,” Temkin predicts, “and it’s going to remind the kids what they did, and its going to show the parents what happened and it’s going to show strangers to our community that they are welcome.”

Tickets to Embracing Possibility for Mental Health Awareness: A Conversation on Thursday, May 17 at 7 p.m. at Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford are available by calling (860) 236-1927 or online at bit.ly/MentalHealthJFS. Seating is limited and advance reservations are highly recommended.

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