By Stacey Dresner | photos by Steven Laschever photography
WEST HARTFORD – The Torah instructs the Jewish people to care for the stranger no fewer than 36 times – perhaps most notably in the verse, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
And we’re not alone.
“Every faith group in the world has sources that talk about ‘welcoming the stranger’ in some fashion,” says David Jacobs, executive director of the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford. “It’s a universal concept. Whether it’s a place like a community center, like the JCC, or the Science Center, soup kitchens, shelters, or houses of worship – they all welcome people in some fashion.”
That universal message of welcoming the stranger is the theme of a new art exhibit, “Under One Roof: Welcoming the Stranger,” at the Chase Family Gallery of the Mandell JCC in West Hartford, on display through Nov. 15.
Spearheaded by the JCC, the exhibit features artwork created by the clients, staff and members of 47 Greater Hartford agencies and organizations – Jewish agencies, houses of worship, social service organizations and other non-profits. Each work represents what “Welcoming the Stranger” means to each agency or organization.
“We are bringing together, ‘under one roof,’ artistic expressions, perspectives and ideas, from throughout the Greater Hartford community,” Jacobs says.
The JCC launched the project last Passover when Jacobs invited area organizations to create its own work of art. Each participating organization received a 3-foot by 4-foot canvas upon which to artistically express the exhibit’s theme. Each group received a $50 gift card from Jerry’s Artarama in West Hartford to help purchase supplies. The artists used a variety of different materials on their canvases – paint, ink, photographs, paper, feathers, wood and different techniques, like collage and decoupage.
The exhibit was installed in the JCC’s gallery earlier this month.
“Every time one comes in it seems somebody is crying. They are just so powerful,” Jacobs said. “It has just been such an amazing experience developing the program and then seeing how these 47 different agencies fulfilled it. In many cases it was transformative, because they were able to pull together groups of people they otherwise might never have worked with.”
Jacobs got the idea for the exhibit when he visited the JCC in Nashville, Tennessee.
“They had this project there in a much smaller form… I loved the idea so much that I brought it back and we adapted it to work for us,” says Jacobs.
The exhibit was installed just prior to the holiday of Sukkot, the fall festival that commemorates the gathering of the harvest and recalls the temporary shelters – the sukkot – that the Israelites built as they wandered in the desert after the exodus from Egypt.
Jacobs was inspired to transform the JCC’s art gallery into something he calls “sukkah-esque”, with a makeshift loosely thatched roof created on the ceiling of the gallery to represent a sukkah-covering letting in the open sky.
“The sukkah reminds us of the fragility and temporary essence of life,” says Jacobs. “It helps us focus on those things which are truly important, while also allowing us to create social connections throughout all of our communities.”
Each participating organization came up with its own interpretation of what “Welcoming the Stranger” means to them.
One of the groups participating is The American Place (TAP) program at the Hartford Public Library and its Linking Learning, Belonging, and Community (LLBC) program.
“I run an afterschool program for immigrant and refugee teenagers,” says Michele Brophy, coordinator of LLBC. “We have a six-week summer program [and the library’s leadership] thought it would be an ideal project for my students over the summer and I agreed 100 percent, especially because the topic of welcoming the stranger was so relevant for them in their own lives, as recent immigrants and refugees to a new country.”
Six of Brophy’s students created a canvas with input from their peers as well as the help of a volunteer middle school art teacher.
Several members of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford worked on the synagogue’s canvas, led by sculptor and metalsmith Barbara Friedman.
“Creating the canvas for the Welcoming the Stranger exhibit was a labor of love,” says Friedman. “We decided we weren’t going to do one overall picture; we were going to highlight some of the outreach programs that Beth Israel has. We chose refugees, feeding the hungry, LGBTQ, and interfaith families.”
Beth Israel’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Michael Pincus, was so moved by his congregants’ artwork that he chose it to grace the cover of Beth Israel’s High Holiday program this year.
Another canvas was created by Forge City Works, a workforce development organization in Hartford that trains youth and adults interested in a career in the culinary arts. Julie Bergeron, the organization’s opportunity youth program manager, works with students ages 19-24. She helped guide the project.
Bergeron calls Forge City Work’s canvas an “acrylic matrix.” It began with photographs of some of the youth trainees working that were cut out and projected onto the canvas. The images were then traced and filled in with both paint and decoupage with other materials. The artists even used what they had in the kitchen – squirting paint onto the canvas with handy condiment squeeze bottles from the kitchen.
“We really work with our community and we are inviting people into our organization – into our kitchen, into our café on Broad Street, for job training, to eat – on a daily basis. So we always welcome people into our organization; that’s what makes the work we do exist,” says Bergeron.
“It has been an absolute joy to work on this,” said Rita Miller, a member of the board of the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding (CCIU), another participating group.
Two members of CCIU collaborated on their canvas, which features “traditional Americana – an eagle and the Statue of Liberty running along the sides. And the middle becomes wild, with mirrors in the center of the piece, with dolls of every face color…and you in the middle…It covers all people,” Miller explains.
The Mandell JCC’s own piece is a canvas awash in tiny hand-prints of all colors. An actual door, constructed of wood and molding, is inserted in the center. When you turn the silver doorknob and open the door, you come face to face with a mirror.
According to the artist statement that accompanies the piece, “The 90 individual squares and hands fit together creating a unique and cohesive canvas representing the Mandell JCC’s vibrant and diverse community – people of all backgrounds and at every age and stage of life. The door in the center expresses that we are open to all who may enter – often as strangers who become friends. As you look into the mirror, you see your beautiful unique self. When we all come together we are a masterpiece.”
Jacobs marvels at all of the different ways that the agencies and organizations have illustrated the theme.
“We know that the collaborations taking place to create these canvases have been uniquely meaningful to each of the participating groups,” Jacobs says. “We look forward to bringing them all together and having this unprecedented opportunity to express our universal commitment to welcoming the stranger. The fact that we are doing it under one roof and doing it at the JCC is so exciting, and we are all just so proud.”
“Under One Roof: Welcoming the Stranger” is on display in the Chase Family Gallery of the Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave., now through Nov. 15. For information, visit www.mandelljcc.org.
Main Photo: Mandell JCC artwork