By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – On Oct. 5 the “peace-building” exhibit “Abraham: Out of One, Many” opened in the Chase Family Gallery at the Mandell JCC.
With this new exhibit – the first to go up in the gallery since it closed in March 2020 due to the COVID pandemic – and a host of other programs scheduled through next summer, the JCC is back to offering the live arts and cultural programming that is one of the organization’s defining features.
Like many JCCs, the Mandell JCC has offered its members virtual arts programming over the past 18 months. But JCC Executive Director David Jacobs is excited to return to in-person programming.
“People miss being together,” he told the Ledger. “When people come to an event here it’s more than just coming to an event, it’s coming together as a community, and that is the thing we miss.
“I call the arts the ‘heart and soul’ of who we are. It’s where we make important statements about our beliefs and what’s important to us. And, while I think there is a value to seeing the arts on the screen, experiencing the arts – whether you’re in a live theater presentation or at a lecture or walking through a gallery, those experiences are very different. They are authentic and, I think, so much more meaningful.”
The “Abraham” exhibit features the work of three contemporary artists of Middle Eastern heritage — Quais Al Sindy, Sinan Hussein and Shai Azoulay — representing, respectively, the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths. For the exhibit, each artist created paintings that focus on five specific themes from Abraham’s life that can guide the world today in living more harmoniously.
“Abraham is seen as a model of hospitality – of welcoming the “stranger” and embracing the “other,” Reverend Paul-Gordon Chandler told an audience gathered at the JCC for the exhibition’s opening. Chandler, the exhibit’s curator, is president and CEO of CARAVAN, an international peace-building arts non-profit organization. The event was held both in-person and virtually.
“The exhibition attempts to artistically answer the question, ‘what can Abraham teach us today about freeing our world from sectarian strife?’” He explained.
The Abraham exhibit is on display until Nov. 16. It is presented by the Mandell JCC and the Hartford Seminary, in partnership with Episcopal Church in Connecticut, First Church West Hartford and the John P. Webster Library.
“A show such as this can serve as a force for social change and play an important role in framing and renewing culture,” Jacobs added. “We are truly honored to be partnering with some extraordinary agencies to bring our communities this extraordinary exhibition.”
While in-person programming was sidelined during the pandemic, the JCC was able to provide some arts and cultural programming virtually during that period.
For example, last year, the JCC partnered with the JCC Literary Consortium to present the virtual “Mandell JCC Jewish Book Festival: In Your Living Room,” allowing JCC members the opportunity to view author’s conversations in the comfort and safety of their own homes.
“One of the Covid keepers, let’s call it, was that we discovered certain JCCs had the ability to develop programs that they could offer to all of us and that we could offer to our constituency,” Jacobs said. “The Atlanta JCC had the resources to put together a book festival of all sorts of authors – called ‘Book Festival in your Living Room.’ We simply loaded up all of those programs onto our social media and our members could sign up for them locally. We thought, if somebody else is doing this, let’s take advantage of it because resources are so limited, and it was such a great opportunity.”
The Mandell JCC – along with Voices of Hope – was recently able to share one of its programs this way, via a virtual presentation of the book launch of Mitka’s Secret on Sept. 19.
“We did that program with the Gordon Jewish Community Center in Nashville, Tenn., and the Nashville Holocaust Memorial, because two of the authors [Steven Brallier and Lynn Beck] live in the Nashville area. And one of the authors is Joel Lohr who is the president and professor of Bible and Interreligious Dialogue at the Hartford Seminary,” Jacobs said.
This year’s Mandell JCC Jewish book festival will stay virtual – In Your Living Room, featuring books such as Squirrel Hill by Marc Oppenheimer (see cover story, p12), The Dressmakers of Auschwitz by Lucy Adlington, and To Be A Man by Nicole Krauss.
Another JCC arts program that is scheduled to be held in person, is a Nov. 21 concert by the Guy Mintus Trio. Mintus, an Israeli Jazz pianist, and his co-musicians will perform from his new album, “A Gershwin Playground” – the music of George and Ira Gershwin with an Israeli jazz twist.
“In November we are hoping there will still be a level of comfort with people coming out for programming,” Jacobs said. “Everything is going to be based on the recommendations of the CDC and the state and we’re just going to follow those recommendations carefully and be as safe as possible.”
Thankfully, Jacobs said, “the feedback and reaction we’ve gotten from the members and the community has been incredibly positive. People are appreciative, and we’ve had people come back to the JCC because we’ve done this.”
Planning for the JCC’s 2022 Jewish Film Festival is underway, but how all of the films will be shown is still not certain.
“We are currently screening films for next year. We’re hoping we can do some of it live, but we’re thinking some of it will remain virtual,” Jacobs said.
And as soon as the Abraham exhibit comes down in November, the work of several more artists is set to grace the walls of the JCC’s Chase Family Gallery, including a multi-media exhibit from the Connecticut Women’s Artist Council; “Our Voice Our Vision” created by students in the CREC programs about social justice and social action; and paintings by West Hartford native Marjorie Feldman, the daughter of Edward Lewis Wallant Award founders Fran ad Irving Waltman.
But maybe some of the most special works of art were on display late this past summer when the gallery’s walls were covered with artwork created by children at the JCC’s various summer camps.
“It was a beautiful representation of the work of the kids,” Jacobs said. “I think for the children to walk into the Chase Gallery and see their work on the walls was incredibly meaningful. And it says to these little four- and five-year-olds, ‘this is an art gallery and here you are. You can keep coming back to this place.’”
Main Photo: Members of the Mandell JCC’s 2022 Jewish Film Festival committee at their first meeting.