Congregation Ohev Shalom’s inability to find a mosaic artist turned out to be a colorful blessing in disguise.
For several years, leaders of the Conservative synagogue in Richboro searched for a Judaic artist who could create a mosaic to adorn one of the walls at a new entrance to the building.
Rabbi Eliott Perlstein said he had been impressed on a visit to Israel by the ornate floors and walls of an ancient synagogue in Tzipori, a Galilean city that was a center for mosaic art during the Roman and Byzantine periods.
He and congregants liked the idea of having something similar at Ohev Shalom, a piece that would be “beautiful in the present but also give us a connection to the past.”
That turned out to be more difficult than they had imagined. When several congregants found a painting in Tzfat, another city on the Galilee with a history rich in art, the congregation purchased the piece for the wall near the entrance and gave up on the mosaic.
The idea was resuscitated last year, however, and on Purim earlier this month, the congregation dedicated a mural that is 22 feet wide and covers two walls from floor to ceiling. Equally impressive with the size and striking beauty of the mosaic, titled “Peace Over Jerusalem,” is the process that went into its creation.
Rather than commission one artist, as the congregation had initially envisioned, the mosaic is the work of more than 200 families who, under the direction of a local artist, created the tiles that compose the mural. In a variety of colors, bright and muted, the tiles contain Jewish symbols that each creator chose. Together, they make up the skyline of Jerusalem.
Not only is “it a piece of exceptional beauty, but it is also like a living classroom because there are so many Jewish symbols in it, so teachers can use this in the preschool and in the Hebrew school to show the many facets of Jewish life, to almost have a treasure hunt with it,” said Perlstein, who created a tile with his wife.
He found the local artist, Terri Herring, when he was flipping through a Judaic arts calendar and saw a mosaic. He Googled the artist and found that she lived in Newtown.
Herring told Perlstein that she had previously created mosaics for synagogues by crowdsourcing. For Ohev Shalom, she and Yardley artist Amy Winston developed a design and then enlisted congregants to help in the actual creation. She also suggested that it could be a fundraiser for the congregation. But a committee of congregants and Perlstein decided that the project would be more meaningful if it was different than other dedicated plaques that cover synagogue walls. Instead, they asked Irv and Elaine Levin, who also donated money for other art in the building, to fund the project.
“We thought it would be so much better to not do this as a fundraiser but use it as a community builder and as an opportunity for people to have a Judaic artistic experience,” said Perlstein.
Herring, who directs Artists in Residence, a nonprofit that works with students to create art for their schools and classrooms, has also led mosaic projects at Kehilat Hanahar in New Hope; Shir Ami in Newtown and Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, N.J.
By involving congregants or students in the artistic process, Herring said, the participants then “own it. It’s not just a piece of artwork that they have commissioned or purchased; it’s a piece of work that comes from their hearts. It gives people an opportunity to be creative, people who sometimes in their everyday lives don’t have that opportunity.”
At Ohev Shalom, the artists gathered on two Sundays in December to create the tiles from clay, then again in January, once they had been fired, to glaze them.
Judy Friedman, a member of Ohev Shalom since 1979, came with her husband, daughter and grandson to create tiles. On the tile Friedman created with her husband, David, the two carved a Star of David with seashells around it to represent the Jersey shore, a place where Friedman grew up and has always served as a gathering spot for her family.
“It is breathtakingly beautiful and to have contributed to that in some way is really amazing,” said Friedman. “I’m hoping that my grandson as he becomes an adult — we should be so lucky to have him as a member of Ohev Shalom — he can look back to show his family that this is something I did with my mother and my grandmother.”