"Talk is cheap," Rabbi Menachem Schmidt told an enthralled congregation on a recent Friday night, their half-filled plastic Kiddush cups raised high. "The reason we drink wine on the Sabbath is to show something special is happening here."
The Lubavitch rabbi then led the crowd in prayer, eliciting a collective "Amen." Indeed, this was no ordinary Shabbat service. Schmidt was addressing gallery-goers gathered in the Old City Jewish Art Center for this month's First Friday exhibition, followed by a traditional feast called "A Taste of Shabbos."
The Old City Jewish Arts Center (www.jewishartcenter.com ) began more than three years ago as Schmidt's brainchild. He noticed the throngs of young hipsters and older suburbanites flocking to Old City galleries when they opened their doors on the first Friday evening of each month and knew something was lacking.
"There was nothing available for the Jewish community," said Schmidt.
But even he was surprised at the response. When the center first opened its doors and started featuring local artists, the rabbi noticed that as many as 1,000 people stop by over the course of an evening.
With about 100 people gathered around on July 2, the rabbi stood on a chair in the middle of the narrow, brick-lined gallery to discuss the Sabbath's importance, and say blessings over the wine and candles. The rabbi repeated these blessings approximately every 30 minutes prior to sunset.
In doing so, Schmidt seemed to really engage the audience and spark conversations about the Pirkei Avot II Art Exhibition, the latest gallery offering of printmaking that runs through July.
"It gives you a moment to stop and think about the Sabbath and all this art," said John Decker, a young art enthusiast from New Jersey.
Pirkei Avot, generally translated as "The Ethics of Our Fathers," contains the moral teachings of ancient scholars focused on human behavior.
For Merle Spandorfer, an artist and teacher at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts whose students' work was also on display, this meant considering the spirituality of Judaism, as well as her own religious pride.
To that end, Spandorfer's printmaking featured flowers that she said symbolized life's journey and struggles -- from bud to maturing flower -- revealing beauty at every stage and age.
"That's something that is often lost on our youth-oriented culture," said Spandorfer, who said she believes that art is not about selling, but expressing what you feel in your soul.
Meanwhile, Lois Yampolsky compared the intricate process of creating collagraphs to the eternal quest for answers.
"You never know what you'll get when you're finished," she said.
She explained that she relied on a motif of fences to indicate how morality and character-building principles are contained as they are passed down from generation to generation.
And while artist Kathleen Chapman is not Jewish, she saw this exhibit as a great opportunity to learn about another religion.
Chapman's mixed-media series focused on the Jewish custom of leaving stones on top of gravestones. During a recent trip to a Jewish cemetery, she became fascinated with this way of honoring the dead.
"Are the stones all the work of one person who misses a lost loved one?" she wondered. "Or are they from many cemetery visitors?"
Using a somber background of muted grays and blacks, Chapman returned to her pieces again and again, gluing layers of fibrous rice paper onto the stones to make them stand out. This reflected the experience of returning to the cemetery to replace stones that have mysteriously disappeared, she said.
For those present, the experience helped turn passive gallery-hopping into active, communal art viewing -- one that continued long after other galleries along Third Street had closed their doors.
Food for Thought
Shortly after 9 p.m., Schmidt called for volunteers to help set up for "A Taste of Shabbos," which is free to the public. The remaining attendees took turns carrying out folding tables and chairs, tablecloths and plates, as the smell of fresh-baked challah filled the air. Within minutes, the gallery was transformed into a dining hall with enough seating for 150 people.
Spandorfer said that it reminded her of the Shabbat dinners of her youth, in which her grandparents would invite in people off the streets.
Soon, there would be wine and food, singing, storytelling and lively discussion about the Old City art scene, as the gallery's Shabbat celebration continued well into the night.