One Yom Kippur, while reading the English translations of some of the prayers in the siddur, Renee Weiss Chase came across a passage that referenced people who worked with their hands.
The passage stuck with her.
“There it was,” explained Chase, a Drexel University fashion design professor who retired a year ago. “Whatever came through my hands was religious, was recognized by God, was accepted. That’s how I expressed my spirituality and my Judaism.”
The blending of Chase’s spirituality and her fashion design work came together in a project called “Through These Hands.” The collection comprises 26 Torah accessory pieces like mantels, bimah covers and ark curtains that Chase made for the Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University, home of Drexel Hillel.
The collection will be on display May 18 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Perelman Center. Afterward, the pieces will remain a part of the Perelman Center, which opened 18 months ago, for use in its three chapels.
Chase said she decided to create this collection when Max Kahn, a student in Drexel’s graphic design program and a former president of the Drexel Hillel student board, reached out to her a year ago, when she was about to retire, about the synagogue’s need for these pieces.
“At the time, I was really looking for closure from my experience at Drexel,” Chase said. “I felt like leaving, after giving so much and being such a part of the culture there, I wanted a really beautiful closure for my experience.”
She visited the Perelman Center, where she met Kahn and Drexel Hillel Rabbi Isabel de Koninck. She also checked out the building. The skylights in the center gave her inspiration and solidified her desire to create the collection.
De Koninck noted that including the greater Drexel community in the building of the Perelman Center was an important part of its construction.
“We thought [the collection] was a great idea,” de Koninck said, “and a great way to showcase Drexel talent and create more shared ownership of the space across, in this case, our faculty and folks who feel connected to us.”
To create the pieces, Chase used a digitally printed image of heaven for the base, then appliqued laser-cut leather segments of images, like pomegranates, shofars and other Jewish symbols, on top. She quilted the entire piece and bound it in leather. These production methods served as a nod to her decades at Drexel, Chase said.
“Originally, I felt like I wanted to do something entirely different from all the other Judaica that was out there,” Chase said. “I wanted to modernize and futurize, and I did that in some ways. But I really decided to use imagery that people connected with and understood because it was related to the Torah and a religious space, and I wanted continuity in that sense.”
The actual building of Perelman Center, as well as Drexel University and traditional Jewish symbolism, provided Chase with inspiration for the imagery. The colors of the pieces come from the colors of the sky during the three times of day that prayers are said — shacharit, mincha and maariv.
Her own family history provided her a kind of inspiration as well. She dedicated several pieces to her half-brothers who, at ages 3, 5 and 7, died in the Holocaust. She dedicated other pieces to a grandmother and two uncles who died at Auschwitz as well.
“I’m a Jew in my cells, in my blood,” Chase said. “Because of my parents and what they went through and the suffering they did, that’s who I am, too.”
The end result of her collection, she said, had a happier, more hopeful aesthetic than she was expecting, with its light colors.
Chase said the project served as an opportunity to explore her spirituality. She noted that, when she started it, her mother told her she shouldn’t work on them during Shabbat, which, after some deliberation, was guidance Chase decided to take so she could make it as pure as a gift to her family as possible.
“That’s how I view myself,” Chase said, “as a Jew … who can deliver my spirituality through the gift that I was given.”
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