NEW YORK, Aug. 23 (JTA) — Asking questions is an important part of Judaism. And this summer they were central to an arts program at The Jewish Museum here that was aimed at fostering Jewish identity among teen-agers. “Layers,” an exhibit of artworks produced by the teens that opened at the museum earlier this month, reflects the blending of art and identity. “It’s all about looking at who you are,” Aaron Roller, 16, said as he stood beside his Chanukah lamp composed of miniature portraits of dancing rabbis with clay fedoras for candle holders. For four weeks, 14 teen artists studied under working painters, printmakers, sculptors and videographers. They met with curators, explored museums and visited artists’ studios as part of the museum’s program for New York-area teens. And all the time, they asked questions: “Is this good art?” “Does it belong in a museum?” “Does anybody want gum?” But perhaps the most important questions the group of Jewish high school students addressed were, “How does our identity relate to our own art? How does it relate to other people’s art?” Integrating art and Jewish content is the program’s main goal, one that represents a growing trend in programming for Jewish youth: appealing to teens’ hobbies and interests — from the arts to sports to ecology — as a way to encourage commitment in the years following a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, when many young Jews fall away from active Jewish life. “We wanted to give kids who are really interested in art the opportunity to do it in a Jewish context,” the museum’s director explained. “And kids who are Jewishly identified could be exposed to art opportunities they wouldn’t be otherwise,” said Joan Rosenbaum, who credits her career choice to early experiences at her local art museum and classes at the nearby Jewish community center. SummerArts was her way of bringing those influences together for a new generation. Recent studies of Jewish youth initiatives have called on communities nationwide to devote more resources to the needs of teens, and to make a range of Jewish experiences available to Jewish youth. Sponsored in part by Jewish Continuity Funds from the UJA-Federation of Greater New York, the SummerArts program, now in its second year, is intended not just as an arts experience but also as “a forum for issues of identity.” “We’re planting seeds, having them start examining their own world,” said Amy Trachtenberg, the program’s coordinator. Across the country, many Jewish Community Centers and some Jewish museums — the B’nai Brith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Meisel Museum of Jewish Art in Denver, for example — offer one-day art workshops for adolescents. Genesis, a teen summer program at Brandeis University, also combines Jewish content with the arts and humanities. But SummerArts organizers maintain that their program is uniquely effective, because it exposes participants to the museum’s extensive collections of archaeology, ritual objects, fine arts and contemporary painting and sculpture, puts students in contact with successful Jewish artists and experienced teachers, and brings students from diverse Jewish backgrounds together. “None of my friends are doing anything like this,” said Judith Kaplan, 16, of Long Island, who woke at 6:00 a.m. each morning to reach the museum by 9:30. “None of my friends are Jewish. I really wanted to meet Jewish kids.” Many of Kaplan’s fellow fledgling artists — a third of the group attends Jewish day schools and two are Russian immigrants — agreed that expanding their social circles was as important a consideration in signing on for the program as was enhancing their artistic abilities. And SummerArts participants noted a lively exchange of ideas across denominational lines — with topics ranging from feminism and morality to kashrut and Jewish stereotypes — as one of the program’s most effective aspects in transforming their conceptions of Jewish identity. “We’re not all Orthodox and that’s different than you’d get at another place,” said Jillian Copeland, a 16-year-old sculptor from Manhattan, speaking about teen programs, including Israel-experience trips sponsored by synagogue groups. Steven Serels, 15, a yeshiva student from New Rochelle, a suburb north of New York, observed that socializing with secular Jews his age had allowed him to “speak about religion without being annoyingly patronizing or assuming they don’t know anything.” Besides looking outward, however, students were looking ahead. Na’ama Fogel, 16, whose yeshiva, she said, does not have a rigorous art program, was drawn to SummerArts as a way to bolster her applications to college art programs. Teachers — like Ken Aptekar, whose overtly Jewish paintings sell to a broad audience, and Jane Kent, who is publishing a book of her prints — served as artistic and professional role models because, students said, they “make money; they have respect” and are “doing real things.” Figuring out how to communicate Jewish identity is integral to Aptekar’s work, which incorporates words and images in different media. “I tried to push them to engage with the questions,” Aptekar said of the students. “Once they lent themselves to it, they came up with their own responses to the conflict of how others define us and how we define ourselves.” Discussions with established artists, including the sculptor George Segal, further illustrated the viability of an artistic career that deals squarely with Jewish themes. And access to the museum’s vast collections provided another essential element of the SummerArts program: an expanded definition of art and Jewish culture. “So they don’t think of Jewish art as a menorah,” one museum educator said. Tobi Kahn, the leader of weekly sessions on ceremonial art, encouraged students to break free from traditional ideas of ritual objects, both in form and in purpose. “We want to give them a visual, positive Jewish experience without telling them, ‘Do this, do that,” said Kahn, whose own ceremonial art is currently in a traveling exhibition in the United States. In response to Kahn’s challenge, the teens devised innovative pieces, such as a yahrzeit lamp formed from empty wine bottles — titled “A Toast to His Memory” — and an abstract history of Jewish migration composed of multicolored baubles and shiny brooches representing “streets paved with gold.” Pircha Africk’s Havdalah spice box — painted black and topped with a thick coat of sparkling purple nail polish — took its title, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” from a recent independent film about teen-age angst. Viewing works by Chaim Soutine and Marc Chagall in the museum’s galleries inspired some of the paintings by Alina Sirota, who had not realized some of her favorite painters were Jewish. The 16-year-old Russian immigrant, who lives in the Bronx, exclaimed: “To know somebody else like me is an artist, it’s great!”
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