Immigrant artists find a new home at Safed institute

Upon arriving in Israel with his wife and parents in 1990 at age 23, he worked as a garbageman.

Nona studied in Kiev's Designer Institute and at age 24 was an established theater designer. After making aliyah with her parents in 1991 at age 25, she sold her paintings door-to-door.

Irena Rutenberg, a veteran dollmaker and professional artist from New York, met Nona while on a visit to Safed, the beautiful mountaintop city in northern Israel that is home to an artists' community and Jewish mysticism.

Rutenberg was shocked to hear stories of immigrant artists working either in construction and cleaning jobs or considering leaving Israel.

"Artists are natural treasures," she says. "I felt that something had to be done to keep these artists in Israel and help them utilize their talents."

So in October 1993, with a $40,000 legacy left to her by an aunt in Israel, Rutenberg started the Szyfra Institute for Artisan Training in Safed.

The institute's main commodity is porcelain dolls, but it has also expanded into producing biblical dioramas, commemorative medals and Judaica — all made of porcelain.

Each artist undergoes intensive training in the skills necessary for making the hand-made dolls, but is also given the opportunity to create original designs.

Max and Nona both work at the institute. Max concentrates on making porcelain dioramas, mezzuzot and figurines, while Nona specializes in designing the dolls' clothes. Her income gives her the financial backing she needs to pursue her painting.

"To paint one picture takes a great investment of time," she said. "In the meantime I also need to support myself."

The dolls depict Queen Esther and Queen Sheba adorned with crowns of intricately worked pure gold, earrings of pure silver, hand-painted fingers and toenails and clothes from embroidered lace and silk, and sell for $700 apiece.

Rutenberg has received orders from a store in Manhattan's Trump Towers and other collectors' stores on the East Coast, and participates in exclusive toy and merchandise fairs across the United States.

Locally, the dolls are being sold exclusively at the Lorna Sokolowsky Gallery in Jerusalem and at the Szyfra Institute itself, where the dolls are sold at retail price.

Twenty-five artists are currently employed by the institute, the majority from the former Soviet Union, the United States, Argentina and England.

Yefim Levitas, 25, came from Turgisia, Asia, where he studied art and jewelry-making. After arriving in Safed in 1991, he worked in construction, then on an assembly line, until a friend told him about the institute.

"I made more money on the assembly line," says Levitas. "But here I am happy. I am making the crowns and jewelry for the dolls and I am learning many new things as an artist. I am now making my own designs and I feel energized. Even my two-year-old daughter has noticed the difference."

Alexander Tsifransky, 35, came to Israel from Corgen, Ural, having studied art decoration at the local university. An accident while working in construction almost put an end to his artistic aspirations. Tsifransky now works at the institute and enjoys making biblical dioramas.

Unfortunately, start-up costs have been considerable, and since the institute is not yet making a profit, most of the artists are receiving salaries below the minimum wage.

"My wife and I are struggling," says Tsifransky. "But there's nothing else I'd rather be doing. Money doesn't reach a man's soul like art does."