Spotlight on Education | Social justice bears fruit at Peninsula JCCby lyn davidson, j. correspondent
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“Trees and plants have a language of their own,” the Baal Shem Tov once said. Children and adults at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City have spent the last few months focused on speaking that language in their quest to fight hunger in San Mateo County.
On Oct. 20, the PJCC will invite the public to celebrate the completion of its Grow Justice community mural, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. The project, under the direction of Baltimore-based artist-in-residence Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, has brought together some 600 people of all ages to design and paint images reflecting themes of Torah, social justice and community. The finished mural will be a permanent adornment to the 1,560-square-foot walls of the Mark Hamlin Garden courtyard.
Since April, community members have cultivated and harvested potatoes, corn, zucchini, watermelons, Swiss chard, eggplants, and tomatoes, as well as fruits from a small orchard. To date, volunteers have delivered 500 pounds of food to the First Step Family Shelter.
Students in the PJCC preschool have a sense of pride about their regular work in the garden, as do seniors, families and individuals. One little girl recently took her visiting grandparents outside just to show them the potatoes she had planted.
PJCC program director Stephanie Levin says the project has sparked plenty of conversations about everything from Torah to the best methods of growing vegetables. And, “I think for the people who are receiving the food, I hope it has made them feel cared for and made them feel valued,” she says.
“I think it’s easy to clean out what you have left over in your kitchen and donate that and feel like it’s good enough — and it is good enough — but the difference is that this is not something left over. We’re growing it with intention, specifically for people.”
The Justice Garden has provided the basis for year-round programming for children, beginning earlier this year.
The mural developed alongside the garden as a way of celebrating the growing spirit of community. The PJCC engaged Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen to bring his 40 years of experience working with cut-out images in layered glass, paper and canvas to the project.
“Part of what makes this project so special is working with Jay,” says cultural arts director Kimberly Gordon, noting the artist’s background in community-driven projects for day schools, Jewish sacred spaces, and inner-city organizations in Baltimore. “He has the same ease with 3-year-olds as he has with 90-year-olds.”
“Everyone all of a sudden became an artist,” says Gordon. “If anybody told you that you couldn’t draw, that was their problem.” Participants related the social justice topics to themes in their own lives and produced vignettes depicting “what that memory was for them, or their hope for the future.”
The groups cut their concepts into collage pieces for Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen to work with in sketching the mural. Meanwhile, his artistic partner, E. Blaise DePaolo, has worked on complementary ceramic pieces. Members of the community are invited to help paint the mural and finish the ceramics through Oct. 18.
Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, who grew up in a theatrical family, has developed an artistic process based in movement and collaboration. His studio work is influenced by his spot sketches of dancers in motion, the shifts in scenery from a car window, even services at his Baltimore Reform synagogue. He delights in bringing out the artist in everyone on projects that exemplify “folk art at a very high esthetic.”
The garden and the mural have created a way for the PJCC to “engage people of all different ages and backgrounds in work that is really comfortable for anyone,” says Levin. “It’s appalling how much hunger and poverty there is in an affluent covnty like San Mateo … Maybe this generation of children, when they grow up, will help us fix that.”
For more information about joining a volunteer group to work in the Justice Garden, paint the mural, or work with the ceramics project, visit www.pjcc.org/grow.
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