Jewish Art as Portal to Jewish Engagement

This week’s post is by Richard McBee, a founding member and curator of the Jewish Art Salon in New York City.. 

I’d like to reflect on the core themes of Rabbi Sid’s essay in light of the work I am doing with the Jewish Art Salon.


Fundamentally, the key to Jewish creativity, whether it is visual, communal or spiritual, is a foundational knowledge of Jewish history and thought.  Our knowledge inheritance in Jewish texts and Jewish visual creativity is essential in all further Jewish creativity. In formulating the structure of the inaugural Jewish Art Salon ‘Artist Beit Midrash’, I embedded in each session a 40- minute lecture on the history of Jewish Art in order to familiarize participants with the creative process and products of our 1700 year history of Jewish visual creativity. 

In light of the Jewish Megatrends Proposition #1, I will try to add at least one example of parallel non-Jewish Art to contextualize Jewish cultural production.  Indeed, ”hear[ing] the voice of God in a language and culture not our own” is a requisite for understanding the commonality of trans-cultural artistic production.  Visual traditions are almost always culturally determined and defined, but Jewish visual traditions always take on the visual tradition of the host culture.  I dare say, there has never been, nor is there now an identifiable Jewish visual style.  Rather, the very nature of Jewish Art is the expression of distinctive Jewish ideas ideally seen in Jewish textual narratives, embedded in the artwork. 

“Younger Jews yearn for authenticity…??” Limud, Jewish Studies Programs and AJS, Pardes, Bina, Yeshivat Hadar, PANIM,

“For post-tribal, next-generation Jews, Jewish wisdom also needs to open a window to the wisdom of the world’s great religions.”


As obviously important as social justice is to core Jewish beliefs, must it be the predominant mitzvah obligation…the predominant spiritual lure to the unaffiliated?

I would maintain that for there to be a healthy and vibrant Jewish people in the Diaspora, there must be a integral, supported and celebrated Jewish culture in all its manifestations: literary, dramatic, musical, visual and intellectual.  Perhaps tzedek should be positioned as the primary expression of covenantal Judaism, as opposed to tribal Judaism? 

Perhaps, as an extension of this, an important question that needs examination is: What does Jewish identity look like and how is it nurtured, kept alive and transmitted to the next generation? 


Independent minyans are a good example of the growth of community-centered Jewish expression.  

I like the following insight provided by Rabbi Sid in his essay: The synagogue-center is the predominant modality in the American Jewish community. One of the key differences between the synagogue-center and the synagogue-community is that in the former, the clergy and staff are primarily responsible for the program of the institution. Members have a consumer relationship with their synagogues. They pay a fair market price for an array of programs and services that they want.

Rabbis must move from talk/control mode to listen/empower mode. In synagogue-communities the emphasis shifts from an obsession with membership (the number of members matters most) to ownership (Jews who see themselves on a journey toward more engaged Jewish living).

I would like to point out another, significant example of how community is manifested in Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox sectors of Jewish life.  The Daf Yomi movement (studying a page of Talmud every day for 7+ years) recently celebrated the Siyum HaShas, a culminating exercise at the end of the cycle of study. Over 90,000 people packed Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ on December 30, 2019! Agudath Israel estimates that 350,000 Jews are studying the Daf Yomi every day around the world.  That makes a kehilla!

The Jewish Art Salon is a kind of kehilla, one that asks its members only one thing: Is Jewish Art, whatever that might mean, something important to you?  While the traditional leadership/consumer relationship still dominates, more and more efforts are being made to open up leadership initiatives and encourage members to develop programs and exhibitions.

[themify_hr color=”black” width=”100%”]

Richard McBee is a painter of Biblical subject matter and writer and lecturer on Jewish art.  He is a founding member and curator of the Jewish Art Salon.