In the four months since Rabbi Daniel Grodnitzky moved to the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, the young father said he's met more than 100 aspiring Jewish artists.
By his estimates, there could be up to 1,000 Jews enrolled at the six art and music schools downtown — and he wants to draw as many of them as he can into the Chabad Lubavitch House for Students of the Arts that he and his wife, Reuvena Leah, opened at 17th and Pine streets this fall.
On Friday, they are slated to kick off their first major public event: a monthlong exhibition of student artworks at the Old City Jewish Art Center. The exhibit's theme, "Light," was specially chosen in honor of Chanukah, though many of the pieces have no literal relationship to the holiday, said Grodnitzky.
While exhibits at the Jewish Art Center have included a few student pieces before, this will be the first comprised entirely of student work since the Chabad-sponsored gallery opened four years ago, said director Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, also executive director of the Lubavitch House of Philadelphia.
The idea was to inspire students to express their Jewishness through their craft, which they may not have thought about doing before, and give them real professional exposure, he said.
The exhibit opens during the city's "First Friday" gallery crawl — a monthly event that attracts hundreds of art lovers.
Wave of Outreach
Grodnitzky sees his role at the Chabad House for Students of the Arts as part of a new wave of Jewish outreach.
Though Chabad has long been known for sending emissaries all over the world, the organization has been growing rapidly in this country over the past decade in communities both remote and metropolitan, as well as on college campuses.
Philadelphia is the second city where Chabad has focused specifically on arts students, said officials. The other such house is located at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
"These art schools have literally no Jewish life at them, no Jewish club," said Grodnitzky. "These students deserve traditional programming like at any other school."
Even though the combined student body of the University of the Arts, the Art Institute of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Moore College of Art & Design, the Curtis Institute of Music and the Tyler School of Art at Temple is smaller than other nearby universities, such as Penn and Drexel, Grodnitzky said that doesn't mean they can't create a thriving Jewish community on campus.
He's doing his best to prove that point. Through appearances at campus open houses and online social networking, Grodnitzky set about befriending Jewish students. Administrators at two schools helped spread the word by naming Chabad as an official club. On Sukkot, he built a sukkah at the University of the Arts and invited students to join him for free sushi. And on Rosh Hashanah, he walked around Center City, offering to blow the shofar for those who couldn't make it to services.
Already, he said, more than 80 students have signed up for his e-mail list, and about 10 stop by for weekly lunch-and-learn programs or Shabbat dinners.
Grodnitzky said he and his wife can relate to students because they had plenty of artistic friends when they attended Oberlin College in Ohio.
"The colored hair and piercings and everything else wasn't such a shock to me in any way," said Grodnitzky. "We know what they're going through, and we know how to have fun.
"And the parents feel really good knowing there's someone looking after their kids."
For Aimee Goldsmith, a junior at the University of the Arts, Chabad was a welcome change from a high school youth organization she had found to be too structured and cliquey.
"These meetings with Rabbi Daniel are just the opposite," said Goldsmith, who submitted four prints and two sculptures to be considered for the exhibit.
"Whenever I need a breather, I can get away and meet some other Jewish people from schools from all over Philadelphia. It's pretty special," she said.
Dana Goldberg, a freshman at the Art Institute, had been involved with Chabad at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, but said she wasn't expecting to find them at an arts school. It's nice to spend time with people you know are Jewish, she said, "and to know that the people you meet are interested in art as well."
When Goldberg heard that the house was putting together an exhibit with light as the theme, it reminded her of a photograph of an alleyway she'd taken in Jerusalem two years ago. With that as her starting point, she added acrylic paint, marker and ink to create a piece for the show.
For both Goldsmith and Goldberg, the exhibit will mark the first time they display their work in a professional setting.
If that wasn't enough incentive, the exhibit will also include a best-in-show contest with a cash prize. Three art professors, each from a different school, will serve as the judges.
"Light" opens on Friday, Dec. 3, at the Old City Jewish Art Center, 119 N. Third St. The public is also invited to a "Meet the Artists" reception at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 12. More info? Call 215-923-1222.