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Art's Doing Well as Path to Interfaith Dialogue

November 16, 2011 By:
Mordechai Shinefield | JE Feature
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In 2003, the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society on Germantown Avenue asked Joe Brenman to participate in creating a mural titled, "Doorways to Peace." Photo courtesy of ArtWell
Ten years ago, Cathleen Cohen began calling artists in the Philadelphia community with the idea of using poetry and the arts to begin a dialogue with local Muslim and Christian communities.
 
Until then, she had worked primarily alone in the Jewish community, teaching poetry in schools and synagogues. But the events of Sept. 11 had shaken her and she suddenly wanted to reach out.
 
"There was so much fear and misunderstanding around," she remembers.
 
Her particular project would be called "We the Poets," but the nonprofit organization in which it found a home was the group known as ArtWell, an arts program for Philadelphia youth.
 
Cohen was one of several artists honored last week at a celebration of ArtWell's 10th anniversary. The event at Moore College of Art and Design drew several hundred sponsors, friends and artists.
 
Through ArtWell, Cohen, 58, and other artists at the institution, including Joe Brenman and program associate Julia Katz Terry, have found new ways to draw from their Jewish traditions to create interfaith projects that speak to a broad audience.
 
Before ArtWell, Cohen had primarily been leading poetry workshops in local synagogues like Beth Am Israel, Main Line Reform Temple and Adath Israel. She developed a handbook for teaching poetry and taught teachers at Gratz College "how to use poetry to help kids learn about prayer and express Jewish themes."
 
In addition to her work with ArtWell in the United States, she has taught in Israel, at Haifa University's Jewish-Arab Center, at high schools in Jaffa and Beersheva, and in Druze villages throughout the Galilee.
 
Cohen's work with diverse communities has given her a perspective on how poetry can do the heavy lifting in interfaith dialogues. "I think everybody has a rich tradition of thinking poetry is important," she said.
 
"There's a lot of reflection and deep listening both to yourself and others. Also, it's a lot of fun," said Cohen, who also paints and whose work was recently showcased at SOHO20 Chelsea, a gallery in Manhattan. She also participates in ArtWell's HeartSpeak, which addresses violence prevention in public schools.
 
Menachem Wecker, who blogs and reports on the intersection between faith and art for the Houston Chronicle, sees art as instrumental in bridging faith communities.
 
"I think interfaith dialogue is tough to pull without art," he said in an interview, adding that the words different faiths use to describe their religious experiences are often incommunicable between disparate communities. "We actually don't understand what we mean by the actual words. I think religious -- and interfaith -- art helps solve, or at least begin to solve, that problem."
 
While Cohen uses poetry to address these issues, Brenman, 62, works in mosaics. In 2003, the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society on Germantown Avenue asked him to participate in creating a mural titled, "Doorways to Peace."
 
Brenman's project was also a reaction to the events of Sept. 11. "The congregation was looking for a way to reach out to the community and show that they were good people. That you didn't need to be afraid of them," Brenman recalled.
 
About 500 tiles were designed in the social hall of the mosque through a series of workshops. Participants came both from within the Al-Aqsa community and from outside it.
 
"This was a chance to learn about each other's cultures," said Brenman, noting the interaction among himself; the project's painter, who was Christian; and members of the mosque.
 
To prepare for the experience, one he described as "transformative," Brenman attended classes at the University of Pennsylvania on ceramic arts and searched for resonances between his own Jewish tradition and Islam, which was foreign to him.
 
"Some of the people I worked with had never worked with Jewish people before. Doing art is a great way of bringing people together," said Brenman, who also sculpts in bronze and stoneware and whose murals include a piece commissioned by SEPTA and a sculpture relief called "MasterPeace" at the Albert Einstein Medical Center.
 
The result was a colorful mosaic on the front of the mosque that stands out amid the empty lots, pizza shops and poorly maintained buildings in the neighborhood.
 
For her part, Julia Katz Terry, 28, has taken a performance approach to interfaith art. After doing field work in Ghana on Dipo, the female rite of passage ceremony, she returned to the United States looking to give young people an opportunity to have their own coming-of-age experiences. "I found there was a big void in terms of positive, multicultural arts based on coming-of- age experiences," she said.
 
Using her Ghana travels, she developed a curriculum called "The Art of Growing Up" that she piloted locally in 2005 with 10 girls. In the program, students design masks that show their idealized self-image and hold ceremonies for community leaders and elders to come and celebrate the students' passages into adulthood. She has since expanded the program for boys and taught it in public schools, after-school and summer programs throughout the city.
 
"My experience of coming-of-age traditions started with my own -- having a Bat Mitzvah," Katz Terry explained, adding that she did not appreciate the meaning of the ceremony until years later.
 
"Most kids aren't celebrated for becoming teenagers," she said. "I feel very lucky to have been celebrated at such a powerful and important time in life and wish that for everyone."
 
The Houston Chronicle's Wecker cautions that a major challenge for artists doing interfaith work is making sure that the art is serious, and not just kitsch. "If you think it's going to save the world, then you're mistaken," he said of the serious work. "But if you think it's totally useless, then you're also missing the point.
 

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