Rutgers Hillel hopes new art gallery will strengthen students’ Jewish identities
Peter Moshe Shamah bemoans the lack of ties between young Jews and the arts. “The modern Jewish experience is just not as attuned to the arts as it used to be,” said Shamah, who grew up in New Milford and is currently living in Highland Park while a senior at Rutgers University. “Now everybody wants to be a doctor or lawyer, whether it’s in America or Israel. Art used to be an essential part of our being. European Jews were the first to fund and configure the first impressionist exhibitions. Jews were founders of the moviemaking industry in America.”
Rutgers Hillel is hoping to inspire those connections with Jewish culture and art with the opening of its new Karmazin Gallery. The goal is to connect Jewish students with the legions of artists who have enriched past Jewish culture and to empower the artists of the future. The gallery will feature rotating exhibits by artists, alumni, and students; Shamah is the gallery’s first intern.
“I see young people who are disengaging from Jewish identity, and art is a way to kind of stir a kind of reengagement in Jewish art and practice, whether that art is in an active art environment like a museum or through literature,” Shamah said. “I think art is just a really good way to engage people, whether it’s visual or literary.”
The gallery, believed to be the first of its kind at any Hillel, will offer workshops and programming, which will allow Hillel “to do things we were never able to do in the past and to display various items we never had the capability to display to the whole campus community,” said Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer.
“Because we are Hillel we follow the model of empowering Jewish students,” he said. “Rather than have an adult staff it, we found a student to be our gallery intern.”
Shamah, a visual artist, is triple-majoring in art history, Jewish studies, and philosophy. His internship began in the summer and lasts through the academic year. Hillel will begin looking for next year’s intern in the spring semester (the position is unpaid).
Getraer said that not only will the internship provide exposure for students who are rising artists, but those interested in pursuing careers at art galleries and museums can gain curatorial experience, as well.
“It really is an exciting project for everybody,” he said. Rutger’s Karmazin Gallery was established through a gift from East Brunswick philanthropist Sharon Karmazin to the Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel, which opened last spring on the New Brunswick campus.
For the first exhibit, Shamah is showcasing the work of Yitzhok Moully of Hillside, a Chabad rabbi turned professional artist, that will run until the end of October. That will be followed by the work of Baltimore-based Ann Schwartz, who specializes in paper cuts and sculpture.
“I’ll also be running some workshops that will be all Jewishly inspired,” said Shamah in a phone interview with NJJN. Also, Shamah said, Moully will conduct a “Jewish silk-screening project” with students.
The workshop, the date of which has not been set, will involve Jewish objects, such as dreidels or an etz chaim, tree of life, being placed on canvas by students while the Australian-born Moully talks about his life and career path, said Shamah.
Four professional exhibitions are planned over the course of the year with the last couple weeks reserved for student and alumni exhibitions.
Shamah, who frequents the art scene in New York City, said that he is seeking out potential exhibits by connecting with artists through interpersonal relationships, social media, art galleries, and “good networking.”
The 22-year-old is finishing up the last 10 credits toward his bachelor’s degree, and has taken several graduate courses in art history and philosophy.
He founded an academic journal, “Art on the Banks,” which ran from 2014-2016 and was staffed by 10-12 writers who wrote about their fields of interest and reviews of art galleries. The title of the art history publication was a play on the Rutgers location along the Raritan River in New Brunswick.
“In a time when the cultural value of the arts and humanities has been subject to scrutiny and skepticism, I believe that there is nothing more crucial than to get involved in an experiential and active way to strengthen the art and historical community and, in turn, our communities,” said Shamah, who previously served as an exhibitor’s assistant at the 2016 Frieze New York, an art fair held every May on Randalls Island.
Last year he taught visual arts within a Jewish or Israeli context to fourth-grade through bar- and bat mitzvah-aged students at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, and Temple Hatikvah in Flanders.
Shamah said he has been passionate about art since he was very young. His artistic path began in oil painting, and he uses watercolors and ink to decorate ketubahs. He said that he is also interested in collage and photography.
“My collages are socially and politically motivated, but photography is just a hobby,” he explained. “I see both in America and Israel where the political situations are slipping. There’s a lot of injustice and suffering. The system is just not protecting people the way it should in the world. At least Israel is small enough that if someone screams in Haifa, someone in Jerusalem will hear them.”
His art reflects his concern over the current political climate in the U.S. which, “is really dangerous in the demonizing of the press and demeaning of academics.”
“I’m not saying it’s like Nazi Germany, God forbid, but there are elements,” he said. “The world is so unstable and the common person is struggling. I try to get that feeling of frustration and insignificance across.”
Shamah said as a Mizrahi Jew, whose family history goes back generations in Jerusalem, he believes art can help make others aware of the contributions of all segments of the Jewish community. Shamah plans to make aliyah and pursue a master’s degree in art history and Jewish studies in Israel, as well as a doctoral degree down the line.
“We were always the people of culture and it’s a sad thing to see it dwindling away,” said Shamah. “My passion and idea is to reignite that through art. Not everyone is wealthy and can go to the opera, but everyone can view art.”