The Kugel Collaborative on South Street provides a space for Jewish art students.
Rabbi Daniel Grodnitzky noticed that while Jewish students who attend Drexel, Temple and University of Pennsylvania had access to Jewish student centers to keep in touch with their Jewish culture and heritage, there was no location offered to Jewish students attending art schools. He noted schools including University of the Arts and the Moore College of Art as lacking these resources, and said he wanted to resolve this issue.
“For us, it became an exciting opportunity to work with these young Jewish artists who are themselves, as artists, searching for something with meaning already, trying to look through the facade of reality and bring out something deeper through their artwork,” Grodnitzky said. “That’s really the whole idea of Judaism.”
Grodnitzky runs the Chabad House of the Arts – a nonprofit that seeks to bring art students together through their Jewish faith and their artistic mediums, and offers arts programming, community service opportunities, classes, holiday celebrations and weekly Shabbat meals.
“Chabad” is an acronym of three Hebrew letters that mean wisdom, understanding and knowledge. These are three spiritual spheres that are explained in the Torah and Jewish mystical teachings.
“We’re just another part of that network of reaching out to young Jews who are studying at college and need access to their Jewish heritage,” Grodnitzky said. “For us, we’re happy to be in Philadelphia. There are all these art schools that didn’t have any Jewish life happenings.”
In February of this year, Grodnitzky and the Chabad House opened an art space of their own. The new space that opened Feb. 8, now known as the Kugel Collaborative is located at 1544 South St.
From the beginning, there were risks and a lot of faith, Grodnitzky said.
“I signed the lease two weeks before we moved in, the space wasn’t even finished renovating, and then we were going to have our first reception four days after we moved in, and we didn’t even know if the place was going to be finished being built yet,” Grodnitzky said. “We were just like, it’s going to happen.”
The location was chosen because it is close to Grodnitzky’s home, but also because of its central location to Philadelphia’s art schools, especially University of the Arts.
“We picked a spot that was centrally located to the art schools but a little closer to University of the Arts because it has the largest [Jewish] student population,” Grodnitzky said.
The first floor of the gallery is themed, often connected to the month’s Jewish holiday. This month, the theme is Purim, a Jewish holiday that celebrates the salvation of the Jewish people by Queen Esther. The new theme opening on April 22, will be Passover, which commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
“It’s not normal for a gallery to switch exhibitions every month – we want to do everything different than other galleries,” Grodnitzky said. “We’re a nonprofit. We’re not here to make money, we’re not here to gain commission, we’re here to provide Jewish life to our students and help them get their work out there and help promote Jewish teaching in the greater community of Philadelphia.”
The basement of the gallery is more of an open forum. A semi-permanent gallery with no theme, it is still just student work, with no necessary connection to Judaism. Throughout the two floors there is a mix of sculptures, paintings, jewelry photography, sketching and other kinds of artwork giving a wide variety of genres to visitors.
“Being an artist myself, I was a musician growing up, before I became religious and a rabbi and took on the whole beard and everything,” Grodnitzky said. “I think it’s exciting – the idea of Jewish arts, it’s an idea that’s been developing the last couple of decades – and art being able to reflect spiritual teachings in Judaism.”
Grodnitzky and his wife, Reuvena Grodnitzky, met while attending Oberlin College in Ohio. There, they both became more religious and together grew closer to their Jewish heritage.
“I didn’t grow up religious, I didn’t think it was cool, but now that I’m a rabbi, I think Judaism is really cool and I want to just share that with students, how fun it is to do things in a Jewish way,” Daniel Grodnitzky said.
“My wife and I actually grew up in the area, and we heard about these art schools that didn’t have Jewish life,” Grodnitzky said. “There’s no Hillel, there’s no Chabad, there’s no organized Jewish center for the art students so we came here really just because we felt the void, we felt the need to provide Jewish life to the art students.”
“In that sense we would have gone wherever there was a need for Jewish life,” he added.
Besides a third child on the way, Grodnitzky has a lot to look forward to. He plans to expand across artistic mediums to reach more Jewish students.
Already having had a jazz performance and a fashion show, he hopes to next reach out to theater and film students.
“If you build it they will come, that’s kind of been our philosophy that we just wanted to do it,” Grodnitzky said. “I don’t know if we’re ready for it both in terms of financially or in terms of having developed enough relationships with students. We just have to meet students, they have to get involved and that takes time.”
“We’re just a very small thing happening but we’re connected with about 200 Jewish artists throughout the various schools and based on that we can pull it off,” he added.
Luis Fernando Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.