Nestled among the boutique bars and bookstores of the trendy Monkland Village section of Montreal, Chabad of NDG has become the “go-to” place for Jewish art.
According to Rabbi Yisroel Bernath, who directs the Chabad center there, “as surprising as it may seem, until last year, Monkland Village did not even have one art gallery.”
In early 2012, Chabad opened the Monkland Art Gallery with the first rotating exhibit featuring Montreal artist Jamie Shear. Every month, the gallery features the work of another Jewish Montrealer, showcasing an eclectic mix of paintings and photographs by both aspiring artists and established painters.
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Located in the all-purpose area of the Chabad center, the gallery adds an artsy feel to the Chabad center. Joe Pleet, a 33-year-old who frequents Chabad of NDG, says it’s “nice to have paintings on the walls. There are some really nice ones. But the rabbi is so joyful and inspiring that nothing can distract us from the services and classes that he leads.”
Bernath, who serves as curator, explains that the art gallery takes the edge off some preconceived notions. “Some people come with their stereotypes of stuffy, formal synagogue attendance. Having a gallery here allows them to see Judaism in another light.”
He adds that every new exhibit starts with a vernissage, or preview of an art exhibition, featuring wine, cheese and the chance to interact with the displaying artist. “There are people who came through our doors for the very first time at a vernissage,” says Bernath.
Artist Haim Sherrf, whose exhibit included a black-and-white series, as well as a klezmer scene created using a “spatula technique,” says his gallery preview proved refreshingly different from the norm.
“This was very special. There was a lot of interest from young couples and singles,” explains Sherrf. “I have displayed in dozens of museums, galleries and at fundraisers, but the crowd was different here. Instead of middle-aged couples looking for something to complete a collection or decorate their home, there were young people who were looking to connect to the art itself. I love that they connected to images of tradition.”
Every new exhibit starts with a vernissage, or preview of an art exhibition, featuring wine, cheese and the chance to interact with the displaying artist.
Sherrf, a Chassidic Jew, says the gallery fit well with his raison d’être—using his artistic gift to connect people to their Jewish roots. In fact, the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—told him many years ago that art would be his life purpose, serving as a living example of Judaism.
In 1977, the Rebbe wrote to the chairman of a Chassidic art exhibit in Michigan that “. . . those who have been Divinely gifted in art, whether sculpture or painting and the like, have the privilege of being able to convert an inanimate thing, such as a brush, paint and canvas, or wood and stone, etc., into living form. In a deeper sense, it is the ability to transform to a certain extent the material into spiritual.”
This is apparent in the current exhibit, which features photos Bernath shot on a recent trip to Israel.
Titled “My Land: A Photo Journal of the Land of Israel,” each photograph and caption seeks to connect viewers to another aspect of the Holy Land. For example “Dear G‑d” is a close-up of notes stuffed into a crevasse in the Kotel, the Western Wall. The caption explains how Jews who pray at the wall customarily leave notes with their prayers and wishes in cracks in the ancient stone wall, built by King Herod more than 2,000 years ago as a support for the Temple Mount. The notes depicted were written by Jews from Montreal and inserted into the wall by Bernath.
In “My Land: A Photo Journal of the Land of Israel,” by Rabbi Yisroel Bernath, each photograph and caption seeks to connect viewers to another aspect of the Holy Land.
“I never thought of myself as an artist,” says the rabbi, who seemed surprised by the high volume of interest—and sales—his display has generated.
“I just took the pictures with a regular camera, using 35mm film. Nothing was touched up or changed. Using old-fashioned film adds a special flavor that digital just does not capture. People look at the photos, and they are shocked. They say, ‘You did this? I never knew you were an artist!’”
“And I reply that neither did I.”