Clifford Lester is a professor of photography and a student of the Jewish experience. This month, he embarked on his latest journey—a three-week tour to Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Krakow and Budapest to document contemporary Jewish life there.
“I think what we’re trying to show here is that the Jews survived, and that their lives are beginning to thrive again in these countries where Judaism was almost wiped out,” he explains. “So I want to show the full circle—the cemeteries and new life and kids and older people, all again celebrating their faith in these countries where Judaism almost became extinct.”
A photo gallery of his tour will appear on Chabad.org, and some of the images, he expects, will wind up in a book he’s working on with Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, director of the North County Chabad in Yorba Linda, Calif., who has encouraged him to get more involved with his heritage and to use his art in a more Jewish way.
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Lester, 57, says he wants to reveal—from a photographic perspective and trained eye—how the Jewish faith gets practiced, especially the celebration of life and beauty he sees in it.
Art Brought Him Closer to Faith
His photography has, he says, been part of what has brought him closer to Judaism: “I just found this was my avenue toward learning about my faith—through these situations I found myself in.”
Drawn to cameras at a young age, he joined the Downey High School yearbook staff, in Modesto, Calif., snapping pictures for school. Later, in 1973, he went to Israel, where he bought his first camera. “And somewhere in the process very early on,” he says, “I realized that I was noticing things through my camera that other people would just walk by.”
Lester on the first day of his European tour putting on tefillin with the help of Rabbi Yehuda Tiechtel. (Photo: Clifford Lester)
He went on to switch accounting classes for photography classes, and then to work full time in his new craft.
Eventually, one of Lester’s clients invited him to study with a Chabad rabbi. Always passionate about his faith, he says he was glad to have the chance to learn more about Judaism. He pursued the opportunity through different channels, which led him to Eliezrie, whose Chabad center in Yorba Linda is just a few short miles from where Lester lives.
“Essentially, I heard that Chabad’s mission was to help bring Jews back to Judaism, and that’s sort of what happened with me,” he says.
Involved for about a dozen years now with Chabad, he takes pictures of Jewish rituals and has visited Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., to capture meaningful Jewish images. “My career in photography is really connected with my faith, just in helping me to appreciate what we have,” he says.
Lester teaches at Cypress College in southern California. Before that, he used his skills to help raise money for hungry children, including doing work for an organization called Para Los Ninos—“For the Children.”
“I worked for them for over 10 years when I accepted my full-time teaching position and so couldn’t continue,” he says. “But I discovered that involving my students with the group was a wonderful way for them to do some good through their photography, and also to be grateful for what they have.”
Lester says his students have created thousands of images for the charitable organization.
Moreover, he adds, “a wonderful reward that I received for my efforts was the ‘Teacher of the Year’ honor in 2011 for helping students become involved in meaningful photographic work beyond the classroom.”
Giving Back to His Synagogue
One of Lester’s photos, which he dedicated to his mother—a Holocaust survivor who grew up with Anne Frank in Amsterdam, Holland—now hangs prominently in the Yorba Linda Chabad center, next to the yellow star his mother wore during World War II.
“That’s become a focal point of the shul, and the rabbi’s always been amazingly supportive of my photography—and unexpectedly so,” says Lester. “He’s not the kind of guy who lavishes praise on people, and he’s just been so supportive and made so many things happen in this regard.”
To give back to the synagogue, Lester has dedicated his photos to Chabad, and a web site, www.jewishphotoart.com, has been created to benefit the congregation. He also suggested they start selling his prints and a book, where images from his most recent trip could appear. He wants the proceeds to bolster Eliezrie’s outreach and other efforts.
Eliezrie recalls how Lester came to Chabad after taking adult-education classes at another Chabad center. “He’s a very sweet and wonderful guy,” says the rabbi. “He’s become much more connected with his background and heritage.”
He speaks about Lester as a gifted artist and creative person who got involved with the community and Chabad, and is now one of the center’s core members.
He’s also beginning to use his art in a very special way, according to Eliezrie. “He has a unique gift; he truly does.”
He adds that he is thrilled that Lester’s art has become a part of the Chabad center, and makes it a point to say that “I’m a very picky guy with what hangs on our walls.”
Nathan Kvetny, who lives in nearby Fullerton, Calif., met Lester years ago through Chabad and has traveled with him on visits to chronicle Jewish life.
Beyond the donation of a picture of dancing rabbis that hangs in the lobby, Kvetny says he has been impressed by the ways Lester has experienced a spiritual transformation and given Judaism a more prominent place in his life.“I find in Cliff an artist,” he states. “I find in him a dedicated Jew.”
Clifford Lester's photo of Weibensee Cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, where more than 115,000 Jews have been buried over the past 300 years. (Photo: Clifford Lester)