As he takes his seat Monday on the faculty dais at Radio City Music Hall, Rabbi Simcha Weinstein will be looking back at a seminal year for Jewish students at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Pratt Institute, and a coming year he says will be historic for the city’s art community.

Referring to the new Downtown Brooklyn Jewish Student Foundation he and his wife Ariella are building to house their campus-based Chabad-Lubavitch center, the rabbi says he envisions the 2,000-square-foot storefront to be a combination of an art gallery, meeting space, synagogue and giant classroom.

Some 20 Jewish students at Pratt, a noted art and design school, are designing the interior of the building, using a combination of fabrics, murals and religious items. Students anticipate a fall opening.

“This is really a synthesis of art and culture with Torah,” says Weinstein, who, like dozens of his colleagues across the country, will take part in his campus’ commencement exercises this week in full academic regalia. (He actually attended art school himself and just released a new book about Jewish humor titled Shtick Shift.)

“It’s like the Tabernacle,” he continued, “where everyone contributed different materials. When the students design, they have a sense of ownership, a stake in the project, which will showcase how Judaism connects with the arts.”

For the last five years, Weinstein and his growing family had been operating their Chabad House from a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights, which is some distance from the campus. Not only were 40 students packing into a space that was less than 800 square-feet every Friday night, but flooding became a problem. When the opportunity to acquire a space so close to campus arose, the Weinsteins jumped at it.

The Brooklyn storefront a stone’s throw from the Pratt Institute comprises 2,000 square feet of usable space.
The Brooklyn storefront a stone’s throw from the Pratt Institute comprises 2,000 square feet of usable space.

“This all really encourages people to think about Judaism within their art,” said Aaron Cohen, a graduate student of digital art. “It provides a different way of thinking and a Jewish perspective on the art.”

The new center, which follows Chabad-run exhibition galleries in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dumbo and in Philadelphia, is designed to offer something for everyone: Shabbat meals, Torah classes and prayer services, as well as performance space, art gallery, and venue for poets, photographers and filmmakers.

“The Chabad House has really been nomadic in the past, but this will finally be a real place. This will be the foundation of a Jewish presence on campus,” says Aja Calvitti, who graduated from Pratt and is now pursuing a master’s degree in art history. “This is a way to really bring out your individuality and creativity.”

“One piece of art can reach tens of thousands of people,” says Weinstein, who lectures nationally and earned some fame for authoring a book on Jewish connections to the comic book industry. “Now we can further encourage people to express the Jewish part of themselves in their work.”