Friday, December 22, 2017

Maccabees and Other Super Heroes:
A Weekend with Congregation B'nai Israel

Rabbi Shawna and I spent our Hanukkah weekend at Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento for  three days of praying, studying, and creating – and what a great weekend it was!

Getting ready for services (from left: Cantor Julie Steinberg, Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik, and Rabbi Mona Alfi)
Friday night after a delicious latke dinner, Rabbi Shawna led services with Rabbi Mona Alfi and Cantor Julie Steinberg, using the "visual tefillah" service we crafted which is built around my "paper tefillah" series of papercuts. For the drash we explored the idea of Jewish super heroes – what makes a superhero Jewish, and what we can do to be heroes. (BTW, sometimes the only way you know a comic book super hero is Jewish is they have a menorah at Christmas time, but sometimes — such as with Kitty Pryde and The Thing – you get a narrative inspired by the lessons we learn from Judaism).

CBI has a beautiful prayer space – light and airy and bright and open
Saturday we led two workshops, making papercuts to be displayed together in the synagogue. In the morning we worked with CBI's teens and in the afternoon, adults. The workshops were centered around the idea of worship and observance in the synagogue – reflecting on the meaning of the hagim and life cycle events that are the fabric of Judaism, with participants leveraging their personal experiences and memories as inspiration for their papercuts.

With a group of our teen workshop participants and their finished work

With our adult workshop participants and their finished work

Inspired by Rosh HaShanah

Mask, grogger and hamantashen for Purim

Hand holding a yad to read Torah

Rabbi Mona Alfi and her Sukkot papercut

Saturday night the temple hosted an evening of arts and entertainment, bringing in three local artists to show their work (while I showed mine), and then Rabbi Shawna and I gave a "dynamic duo" presentation on "Maccabees and Other Super Heroes."

Sunday every class in the CBI religious school made papercuts with a special lesson we prepared so even the youngsters could participate (WITHOUT KNIVES). Meanwhile Rabbi Shawna and I gave a presentation to the pre-b'nai mitzvah kids and their parents on "Midrash: Jewish Fan Fiction" – and led a mini-workshop with the same papercutting activity, exploring ideas of Jewish values and the heroes who exemplify them.

Working with the pre-b'nai mitzvah students

Students making Torah papercuts

Even the younger grades were able to make "paper midrash"

And one last thing before we got on the road to get back home – a dedication ceremony in the entrance to the synagogue, where we had installed the papercuts from our workshops. Rabbi Alfi said a few words, Cantor Steinberg sang a few songs, and a good time was had by all.

Dedicating the new art in the synagogue entrance

Isaac and Rabbi Shawna with one of the walls of art

And of course, if you're interested in having me and Rabbi Shawna come to YOUR community, check out more info about what we do on our webpage:

Friday, November 3, 2017

A Legacy of Giving and Art in Orange County

JCFOC's official post-event post
Congratulations to the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County on a wonderful day – the fifth annual "Endowment Book of Life" Community Celebration was a great success, and it was a pleasure to be with you!

Not pictured: the incredibly cute and delicious
mini falafel served at the luncheon.

Rabbi Shawna and I were so honored to be the featured speakers at the celebration, talking about the confluence of art and Judaism and legacy, and also presenting the final artwork from the workshops we led last month.

As my my wife said in her portion of our remarks, “We continue to create spaces for God to dwell in when we come together as a community. The work that you are doing to ensure the future of the Orange County Jewish community helps create opportunities for people to come together, to work together, to celebrate together, and to continue to build the places where God will dwell.”

Participants in one of the JCFOC workshops pose with their finished art
So much incredible art was created by volunteers from the many organizations that comprise the JCFOC – all dedicated to strengthening the OC Jewish community and leaving a lasting legacy for the future.

The guiding theme for the workshops was the yearly cycle of holidays and observance, and we started with a simple task: we asked everyone to share a memory about a holiday, whether from the past or the present. We were so moved to hear all of the traditions that — for many — went back generations and shaped their love of Judaism.

All of the workshop participants were given a particular holiday to focus on and some texts to spark their creativity; we asked everyone to spend some time thinking about the holiday and the objects and symbols connected to it — to think about what sort of legacy had been passed on to them or what they hoped to pass on in the future.

Each of the artists — so many of whom were with us at the celebration — designed a papercut which expressed this sense of celebration and legacy that they felt in connection to their holiday, expressed in myriad ways. And behind the menorah, and the dreidel, and the lulav, and the candles, and the wine – behind all of this beautiful holiday imagery — they placed images of heroes, bit of stories, colors and textures and words they helped them to communicate their vision — the wisdom of their hearts.
Papercuts created by people from the same volunteer organization
were framed together for display in their offices

One last thing – we made a poster featuring all of the papercut work from the workshops, and unveiled it at the celebration.
Isaac with the poster featuring everyone's artwork

The JCFOC also made sets of greeting cards for everyone
featuring the papercuts from the workshops

Shawna and I once again extend our thanks to Wendy and Anne and everyone at JCFOC who invited us to work them to create a wonderful celebration of the work they do! (For more information about what we do, check out website at

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My heart is with Camp Newman.

This week we had some very sad news – our beloved Camp Newman was destroyed by wildfires... and yet, we will rebuild, somehow. We are #newmanstrong. As the camp website puts it, "Camp Newman is more than just buildings. It is a community built on the memories of 70 glorious summers." With that in mind I wanted to share a few photos from my 11 summers at Camp Newman – some of the work made by campers in my Hagigah papercutting and mosaic workshops over the years.

One of my first mural projects at Camp Newman was in 2009
with a bunch of staff kids, while we struggled with the "Swine '09" debacle.
(Yes, that's a thermometer in the pig's mouth.)

Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik (my wife) and I working on a live painting
to accompany a story from Rabbi Paul Kipnes.

2010 camper work

A group "shin" project for workshop students in 2011,
which we gave to the camp as a gift.

Working with campers in 2012

For "Faculty Art Night" in 2012 we made papercut mezuzot for the camp.

Detail from 2012 "Faculty Art Night" mezuzah.

2013 camper work

2013 camper workshop group project: "Kehillah Kedoshah" (Holy Community)

Sometimes we'd make a little guerila stencil art for camp...

2014 "Ma Tovu" mosaic made by Hagigah campers for one of the new cabins

2015 campers hard at work in the Hagigah Building

2015 camper work

2015 camper work

In 2016 campers made a "Miriam's Well" mosaic –
and we had a faculty mosaic night to share the fun!

2016 camper work

The finished "Miriam's Well" mosaic in place around a water bottle refilling station.

2017 camper work

2017 camper work

The 2017 Hagigah campers made a "Tallit Blessing" mosaic for the new cabins

At work with campers in 2017

For the 2017 "70th Anniversary Celebration" we made a mosaic featuring the 70th logo.

URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs (center) and Rabbi Shawna B2 (right)
working together on the anniversary mosaic.

You can help rebuild Camp Newman – visit to contribute to #newmanstrong!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Valley of One Thousand Hills

“Valley of One Thousand Hills” was commissioned for Jonathan Liebesman in 2017 to mark his birthday, and is inspired by a quote from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography:

“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

This papercut is about life as a journey, about finding one’s place and mission, and a way to connect to the world. It’s about the need to be doing good, important work — and that there’s always more to be done. The landscape includes the distinctive quiver tree (indigenous to South Africa) and the rolling patchwork hills of the Valley of One Thousand Hills, from which it takes its name.

Mandela gazing out over the landscape, an excerpt from X-Men #76 (June 1998),
and text from D'varim (Deuteronomy) 11:11

Hills have significance to the Jewish tradition as well. The city of Jerusalem is said to have been built on seven hills; in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 11:11 we read, “The land into which you go is a land of hills and valleys and drinks water of the rain of heaven.”

Loki riding across the hills, with Raphael looking on.

The background elements all come from Jonathan’s journey so far: South Africa and Mandela (from the 2009 Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book), and also the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Wars, Loki and more.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

"Extreme Mosaic-ing" at Camp Newman for 70th Anniversary Celebration

"Create connections and study Torah, because Torah is acquired through friendship." What fine words to sum up the experience of Jewish summer camp – a place where we live Jewishly, where we make new friends, and gain knowledge (and have fun) together. They are the words at the top of the new mosaic we made at camp this summer at the 70th Anniversary Celebration of West Coast Jewish Summer Camp, held at URJ Camp Newman in July.

The original logo as used in promotional materials.

Sunday, July 16, hundreds of people convened in Santa Rosa at Camp Newman to celebrate 70 years of west coast Jewish camping – from Camp Saratoga to Camp Swig to Camp Newman. It was an unforgettable day at our home away from home, with singing and dancing and reconnecting... and one more big thing: making a 24-square-foot mosaic in just four hours!

My wife (Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik) and I were asked by camp to lead an community art project: making a new mosaic for Camp Newman that would commemorate the 70th celebration, and getting the hundreds of celebrants joining us at camp to all put a piece (or two or three) in. And we did it!

I designed the original logo for the celebration, and we designed the mosaic to build that logo into a full camp landscape – along with input and support from camp artists from over the decades.

Rabbi Shawna with the incredible and indefatigable Charles Yoakum and Max Winer!

We spent most of the morning before everyone arrived at camp getting it all set up, and then over the course of four hours we worked as hard and as quickly as ever we have on any mosaic, which is why we took to calling it "extreme mosaic-ing."

We were pleased to welcome Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who joined us to place a few pieces in the mosaic as well.

And the mosaic was complete before the end of the celebration! Here's a mock-up we made in Photoshop; we promise to share photos of it in its  camp home as soon as its up.

The final mosaic!

Big thanks to Heath Ceramics and Tile Clearance, Inc., who both contributed tile to the camp so we could get this done.

Want information on how you can bring me and Rabbi Shawna to YOUR community? Check out our new website: