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:

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Cutting Paper at Camp Newman

Detail from student work incorporating "Ragman,"
one of DC's first openly Jewish super heroes.
It comes and goes so quickly – my annual two weeks teaching papercutting workshops at URJ Camp Newman – but it looms so large in my rearview mirror. This summer — my 11th as faculty artist! — was no different, as I spent two hours a day, nearly every day for two weeks, working with 18 campers to teach them how to make "paper midrash" in the beautiful hills just outside Santa Rosa, around the corner from wine country. The work that these campers produce always sends me back to my studio full of inspiration and ready to get back to cutting paper.

The campers I work with are part of Hagigah, the arts track for 10th and 11th graders; these campers spend four weeks in total at Camp Newman, where they're exposed to many different forms of art, and encouraged to try them all out and learn new ways to express themselves. Among the other offerings this summer were mosaic, drama/screenwriting, dance, songleading, art journaling, tallit-making, screenprinting and Hebrew lettering.

This Thursday, July 13, is the annual Hagigah Peachy Levy Arts Festival; campers will display or perform the works they've created at camp, but not all of you out in interwebland can make it up there... so I'm pleased to share the papercut work here.

Once the campers get familiar with their knives and what they can do (including some basic safety lessons because KNIVES), our first project is a mizrach: an ornamental wall plaque used to indicate the direction of prayer (east) in Jewish homes. We brainstormed as a group to get some ideas going, but each student designed their own mizrach, and then backed it with comics.

Campers hard at work on their mizrach papercuts.
Once the papercut structure is built, it's time to start cutting up comic books!

The Hagigah art building is a peaceful and beautiful place to create art.
 It's always amazing to me that even though all of the campers start with the same project, and the same batch of ideas to incorporate into their design, each of the pieces is incredible and unique.

Allie included the Israeli flag and a rising sun.

Ben's mizrach includes a painter's palette to allude to Hagigah's focus on the arts.

Daniel included the Jewish super hero Ragman in the rising sun of his mizrach.

Eden included Hebrew and English lettering in her mizarch.

Ellie's vision of EAST is composed of tiny little (time-consuming) triangles.

Robin is front and center in the Jewish star of Ethan's mizrach.

Gia's vision of the eastern sky included sun, moon, and stars.

Jamie created a Western Wall with seven flames, representing the six days of work and Shabbat.

Max added handwritten ideas into his mizrach.

The Hebrew letters which spell out "mizrach" dance between sunbeams in Rachel's mizrach.

Sam's Jerusalem cityscape is backed with comic book text and images of a house of worship.

Sophie spelled "mizrach" in Hebrew across Jerusalem's Western Wall.

Tavi's sunrise is filled with energy and warmth.

Trasen's minimalist approach resulted in an intimate and elegant mizrach.

The second project is our BIG project: paper midrash. Each camper had to find a Jewish story or character or theme from our tradition which they wanted to explore and develop with the aid of knife and paper.

Hard at work cutting paper midrash.

Knife skills + Jewish ideas = beautiful, meaningful art!

Time to add the comics!

I bring lots of acid-free masking tape to camp.

Actual photographic evidence of me, at camp, with campers.

Some worked with Rabbi Dan Feder (Hagigah's rabbi for the first two weeks) to find fascinating little tidbits, others made up their own commentaries, and all of them created stunning work; there are some incredible pieces of comics in the backgrounds, often driving a lot of additional meaning.

Allie created a piece in tribute to her grandfather.

Ben's paper midrash explored the seven species written of in Parshat Eikev.

Daniel's paper midrash dealt with the story of Jonah and the "big fish."

Eden's tree grows in the garden that bears her name, from Bereshit.

Ellie's midrash papercut has a dove plucking peace from the receding waters of the flood.

Ethan explored the concept of a tree of life.

Gia worked with an angel story she found in Sefer HaAggadah.

The ten plagues of Parashat Vayera are the subject of Jamie's papercut.

Jonah was one of the Hagigah counselors; his papercut centers around his (Jewish) college fraternity.

Julia was a counselor who had cut paper with me as a camper; her beach scene reflects her experience.

Max's paper midrash is of Parashat Noach – ALL OF IT, from Babel to flood.

Natalie's parting of the Reed Sea emphasizes "freedom"
but also "the cloud and the darkness" she read about in Parashat Beshallach.

Rachel created midrash about her biblical namesake, changing the emphasis of the imagery of Joseph's dream for a new look at the mother of the children of Israel; zoom in to the moon to see the speech bubbles she found to tell her story.

Sam explored a verse which said that "every seed on earth has a constellation calling out to it to grow."

Sohpie connected two stories together: the burning bush in Shemot and the parting of the sea in Beshallach.

Tavi's coat of many colors tells Joseph's troubling story; zoom in to read speech bubbles above the coat.

Trasen's tight focus on the angel in his story creates drama.

I love working with these campers every summer – just like I enjoy working with people ALL OVER, teaching papercutting workshops and talking about art and comics and Judaism. In fact, it's a thing I do with my wife, Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik. If you're interested in finding out what we can do with YOUR community — for a few hours or a few days — please visit our website at