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entries tagged with: Rachel Banai


Puffin Preserving culture, one artist at a time

Tackling Jewish issues through art

While the Puffin Cultural Forum — under the direction of Marc Lambert — prides itself on creating programming for every segment of the local community, Jewish-themed subjects form a substantial part of its offerings.

From annual exhibits highlighting efforts to bring about peace between Jews and Arabs to shows and concerts by and in memory of Holocaust survivors, the Jewish experience is well represented.

Jewish concerns appear in a variety of contexts. For example, reflecting the Rosensteins’ particular interest in progressive causes in New York City, the center last year featured a show based on the story of Dr. Adele Sicular, a Russian immigrant branded by the FBI as a suspected subversive for her membership in the Citizens’ Committee for the Upper West Side and progressive stances on racial integration and socialized health care.

The multimedia presentation, “J. Edgar Klezmer: Songs from My Grandmother’s FBI Files,” was written by Sicular’s granddaughter, Eve. Drummer/bandleader for the musical groups Metropolitan Klezmer and Isle of Klezbos, Eve Sicular is a former curator of the film and photography archives at the YIVO Institute.

The Puffin’s passion for international music also has Jewish ramifications, since, as Miller-Rosenstein pointed out, Jews can be found among the musicians of many countries — Russia, for example, and, of course, Israel. In September, the center featured Israeli musicians exploring the musical tradition of Eastern European Jews. Among other genres, they highlighted Yiddish folk songs and music from the ghetto.

Puffin Holocaust programming has been both plentiful and varied, focusing not only on the past and present experience of survivors but on the struggle of their children and grandchildren to come to terms with their family history.

Spurred in part by Rosenstein’s personal friendship with fellow Teaneck resident Carl Hausman, this past year the Puffin launched a major program on the subject of hidden children.

Interviewed by The Jewish Standard, Hausman, author of “Rescued: The Story of A Child Survivor of the Holocaust in France,” noted that long before the printed version of his book became a reality, he approached Rosenstein for help.

“I said, ‘Do you think there is something here that you can help me put together?’” Hausman recalled. Subsequently, Rosenstein put Hausman in touch with writer/translator Ross Benjamin, and the two worked together to produce the book.

In addition to sponsoring a panel discussion featuring Hausman and other local survivors, the Puffin Foundation presented the world premiere of “Hidden Children: Memoirs of Child Survivors of the Holocaust,” based on the personal stories of these individuals.

Miller-Rosenstein said the foundation is also committed to keeping alive the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

“This is a time and situation that shouldn’t be forgotten,” she said, discussing a 2007 exhibit called “The Righteous: Resistance during the Holocaust.” “We want to keep that flame of resistance alive.”

She pointed out that the Puffin Cultural Forum began to look more closely at this subject about a decade ago, working with the group One By One, which hosts a dialogue between children of survivors and children of perpetrators.

Puffin has also used grants to help further Holocaust education. For example, the center gave money to Ars Choralis, which last year performed “Music in Desperate Times: Remembering the Women’s Orchestra of Birkenau.”

In an interesting twist, Jewish religious life has benefitted — indirectly — from the Puffin’s commitment to restore the Teaneck Creek area.

Several years ago, Dr. Beth Ravit — a member of Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia and executive director of the Rutgers University Environmental Research Clinic — devised a plan to benefit local Jewish institutions while simultaneously enhancing the 46-acre patch of urban wetlands.

Combining her expertise in wetlands restoration with her belief that “part of Jewish tradition is stewardship of the earth, and we have a responsibility to make the earth a better place,” Ravit, who is also a member of the Teaneck Creek Conservancy’s ecological art committee, invited regional Jewish institutions to harvest invasive reeds on Conservancy property, with the purpose of using the reeds to decorate their sukkahs.

The response was “amazing,” she said, and groups have continued to come each year.

According to the Rosensteins, some synagogues send volunteers to the nature sanctuary on a regular basis, and high school students have also come to help out. Volunteers have also come as part of Mitzvah Day, coordinated by the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Fostering peaceful relations through the medium of art is a Puffin priority.

Each year, photographer Rachel Banai — whose work has appeared in this newspaper and who has taught a weekend photography class at Puffin for about seven years — helps curate a cross-cultural photo exhibit displaying the work of Arab and Israeli students participating in the “Through the Others’ Eyes” project.

As part of this venture, students are assigned to visit and photograph each other’s homes and communities.

“It’s getting to peace through kids, not guns,” said Banai, pointing out that some of the participants have formed lasting friendships.

The students take part in a summer program at Camp Shomria, in upstate New York, supported in part by the Puffin Foundation. Banai has been the camp’s art director for more than 10 years.

For more information about the Puffin Foundation, visit


Local camera club clicks on ‘trip of a lifetime’

Rachel Banai with her Nephew Ophir Anya Shostya
Lining up for a group picture in Old Jerusalem Rachel Banai

When Teaneck photographer Rachel Banai told her Puffin Camera Club students that she was planning her annual trip to visit family at Kibbutz Samar, near Eilat, 11 of them asked to come along.

Banai was surprised, but pleased to have the opportunity to accomplish two aims: “I wanted to improve their photography but also to show them the side of Israel that usually people don’t see.”

The Jewish Standard found the Puffin Camera Club Grand Tour to Israel in grand spirits as they arrived for a night at a Finnish-run bed-and-breakfast northwest of Jerusalem during one leg of the early January trip.

“I thought it was a trip of a lifetime,” said Teaneck resident Gisela Schroeder, a four-year member of the club. She had brought along a Nikon D90 and a Canon S95, explaining that “you never go on a trip with just one camera.”

Banai introduced the group to her extended Samar family during five days at the kibbutz. Each of the participants, nine Jewish and two gentile, had seen Samar’s faces often in Banai’s photos, and now they were able to get acquainted with the people behind the faces.

“The goal was to offer them a grand tour to get to know the people of the south,” Banai said. “Our people had a chance to get to know the members of the kibbutz in their homes and with their children. You had to see them — they didn’t want to leave.”

Franklin Lakes resident Rachelle LaCava, who’d been to Israel 30 years ago, was fascinated by kibbutz life. “It’s hard to understand how you don’t have your own money, and you share everything — what a concept!”

Jane Dineen of Hackensack said the days at Samar with Banai presented “a rare opportunity to experience the culture of a country with a native of that country. Seeing the extent of communal life was extremely interesting.”

Banai planned additional stops of photographic and cultural significance. The group met with a Bedouin woman in the Negev who grows medicinal herbs; marveled at archeological wonders in Petra, Jordan; picked dates at a plantation; visited a lighthouse beach at Eilat; and experienced the Dead Sea, Masada, and Tel Aviv. They explored the natural crater Mitzpe Ramon, ancient copper mines at Timna, and Jerusalem’s Arab marketplace and Old City Jewish and Christian sites.

Their shutters clicked incessantly. Strolling along the Ben Yehuda pedestrian promenade in downtown Jerusalem one evening at dusk, Banai taught the group how best to use available light to take pictures after dark.

“I arranged a trip that would be geared to Jewish and non-Jewish people, not based on tourist places but mostly places to photograph,” she explained. She has been teaching the weekend photography classes for eight years, drawing 35 people from as far as Staten Island and Orangeburg, N.Y.

“I knew it could be very overwhelming for them, but I prepared carefully for this beautiful group of people who, until a while ago, had nothing in common but their interest in photography.”

To survive 10 days together, Banai invented a concept called “purple days,” a code name for times when participants might prefer to be alone. “I told them to say, ‘Today’s my purple day and I don’t feel up to being with the group.’ But nobody had a purple day.”

If anything, purple was just one of the spectacular hues they tried to capture digitally.

Harrington Park resident Rina Goldman remarked that she was highly attuned to light and color during the entire journey. “The mountains, in a matter of an hour, go through wonderful changes. The colors and striations reminded me of Colorado,” said the retired Teaneck High School special education teacher. “I loved the physical beauty of the desert.”

“I’m always seeing light and shadow,” remarked Barbara Jacoby of Teaneck. “On the kibbutz, I saw kids playing on the basketball court and asked if they’d mind if I photographed them, and I ended up taking a video of them on my cell phone to capture their movements.”

“We’re such a great group of talented men and women who enjoy photography,” concluded River Vale resident Debra Davidson. “Taking pictures together was fantastic.”


Young Arab and Jewish Israelis connect through photography

Works to be exhibited at Puffin Cultural Forum

An image from “Through Others’ Eyes” art exhibit

“Through Others’ Eyes,” an art exhibit to be held at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck from Aug. 3 to 18, is the culmination of a year’s worth of efforts toward understanding between young Israeli Jews and Arabs.

Twenty Israeli high school students were selected to engage in a program about understanding cultural differences through art. The program is run by Givat Haviva Educational Foundation, an Israeli organization whose mission is to “work for a shared Israel,” says Yaniv Sagee, current Israel Representative for Givat Haviva in New York. Photography was the art-form chosen, because taking photos of unfamiliar homes and towns lets the participants “get a sense of looking through others’ eyes,” says Sagee. “The idea of the program is everyone, Arab or Jewish, is on equal ground. No one is superior. They all don’t know photography.”

In the yearlong program, the 20 students take a quick course in photography, then meet once a week at one another’s homes. Jewish participants go into Arab neighborhoods and take photos of life there, and Arab participants go into Jewish neighborhoods.

“It truly is a wonderful way of getting youngsters together,” says Gladys Miller-Rosenstein, executive director of the Puffin Foundation, which runs the cultural forum. “Givat Haviva uses photos to show that there are a lot of similarities, and the home is the basis of their similarities. Even though they have different customs, family stays the same.”

During the summer, after the photography portion has run its course, the participants come to the United States for several weeks. They live and bunk together at Camp Shomria in Liberty, N.Y., which is “an opportunity to have an open dialogue about Arab and Jewish coexistence in Israel,” says Sagee. Then the program brings the participants to New York City for R&R and a meeting with Presbyterians their age. They have been stopping in Teaneck during this portion of their trip for nearly a decade, to be present on the opening night of the exhibit at Puffin, and “it has always been unbelievable for us,” Miller-Rosenstein says. The Puffin Foundation partially funds the New York portion of the trip.

“Naturally, people begin to trust one another after a while,” says Perry Rosenstein, president of Puffin Foundation. “Givat Haviva mainly stresses understanding through education,” he says. Sagee says it was natural for Givat Haviva and Puffin to join together, adding, “Givat Haviva has similar values with Puffin — they are very much about social education, tikkun olam,” repairing the world.

The participants are always proud to see their photographs framed and hung in an exhibit, says Merri Milwe, artistic director of the Puffin Cultural Forum. “I selected photographs that moved me in some way, that represents Givat Haviva in some way..... This exhibit shows kinship between peoples…. These photos don’t lie,” she says. Rachel Banai, a Teaneck-based phographer, and her husband, Moshe, are helping to hang the photos.

Both Milwe and Miller-Rosenstein are quick to point out that area residents have much to gain from seeing the exhibit and speaking with 16 of the program participants, who will be present at the gallery’s opening on Wednesday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m.

They will discuss the process of the year, what they have learned along the way, and “show what they did and what they think,” says Sagee.

This is the final event of their stay, and “this is their chance to speak out. All questions are really open and welcomed,” says Perry Rosenstein. After that, the participants will return to camp and then to Israel, where they will begin their senior year of high school.

“[Here] we have groups within the larger whole, and people stick to their own group,” says Miller-Rosenstein. She continues, “This is an opportunity to move out of that, see the world through a larger scope…. [The exhibit] will hopefully show the people that young Israelis can learn through education to live with one another. It’s an opportunity... to see what could be.”

She adds, “This is a program that plants seeds. Seeds build bridges. Bridges build relationships, and relationships build our future — a future of peace, one hopes.”

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