Rikva Weil, a young Jewish artist sat near her first major work, a large fabric sculpture entitled "Shabbos Shalom" hanging on the wall of the Jewish Community Center, and talked quietly about her years of searching. Not for artistic fulfillment, "that's still going on" she says, but the big one - the search for some meaning in her life.
"I was into meditation and health food like a lot of people," said Weil, 32, "and obviously I was looking for something. My parents were reform Jews but I really had no religious background. I went to temple once a week but had no formal religious training and I felt I was missing something."
So Weil, at the suggestion of a friend, went to visit Meir and Esther Abehsera, a couple living in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn."I spent Shabbas with them and stayed for a week. I knew after that week that I had found what I was looking for. These were people who had a strong commitment to Judaism."
That was 2 1/2 years ago and since then Weil has been part of the Lubavitch community, a Chassidie movement whose adherents have settled among other places in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Weil is one of 10 working and living artists there and her works, along with those of four others make up the current show called "The Chassidic Spirit: Paintings and Graphics" which opened Sunday at the Goldman Fine Arts Gallery in the Jewish Community Center in Rockville.
The gallery's director, Susan Morgenstein, said she first learned about the Lubavitch artists in a New York Times review of a 1977 show at the Brooklyn Museum, The Chassidic Artist in Brooklyn."
"I was fascinated with it and wanted to see what these artists were up to. We decided to bring it here so that Washingtonians could have a chance to see it too," She said. The current show at the Goldman gallery is a slice from the larger New York show.
The Lubavitch movement, named after a small Lithuanian town where it began in 1773, combines an intellectual yet uncompromisingly Orthodox approach to Judaism. It stresses sensitivity to the Torah and observance of mitzvot (Divine commandments) to facilitate the attainment of the unity of intellect and emotion - a unity, Lubavitch literature maintains, that has been missing for modern man.
The movement, also called Chabad, underwent a renaissance of sorts in the late '60s and early '70s with a large influx of young Jews who had rejected, along with much else society had to offer, the Jewish faith as practiced by their parents.
"The only religious holidays I ever knew were Yom Kippur and Passover. Now I find that there are numerous holidays, traditions and rituals to celebrate. As an artist," Welly said, "there is so much in Judaism that lends itself to expression."
"What we saw at the Abehseras was joy," said Michoel Muchnik, another young artist whose folkloric etchings and drawings, according to Weil, are the most popular in the show. We were just rebelling," said Muchnik, but they had something to offer us. They were actually happy about keeping the Sabbath."
In addition to Weil and Muchnik, the show also includes the works of the European-trained painter and graphic artist Zalman Kleinman, Raphael Eisenberg, an American modern, and the contemporary oils of Leah Cattan. "This is not folk art," stressed Morgenstein. "This work is the product of very dedicated religious people who are also very well-trained artists."
The show's opening attracted a steady flow of visitors. "I think it is very exciting," said an 81-year-old man about Kleinman's painting "Kol Nidre," which shows a group of bearded men praying in the temple. He said it reminded him of his homeland in Russia. "Are they from Israel," asked his wife, who reacted with amazement when informed the artists were young Americans.
"I am very glad to see they are beginning to express themselves," said a physician from Bethesda. "The themes are extraordinary, but some of the execution is a little naive and simplistic."
The show runs through Oct. 19 at the Jewish Community Center's Goldman Fine Arts Gallery, 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville.