image
Susan Klein’s windows are based on the theme of Creation. Photo Courtesy of Susan Klein.

Sometimes, a labor of love can be hard work. Susan Klein, artist and member of The United Synagogue of Hoboken, knows that better than most.

Leading a team of volunteers to create what will ultimately include dozens of stained glass windows for the shul, the founder of Susan Klein Design calls herself “the main volunteer. I’m there every day.”

“There” refers to her basement studio, where she is sometimes joined by other shul members. Volunteers include both men and women, and, while most are older, some parents of young children have helped out as well.

Some volunteers have even followed the windows-in-progress to Klein’s bed-and-breakfast in New Hampshire, where she also maintains a studio.

“Nobody had the skills when they first came,” she said, noting that her nine or so assistants now grind glass to smooth the edges and put copper foil on the cut pieces. As a result, Klein, who has done all of the designs, is also the main glass-cutter.

The windows, based on the theme of Creation, have many unique elements, she said, incorporating materials not usually found in synagogue art. For example, the fifth window (in progress) contains stones, agate slices, and pieces of translucent shells and coral.

“I always wanted to do that part of the Torah,” she said, adding that the synagogue pays for the materials and installation, but gives her free rein as regards design.

Together with volunteers, the artist said, she has already restored several of the synagogue’s original windows, including the one over the ark. The new stained glass panels will run down the left and right sides of the sanctuary.

“I’ve been a member for 25 years and I would stare at the one over the bimah,” she said. The original synagogue building having been completed in 1915, the window was “falling apart. I opened my big mouth and said I would restore it. Then they asked, ‘What about other windows?'”

According to Robert Scheinberg, rabbi of the congregation that was founded in 1905, “We did a centennial celebration around 2005. In anticipation of that, we started a campaign for the restoration of the building. It included new stained glass windows.”

Klein’s project, he said, is “remarkably creative,” involving volunteers on an ongoing basis.

The fourth window was recently installed; the next is expected to be ready after Pesach.

“They truly are unlike other windows we’ve seen, especially as regards materials,” he said, referring especially to the translucent sea shells on the Day 5 window.

“Like many great works of art, you can look at it for a long period of time and it gradually reveals itself,” he said, pointing out that in conceptualizing the window depicting the sun and moon, Klein asked if there was a constellation with Jewish resonance.

He told her that Libra is one of the constellations associated with the time period of the High Holy Days and that even the ancient rabbis made a connection between that constellation, with its scales, and the symbols of justice.

“The rabbi is having a good time with this, too,” said Klein, noting that in choosing what to include in the windows, “We discuss midrash.” In addition, the rabbi has offered to research such issues as which animals were created on which day.

Windows 1 and 2 will be done last, she said, adding that the panels are not being made in order. Containing fewer recognizable elements, “They will look more like whirly chaos. They’ll be pretty, more abstract.”

The congregation has “tremendous pride” in the project, said Scheinberg. “When we tell people that this is being done by a team of volunteers, they can’t believe it.”

Funding for the windows will come from the campaign, and each window will bear a plaque with someone’s name.

“They’re all endowed,” he said, pointing out that monies raised in this way will help fund the entire restoration project, which has included the replacement of electric wires and other safety improvements. As a landmark building in the registry of historic places, the synagogue also has received some preservation grants.

Klein, trained in graphic design and art, said, “No synagogue could afford to pay me enough to do this. It’s very detailed. Maybe they could afford one [window].”

For her, it’s “a labor of love, and maybe my legacy. I want people to be inspired,” she said, adding that since the stories in Genesis contain so few words, the opportunities for interpretation abound.

Klein estimates that at the current rate, producing some four windows in a year and a half, it will take another 15 to 20 years to complete the project.

“I wish it could go faster,” she said, adding that if she gets more people who can cut glass, she might be able to accelerate the pace.

Vivian Greene, a synagogue member who has worked as a volunteer on the project since October, has been busily engaged in “coordinating glass colors and placement, foiling, grinding the glass shape to fit the pattern, soldering, and using patina. I’m receiving on-the-job training from Susie,” she said.

The volunteer said she is enjoying the work, “bringing visuals of Creation to the members and visitors to [the] synagogue as well as opening discussions amongst ourselves….It makes you research what each day brought to the world,” she said. “It’s also part meditation, or self-awareness.”

Greene said she feels a sense of ownership, as well as pride, knowing that she will be remembered for her contribution to the project. In addition, she intends to take a class this summer with Klein to learn more about the craft of stained glass.

“I’m truly grateful for this opportunity,” said the volunteer. “There has always been a creative force within me that has lain dormant for many years while working full-time. It is only now in retirement I can fully unleash that force.”