Seeing the flocks of colorful birds — hundreds of them — taking flight overhead in the Jerusalem stone-lined lobby of Congregation Agudath Israel, moving to and fro in the upper reaches of the lofty space, amid stark bare branches and soft pink- and bluish-gray clouds, a visitor is struck by the delicate beauty and delightful whimsy of the avian scene.
But learning about the project’s genesis and execution brings a deeper appreciation of the spiritual power of these winged messengers, each bearing its own unique message and design.
In the summer, Rabbi Ari Lucas, senior rabbi at the Conservative synagogue in Caldwell, charged longtime congregant Anne Luria Burg of West Caldwell with a challenging task. She was asked to develop a community-wide creative project to be displayed throughout the High Holiday season. Ms. Burg, an artist and art teacher, entered into a weeks-long period of exploration to find just the right format to best carry out what she regarded as a unique and uplifting assignment.
The goal was not simply to produce a work of art. Rabbi Lucas said he knew that during the holidays, after this prolonged period of pandemic isolation and worry, “people would be walking through our doors carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders; we wanted to offer them a way to feel seen by their community and to lighten the burden.”
Ms. Burg said she felt guided by the rabbi “to provide congregants with an avenue to express their feelings and losses during these past few difficult years,” coupled with “a path toward hope, healing, and uplift, as we come back to shul together in person — for many, for the first time in three years.”
After discussing the challenge with several people — most notably Cathi Robinson of Florida, a friend, artist, and former longtime CAI member whose large-scale multimedia wall hangings adorn the sanctuary — Ms. Burg found the ideal concept.
Birds “flying” — suspended from branches — amid clouds became the framework for congregants to express thoughts of loss and grief along with images and imaginings, prayers and hopes for a New Year of peace and calm.
According to Ms. Burg, “the birds symbolize our prayers soaring toward heaven”; as doves they represent “God’s promise to humankind, along with the rainbow, not to destroy the world again after the Flood and the world peace we all crave and pray for.” The painted clouds, which she sculpted from steel mesh, are emblems for her of the need for “rain to live and grow” and convey an element of healing and “post-traumatic growth” after coming through vexing and sorrowful times.
With the backdrop of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the birds also can be seen “as a symbol of our ability to rise high above the tumult and noise surrounding us in a fragmented and distracted world, hopefully enabling us to gain perspective, just as we reflect from a longer view to do the teshuvah we embark upon during our sacred High Holiday season,” Ms. Burg said.
She also cited a belief embraced by many — including her — “that when a bird visits, it’s a sign that a loved one who has died is visiting and saying hello or offering assurances.”
Getting the community on board to join in creating an installation carrying such high-flying aims took extensive planning and work.
In devising the logistics, Ms. Burg was most concerned that it be accessible to “congregants of all ages, including senior citizens and youngsters in the CAI Early Childhood Center and religious school — and everyone in between.”
Ms. Burg cut out hundreds of birds in a variety of shapes so that the participants would not be burdened with scissoring the forms but could go right to applying their expressions. The word went out via the congregation’s eblast and a video from Ms. Burg, instructing people to pick up a bird and let their imaginations fly.
Each person was told to “write and/or color or paint anything that was in their hearts,” Ms. Burg said. Rabbi Lucas said they thought about “how the Kotel in Jerusalem is a collection point for Jewish prayers from the four corners of the earth, and we wanted our synagogue space to serve as a local version of that.”
Ms. Burg said she was “honored to witness the many ways people took this on. So many people told me they have ‘no artistic ability whatsoever,’” then took markers or crayons in hand, later telling her “how soothing it was to simply color or paint.”
And some people told her they silently released the “grief and losses” they had experienced as their young children applied their images and simple words. “Some congregants wrote exquisite poems that surprised them, and some collaged cherished quotes to their bird,” Ms. Burg said.
When the writing on any bird was tiny, she said, she regarded it “as a private prayer to God,” which she respected by not reading it, instead just adding it “with intention.”
Ms. Burg pointed out several features of the project. First, she said, each person who took part may see their one bird as insignificant, but when you look at the entire installation it is clear that “the small actions of many can add up to something quite magnificent.”
Ms. Burg also emphasized that even congregants who did not contribute are “still an integral part of this art installation. Just walking down the hallway affects the movement of the birds and branches and adds to its magic and beauty.”
A project of this scope required helping hands — and Ms. Burg got them in abundance. She expressed gratitude to the CAI staff and, of course, to Rabbi Lucas for “entrusting me with this project.” Besides Ms. Robinson, among those she thanked for what amounted in some cases to hours of assistance are congregants Risa Levi, Carole Shapiro, Carol Richmond, Joan Bronspiegel Dickman, Rosanne Bornstein, Deborah Miller, and Amiee Idan.
Ms. Levi, of West Caldwell, stopped by the synagogue to drop off her bird and ended up staying for hours to assist in the installation. “Being privy to the sentiments on each of the birds and tying them to the branches felt like a blessing every time one was hung,” she said.
Ms. Shapiro, also of West Caldwell, said, “Kudos to Anne for an amazing creative vision!”
For Ms. Burg, throughout what she called “a sacred endeavor,” she kept in mind that this was “a co-collaboration with the community and with God.
“As I tied each and every bird to the branches, I offered prayers that the creator of this bird and their families may be blessed.”
Go to anneluriaburg.com to see more of Ms. Burg’s artwork.