On Feb. 5, Maureen Kushner will walk adults and children through an exhibition of 45 paintings at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. She will tell them how each painting was made, have them role-play to illustrate the theme of each work, and draw biblical lessons from each canvas. When she is finished, visitors will know more about resolving conflicts.
The exhibit, "Peace Through Humor," which will be at Barnert for one month, beginning Wednesday, displays the artwork of children from 36 schools in Israel. The often whimsical paintings were at the Knesset for six months and have toured the United States and Canada. When the exhibition leaves New Jersey, it will be shipped to Europe.
Kushner, a New York educator who ran the Kids Comedy Club in Washington Heights before embarking on her work in Israel, says she was always interested in "animation, the tearing away of facades" to explore particular themes. "When I work with children," she says, "I want them to get inside the concept of peace."
In 1994, Israel adopted "Peace in the Middle East" as the theme of the year for its school students. Kushner went to Israel and pitched her program.
Sent to a school for Kurdish and Moroccan children in Jerusalem, where she worked with fifth- and sixth-graders, Kushner who made aliyah five years ago but maintains an apartment in Brooklyn was supposed to stay there for two months. Instead, the program was so successful that some ’50 schools requested her services and she spent the next four years conducting art classes and workshops all over the country.
"The question was how to get beyond painting rainbows and doves; how to get the children to believe in peace," she says. "We never talked about political peace, but how to achieve peace at home, in class, with friends, and between different religious groups."
At the exhibit in Franklin Lakes, Kushner will lead visitors through a similar process. For example, when viewing a painting called "Tree of Peace," created by Bedouin children, she will explain that to the Bedouins, peace is viewed as economic prosperity, depicted through symbols such as a well of water, goats, camels, and a date palm tree.
"I will talk to them about water in the desert and how that is discussed in the Torah," she says. "I will also tell them that all different kinds of animals will want water and ask them to role-play" to see how the animals choose who drinks first.
"My goal is to have them visualize how to resolve conflicts," she says. Another piece, by second-graders, shows a dispute between the sun and the moon. They argue, she says, but ultimately they make peace. Kushner will introduce other hypothetical scenarios, such as "disputes" between mops and brooms.
The educator tells a story about one of the paintings, which comes from a village named Trumpeldor, where she was teaching a class. One day, class was canceled so that the children could go on a field trip. That same day, Katushya rockets hit the school. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The next day, Kushner and her class discovered that all the children’s artwork has been destroyed.
"Two kids from Chechniya were very upset," she recalls. "They got very angry and said they hated Israel and wanted to leave. Then they started tearing up the remains of the artwork."
After 15 minutes of anger and tears, the children started to collect and put together what was left of their work. The result, "War-Torn Land," is now part of the exhibition.
Kushner who has worked with children of many backgrounds says it was not her intention to launch an exhibition. Excited by the paintings of her multi- cultural class, the mayor of Ma’alot-Tarshicha suggested that they be displayed in a gallery. The exhibit subsequently came to the attention of the Knesset, and it has been traveling ever since.
For more information, call ’01-848- 1800. "Tree of Peace," created by Yasmin, Rashad, Amira, and Omar, ages 7-11, of the Khalil Gibran School in Tel Sheva, Israel.