The scarf on the empty chair
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The scarf on the empty chair

Kol Rina in South Orange remembers the artist Susan Marx and her legacy

Susan Marx was a woman of deep passions.

She was a painter, whose brightly colored abstract impressionist works were shown in downtown Manhattan galleries.

She was a Zionist, who lived in Israel for years and returned there often even after she moved back to New Jersey.

She was a serious Conservative egalitarian Jew, who davened regularly and considered her Jewish community one of the touchstones of her life.

She was an ardent believer in Jewish education for grown-ups as well as children; a blinkered insistence on only pediatric Judaism left her cold.

A group of Kol Rina members stand in the sanctuary, in front of four of Susan Marx’s paintings. (Courtesy Kol Rina)

Ms. Marx died on February 2, 2019, at 73. She left some of her paintings to Kol Rina, the independent traditional egalitarian minyan in South Orange she’d joined a few years earlier. Kol Rina is not unlike Ms. Marx; it’s a community of well-educated, deeply caring, opinionated people who know what they want and will go make it themselves if they think that it doesn’t already exist.

They were a perfect match. Ms. Marx’s gift will help Kol Rina share what it knows with the outside world, in the form of serious, intellectually challenging adult education. That’s what she wanted.

Treasure and Richard Cohen of Maplewood are among Kol Rina’s founders. They are longtime members of Congregation Beth El in South Orange; they loved the shul’s Conservative services and shared its world view. About 11 years ago, though, there was a major rift at Beth El, that caused many members to leave in anger, or in pain. That situation was resolved years ago, and Beth El is flourishing now. The Cohens still are members — “we are married to Beth El,” Ms. Cohen said — but when they left, before they knew that the circumstances would change and they could return, when all they knew was that they needed a Jewish community, they formed the entirely lay-led Kol Rina.

“A bunch of us — most of us who grew up in the 1960s, with that spirit – just said that we can do it ourselves,” Ms. Cohen said. She’s a long-time Jewish educator who worked for years at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, among other places, and her husband taught at Columbia High School, which serves South Orange and Maplewood, for decades. The couple met at Tufts. They knew about independent minyanim from when they were young, and one of their four children, their daughter Shira, “went to Barnard and was part of the independent minyan movement there,” she continued. “So we knew minyanim.” One thing was odd — “we’d be the old people” — but still it seemed appealing. “We didn’t look at it as not having a rabbi. We saw it as the opportunity to do our own thing.”

Kol Rina is not a full-service synagogue. It’s got no edifice complex — it meets above a 7-Eleven. It not only has no rabbi, it also has no cantor and no administrator. To be clear, the members value rabbis, cantors, and administrators; two of them, in fact, are rabbis. But because of the make-up of the community — highly Jewishly educated, of a certain age (“Eleven years ago, everyone was between 40 and 70,” Ms. Cohen said), and many members of other, far larger shuls as well — this gives them the control and intimacy they want.

“When you have a small group of people, it isn’t monolithic,” Ms. Cohen said. There’s a range of observance — some are shomer Shabbat, so the minyan had to meet within walking distance for those members. Some are married, some are not; some have children, some do not. Some are from Conservative backgrounds, some to their right or left religiously. “This is a community that embraces all of them,” Ms. Cohen said.

A chair with one of Susan’s scarves draped over it. 

“Without Kol Rina, I would not be a regular leader of davening, but at a place the size of Kol Rina, everyone counts. Before that I would fade into the background, but at Kol Rina I learned, because you have to step up and learn.”

Kol Rina participants also had to learn (or re-learn) how to read Torah. The minyan owns three scrolls. Each of them was a gift. “One family had a Torah from a father whose synagogue closed,” Ms. Cohen said. “They donated it. The father of another of the people in the minyan was a rabbi. His synagogue also closed, donated that one to us. And we got another one from another closed synagogue.”

So they had the scrolls, but then they had to develop a corps of readers. “When you have to do it for yourself, there is a lot of energy that you put into it to make it happen. It’s beautiful.

“Part of the story of Kol Rina is that we have managed to have services every single week for 11 years,” Ms. Cohen continued. “It has become a self-sustaining community.

“My husband was the president during covid; he figured out that we could have Friday night services on Zoom every week, and then we also had people talk about what they do.” Those Zoom sessions, not on Shabbat, allowed members to talk and teach about their passions. “We had a brunch and learn every Shabbat,” she continued. “It brought people in because people could come from all over. We were able to sustain community. We are coming out of covid in a strong position. Covid and Zoom gave us a perfect way to bond, and now we are going back in person.” (Covid’s rapid re-acceleration, the result of the Delta variant, might change that somewhat.)

Ms. Marx’s abstract impressionist paintings are full of light and movement. (Agora Gallery)

The minyan had been chugging along for quite a few years when “along comes Susan.

“Susan was a very unusual person,” she continued. “Sometimes she had red in her hair that looked like Kool-Aid. 

“And she had very characteristic kerchiefs that she always wore around her neck,” Mr. Cohen added. 

She was an artist’s artist. She had belonged to Oheb Shalom forever, and she started a Talmud class there.” (Oheb Shalom Congregation is another Conservative shul in South Orange.) 

“She had some sort of falling out with Oheb Shalom, and she found Kol Rina. We’re very welcoming, and you can be whoever you want to be. So she became a Shabbat regular.

“And then she decided that she was going to leave something to Kol Rina.” 

Susan Marx doing what she most loved to do — painting. (Irene McCarthy)

Ms. Marx already had given the minyan four of her paintings, but “her will left 40 percent of her estate to Kol Rina. And it says that the income and if necessary the principal should be used to implement and sustain ongoing adult education.”

There is just one qualifier in the will. “She asked us to set an empty chair at the study table for her,” Ms. Cohen said. “We put one of her scarves on it,” her husband added.

“So we have three goals,” Ms. Cohen said. “One is to give Susan a legacy, and the other is to get the name of little Kol Rina out there, so it has a public identity. And the third is to create partnerships, so that we can provide the money and another institution can provide the people and the venue.” That’s because the programs that Ms. Marx’s money provides “are supposed to be free. They are not supposed to be income-producing.

“That’s another beautiful part of it. it’s not ‘Learn Hebrew. It’ll cost $1,000.’”

Rabbi Lisa Vernon acts as gabbai as Ilisia Kissner reads Torah at a weekday minyan. (Courtesy Kol Rina)

Irene McCarthy of Highland Park is Susan Marx’s sister. “Susan grew up in West Orange, and we belonged to Oheb Shalom as a family,” she said. “Because I was the younger sister, Susan always was in charge. She was always passionate; Israel and her artwork mattered to her.

“She was very involved in young Judaea, and she went to Camp Tel Yehuda and did Young Judaea’s Year Course in Israel. She went to Boston University — she majored in art, in painting — and after she graduated, she went back to Israel.”

In Israel, Ms. Marx worked at the Encyclopedia Judaica as a researcher. “She researched art and photographs for the first edition,” Ms. McCarthy said. After six or so years in Israel, Ms. Marx came back to Essex County, where she worked for Israel Bonds and for a real estate trust development company. “Once she retired, she focused more on her artwork,” Ms. McCarthy said. She also became a volunteer at the Montclair Art Museum, and the museum now has two of her paintings.

“And then she got sick,” Ms. McCarthy said.

Ms. Marx had a brief, unhappy marriage in Israel, and she remained single after that. But a few years before she died, she fell in love. She and Neal Fox, who is from Chicago but lives in Caldwell now, near his grandchildren, were “together for about three years,” he said. “We met on JDate. We took a few vacations together; we went to Israel together, and we went on a Windjammer cruise on a little lake about a half hour away in New Jersey. 

“We went to Atlantic City and had fishburgers. They were in hamburger buns, and a seagull swooped down and took the top of the bun,” he said; that’s the sort of thing that happened to Susan.

Susan Marx went to France often, and she painted there. (Agora Gallery)

“My grandkids are 6, 8, and 10, and they knew her,” he added. “They wrote cards to her.” In other words, it was serious.

Mr. Fox heard stories about Susan’s trips around the world. “She went to India seven times,” he said. “She traveled all around the country. I remember that she said she went to Rishikesh, where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi met the Beatles. 

“She became a vegetarian there, because she liked the food there so much”; she remained vegetarian for the rest of her life.”

Ms. Marx led Mr. Fox, who’d been basically a three-times-a-year Jew, to Judaism; he’s now a constant Shabbat shul-goer and board member at Kol Rina. “Susan brought me to it,” he said.

This is one of Ms. Marx’s many paintings of Jerusalem. (Agora Gallery)

Until this summer, when she retired, Erica Lippitz was the cantor at Oheb Shalom. She knew Ms. Marx well.

“Susan was a passionate artist and a passionate Jew,” Cantor Lippitz said. “She was impassioned about everything that she did in her life. Her colorful canvases were reflective of her colorful personality.

“She was a very intelligent person, with natural intensity and focus. She was a devoted, serious Jews, in terms of both her observance and her involvement in the Jewish community. She was an astute and intellectual person, and doing things on a serious intellectual level really mattered for her. She was a regular student of Talmud, and she was very connected to Israel and to the Hebrew language.

“She studied Jewish life and literature on a high level, and she wanted that high intellectual level to be provided to everybody else. She was an intellectual, and she wanted Judaism to speak to other intellectuals.”

On the other hand, Ms. Marx had many layers; the intellectual was just one of them, Cantor Lippitz said. She loved cats, and she had many of them. One was named Tachash. That’s the noun the Bible uses to describe the mysterious material — it’s most frequently translated as dolphin skin, but there weren’t many dolphins in the Sinai (or for that matter in any other desert) — that is used in the mishkan, the tabernacle that the Israelites are instructed to build and then carry with them as they trekked from Egypt to the Promised Land.

“Susan gave a d’var Torah about it,” Cantor Lippitz said. “That reference in the Torah fascinated her. She gave a very erudite lecture about it to the whole congregation.”

Members of Kol Rina are in a study group in 2013; Susan, in a hat, is second from the left. (Courtesy Kol Rina)

Whatever the tachash might have been, biblical exegetes assume that it’s something rare, mystical, unique. More prosaic translators say that it might have been a water buffalo, or a single-horned rhinoceros, but the less earthbound ones say that it must have been a unicorn, or some other unique animal that existed only to give its skin to the mishkan before disappearing forever, its duty done, its mission fulfilled. “I think that we all are unconsciously intrigued by things that are similar to ourselves,” Cantor Lippitz said. “Susan was a unique person.

“Not only did she have the eyes and the inventiveness of an artist, but she enjoyed being individualistic. She wasn’t afraid to be different. She wasn’t afraid to be the tachash of the world.

“She was very very patient. She knew her own value. She did not achieve the kind of community or art-world attention she wanted until late in her life. She was delighted and vindicated because she had stayed with what she loved, and she was delighted to be recognized.

“She lived a frugal life in a small apartment, she prioritized her travel over other stuff, and also toward the end of her life she had a really wonderful love affair.

“It was joyful. It was what a lot of us wanted for her.”

So Susan Marx got what she wanted out of life — the chance to travel, to learn, to live a deeply Jewish life, to live a deeply intellectual life, to paint, to create, to be unique, to be recognized, and then, at the end, to be able to endow the minyan she loved with the chance to go on teaching, studying, learning, and strengthening as a community.

Kol Rina will continue to explore how to expand Ms. Marx’s legacy. “Our adult education program will get more ambitious,” Mr. Cohen said. “We can hire speakers for our brunch and learn programs. We’re planning a series of art lectures. We can hire teachers for basic and conversational Hebrew classes. And we’re planning a more ambitious schedule, because we can pay people.

“Susan’s message wasn’t to do things just for Kol Rina. It was to do them for the whole community. I’m the head of the education committee, and my goal is to make sure that we develop some very ambitious educational programs. We are very excited about that.”

“Our purpose is to open this to as many people as possible,” Ms. Cohen added.

As they expand Kol Rina’s offerings, the community will be sure to include Ms. Marx’s scarf-swathed chair. She’ll be there in spirit and in memory, engaging her heart, her brain, and all her passions.

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