In a Chanukah mood with Gary Rosenthal

Gary Rosenthal works in his studio in Kensington.
Photo by David Stuck

In a sense, Gary Rosenthal has been part of hundreds of thousands of lives over four-plus decades, whether in Jewish rituals that include weddings and b’nai mitzvah or in charitable projects in the Jewish community and beyond.

His recognizable handcrafted artwork — unique sculptural pieces of steel, copper and brass with colorful, elegant fused glass — links him to people globally. And with Chanukah days away, his studio in Kensington — a candyland of Judaica — holds shelves devoted to colorful dreidels and menorahs (ritual candelabras) in a variety of designs — including a popular design of a dreidel that spins in a stand that is part of the menorah.

“It’s crazy this time of year,” the 66-year-old Washington native says.

Production for Chanukah starts months ahead to build the holiday stock. In the maze of workspaces, Albee, Rosenthal’s fuzzy white poodle-bichon mix, follows around not only Rosenthal but also his dozen employees, seeking a snack or a partner to play ball.

“I’ve probably done more Jewish handmade artwork than anyone in the country,” Rosenthal says.

Judaica around the studio: mezuzot, tzedakah boxes, Shabbat candlesticks, Kiddush cups, an almost-finished eternal light for a local Chabad and more — plus secular pieces for businesses and awards.

“I feel that I am one of the luckiest guys in the world,” he explains, “because I’m invited into so many lifecycle mitzvah events, and into their homes. For me it’s such a blessing.”

With candlesticks, he is invited to welcome Shabbat, with Torah pointers to a bar mitzvah.

Photo by David Stuck

And there are his Chanukah connections.

“That had never crossed my mind, to make Judaica, when I got started,” he says. In the 1970s, he was a college dropout employed in his father’s stove and refrigerator repair business. “I learned to work with a torch.” It was love at first flame. He became a self-taught metal sculpture artist.

A friend taught him to work with glass. Someone at a Jewish center art show in Baltimore asked if he could make a menorah, so he did, and got into Judaica.

Later, trying to craft a traditionally shaped four-sided metal dreidel that balanced, he had an “aha!” moment: “When I put a dreidel in a stand, it changed my life. It went from being a dreidel to a piece of art.

“I paid my mortgage with dreidels in a stand. The shards wedding mezuzah put my kids through college,” he says, referring to the mezuzah that displays bits of glass from the colored goblet stomped on by the groom at the close of the wedding ceremony.

He did finish college and earn an MBA.

Gary Rosenthal and Albee
Photo by David Stuck

There’s a spiritual aspect for Rosenthal, who is affiliated with a Reform temple. One is hiddur mitzvah, enhancing a mitzvah; that’s the artistic side of the business.

Another is tikkun olam, repairing the world. He hired “refuseniks” from the Soviet Union; two autistic men have worked in the studio for 20 years. His social work efforts have benefited Hurricane Katrina victims, and more recently families that lost children in the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Among his enduring charitable deeds has been the making of the pink fused glass Strength Stones that are part of his fundraising and patient support work with Sharsheret, an organization for women and families affected by breast, ovarian and other cancers. Patients and those supporting them carry the disks as reminders of strength and support, as well as design the mosaic sheet of glass that will be used.

A new Strength Stones project is highly personal.

“I’ve recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” Rosenthal says.

Treatment is showing good results.

He plans to work with the Pancreatic Cancer Foundation on purple Strength Stones, and this month he, his daughter and his best friend from high school made a prototype purple fused glass sheet, as they tested the color and look.

“I believe in patient support. That piece of glass that I can make with my daughter, and she can reach into her pocket, is something she can hold and think of me,” he says.

“I’ve always wanted to do good. The parts of my business that are successful subsidize the social work ventures.

People buy tzedakah boxes and I give away cancer stones.”

Andrea F. Siegel is a Washington-area writer.

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