Tifereth Israel honors congregant’s artistic legacy

Bernie Shleien displays his “celestial clock” in a 2017 Washington Jewish Week profile. Photo by Dan Schere

One congregant among 325 member families, Bernie Shleien seemed to be at the center of Tifereth Israel Congregation. Even after his death in 2020, Shleien continues to support the Conservative congregation and bring it together.

At Tifereth Israel, on 16th Street in the District, he was a regular Shabbat attendee and a frequenter of the parshah class. But what really connected Shleien to the synagogue community was his art.

“I don’t remember TI without Bernie’s artwork,” said synagogue president Sara Goldberg. “I’ve been around TI for 17 years, and it’s always been here.”

Upon entering the synagogue, one is greeted by sculptures, oil paintings and drawings. Shleien sold to Tifereth Israel a painting of the domed Jerusalem synagogue Nisan Bak — also called Tiferet Yisrael — paying homage to his synagogue’s namesake. In another display, curved cherry wood scraps attached to a slice of a tree trunk form a “celestial clock.”

In November, Tifereth Israel organized a tribute to the artist, including an auction of more than 47 of his works to benefit the synagogue. Congregants offered memories of Shleien.

“Bernie felt that if you were doing art, you were an artist, and you should own that. And that was so empowering,” said event coordinator Sheryl Gross-Glaser at the tribute.

“He had relationships with the range of the congregation,” Rabbi Michael Werbow said of Shleien. “He talked to the old timers; he would talk to the young people. They all knew him; they all had a relationship with him.”

Beyond providing art for the synagogue, Shleien also participated in itss Better Together program, which connects older congregants with fifth graders. According to Goldberg, Shleien was a favorite among the students, and he would sometimes create pieces of art with them.

“He was kind of like a grandfather to me, someone I looked up to, someone I always enjoyed being around,” said one Better Together student at the tribute event.

Above all, Shleien, who began taking classes at Maryland College of Art and Design in Takoma Park after retiring from a career in public health in 2000, hoped his art would be accessible to everyone.

“I like my art to be approachable,” he said in a 2017 WJW article. “I like the people to feel at ease and not feel like ‘what’s this?’”

Before his death, Shleien left a legacy gift to Tifereth Israel, which will be used to endow a fund for the synagogue’s Hebrew school to supply art materials, and another to help provide art supplies to underprivileged children.

“He left this legacy that was very much focused on young people’s access to artistic endeavors,” Goldberg said.

Physical reminders of Shleien’s legacy continue to exist around the synagogue, which can serve as a reminder to congregants about the diverse paths spirituality can exist on.“Art is another avenue that people have to connect with spirituality,” Werbow said. “It allows for people to connect to the wide range of human experiences, human emotions. Art just draws that out of people, so having it around is a way to give everybody an outlet.”

The November tribune to Shleien was one way Werbow has worked to hold together the community since the onset of COVID. In the pandemic’s earlier days, the synagogue hosted outdoor kiddush after Shabbat services, with some congregants sitting on the steps in 40 degree weather.

“People stuck around for a half an hour or more after services to have a granola bar because they wanted to talk to each other,” Werbow said.

Last year, Tifereth Israel hired a director of lifelong learning, Rabbi Kelley Gludt, who has “brought energy” into the synagogue’s Himmelfarb Religious School, Werbow said.

In the school’s makerspace — a place for hands-on learning using tools for creativity — students are able to tinker and learn concepts in ways that best suit them.

In addition to a beit midrash for adults, Tifereth Israel hosts two monthly Friday night Shabbat dinners after services. It hosts a musical “Uptown Shabbat” and has been holding monthly workshops with Joey Weisenberg, founder and director of Rising Song Institute, which cultivates Jewish spiritual life through song.

The many modes of programming, Werbow said, translate to the different ways congregants can find fulfillment and community.

“It means that more and more people can find something through which to engage with TI.” ■

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