Eva Rose Cohen of Or Emet explains the basis of the Humanistic Judaism movement and how she takes inspiration from its core beliefs in social justice and Jewish history to inspire her work as an artist and illustrator.
Are you from the Twin Cities?
I grew up in St. Paul and went to Brown in Rhode Island for my undergraduate degree. I moved back here to live with my long-distance boyfriend, now husband, and have been in the Seward neighborhood in Minneapolis for more than six years now.
What did you study at Brown?
I got a double major in Visual Art and Anthropology. I’m interested in a lot of different things and it has been hard to choose just one for a career path! I am both a practicing artist and an educator now.
You are the Director of Or Emet‘s Jewish Cultural School. What’s that entail?
I wear a lot of different hats. In addition to teaching a class for upper elementary/junior high students and co-leading the bat/bar mitzvah program with our madrikh or spiritual leader, Harold Londer, I’m the public face of the school. I handle the marketing and am the point of contact for families interested in joining the school. I plan a lot of family holiday events, from our Sukkot party to our Tu B’Shevat seder. There’s also a logistical piece working with our host site, Talmud Torah of St. Paul. They’ve been really welcoming and awesome.
We’ve been steadily growing as a school and a congregation. Or Emet is the only Humanistic Jewish/Secular Humanistic synagogue in Minnesota. We have the monthly school for younger children up through the bar/bat mitzvah program with a focus on social justice issues. We’re welcoming to all kinds of people along the spectrum of belief.
What exactly is Humanistic Judaism?
Humanistic Judaism is a movement founded by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in the Detroit area in 1963. He felt strongly tied to his Jewish identity and Jewish ritual and culture, but did not believe in God. When explaining what the movement is, I focus more on what we are than what we’re not. We are strongly tied to Jewish culture, and we define Judaism as the cultural and historical experience of the Jewish people. We believe that human beings have the power and responsibility to shape their own lives independent of supernatural authority. We see Jewish history as a human saga, a testament to the significance of human power and impact. We put a very strong emphasis on doing right in the world and promoting peace and justice.
We’re very inclusive. I think a lot of interfaith families are finding a home at Or Emet because they feel comfortable with the humanistic focus. Fifty-eight percent of Jews today are intermarrying, so that is becoming the norm. I’m married to a man who isn’t originally from a Jewish background. He really enjoys coming to services with me and participating in the holidays.
You are also a visual artist. What is your medium?
I primarily draw and paint. I really like working with commissions and doing pieces specifically for a project. I’ve done a lot of album art and posters. My newest work is on textiles with fabric pastels and markers.
Does your Jewish identity influence your artwork?
Definitely. For example, I did a painting of the exodus story that emphasizes social justice themes. It is the cover for Or Emet’s new Haggadah.
I also had a really cool opportunity last year to participate in Tent: Museums—Encounters with Jewish Culture. It was a week long program in New York City that brought together an interdisciplinary group of artists and museum professionals interested in Jewish culture and museums. We visited the Jewish Museum, the Tenement Museum, the Met and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, to name a few. We met with curators, directors and educators to learn about the relevance of Jewish museums to contemporary culture. I took a lot from that and it’s influencing the work I’m making and the lessons I’m preparing for students.
Do you bring the arts into your classroom?
I do. That’s really important to me. I believe in teaching in a way that draws upon multiple intelligences. For instance, we’ve made “Tree of Life” suncatchers and worked with the Ashkenazi tradition of paper cutting. I also incorporate theatre to bring the Torah portions alive and use cooking and food to get the students involved in exploring Jewish culture.
What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
That would have to be Passover. The retelling of the Passover story is very powerful. I think the theme of that story is about resisting oppression and achieving liberation. That is such a strong thread in Jewish history but also speaks to the importance of social justice throughout time and place. The ritual and themes, the gathering of family, the food—Passover speaks to me in a lot of ways.
What’s you favorite Jewish food?
That’s hard! I do love homemade hamentaschen with poppyseed and apricot.
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