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Promoting Peace Through Art

On a crisp November evening, more than 200 people arrived at Chelsea Mansion in East Norwich for the Long Island Jewish Community Relations Council Holiday Party, "Multicultural Visions, Artists Exploring Identity." People from all ethnic and religious walks of life mingled under the heated tent viewing art from six local artists, equally as diverse.

There was Stanley Covington, an African American artist from Hempstead; Paul Kolker, a Jewish doctor, lawyer, and artist from Westbury; Rene Efi Hakimian, a Persian Jew from Great Neck; Simon Zareh a Jewish Iranian art collector from Rosyln; Lisbeh Herrera, a Nicaraguan American artist from Bayshore (her husband and children were present but not the artist); and Manu Kaur Saluja, a Sikh artist from Old Brookville now living in Queens. While guests and many politicians viewed the magnificent art and chatted with the artists, the background was filled with beautiful music played by high school students from Suffolk County Asian American Advisory Board Orchestra. Talk about diversity.

The event was a collaborative effort on the part of the volunteers, the chairwoman for the event Chumi Diamond, and Executive Director David Newman and was the first large holiday party. According to Newman, “The goal was to bring a diverse group of people together to look at art from a broad range of artists from a variety of communities. The idea was that JCRC’s primary responsibility in the community is that we bring people together on behalf of the Jewish community so that the Jewish and non-Jewish communities of Long Island can get to know each other, understand each other, remove the fear of the unknown and get to know each other and in this case in a social environment so we can live together. We continue to do events throughout the year.”

Each artist addressed the audience and talked about their art and how it reflects their individual identity as a Jew, A Sikh woman, a Latino woman and an African American man.

Portrait artist Manu Kaur Saluja explained to audience how identity is a very complicated issue. Standing between two portraits of her brother, a cardiologist, one wearing a black turban and one without with his long hair cascading down his shoulders, Manu explained why she chose to paint these two portraits. “This was to humanize my brother as a Sikh man. It was a way to drawn attention to cultural stereotypes and the idea was to explore issues of context and identity by what he is wearing. Post 911 the turban, especially a black one, has become a symbol of terror, unfortunately, where as before it was a regal symbol. Sikh men wear their turban as a symbol of pride and removing it is tantamount to going outside in your pajamas or taking your clothes off in public.”

She shared a story with the audience how when her brother was in third grade and attending a new school her mother asked the principal to hold an assembly and have her brother remove his turban in front of all of the children. “It was brave of him and he did it. The goal of it was to dispel the unfamiliarity of Sikhs and to familiarize my brother with everybody.”

As each artist came forward to explain their art to the audience they presented their different views on why art is important. Retired heart surgeon Dr. Paul Kolker had this comment, “Art is a cultural instrument for bringing people together. It is part of our freedom of expression, our first amendment right. We live in a wonderful country that is extremely tolerant of artists saying anything they want.”

The art work was for sale and a portion of the proceeds go to JCRC. Arthur Katz, Chairman of the Long Island JCRC described the mission of the organization.  

“The JCRC is the diplomatic arm of the Jewish people. We have learned that when people play together, eat together, celebrate together there is less discrimination and less conflict. When we bring everyone together we can learn about their cultures and we have a happier Long Island.”

“The organization has four pillars to its mission, ‘To convene ethnic and religious groups of Long Island, to educate elected officials about the Jewish community and how important   democratic state of Israel is to the United States and its importance as an ally. The third pillar is to bring topics of Israel to the United States. We brought Ethiopian Jews, students, who are immigrants to Israel to meet with minority groups who are immigrants on LI to make everyone understand that when you are an immigrant in a democratic society like Israel or the United States and you work hard you can be successful. Our fourth pillar is to bring various types of Jews together to celebrate.’”

The all-volunteer organization (except for one paid professional) works to promote tolerance across all religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Lori Horowitz, owner of art gallery Studio 5404 in Massapequa, was very impressed by the events of the evening and has offered her gallery to the Town of Oyster Bay to support the arts and the community.

“Tonight’s event was very inspiring. It was great bringing all of the artists together from different backgrounds, bridging gaps between different ethnic groups and really showing the community that it really doesn’t matter which background you are from. All artists and people can come together and support the arts.”

To learn more about Jewish Community Relations Council located at 6900 Jericho Turnpike, Syosset, go to www.JCRCLI.ORG or call 516-677-1866.