Dorene Schwartz-Weitz is an artist whose work flows from her soul. One project she is currently working on is a modern-day version of the Biblical monument the Jews erected to remind them of the Torah commandments as they crossed the Jordan River.
The idea for the project first came to her 20 years ago when she envisioned each stone of the Western Wall depicting a Biblical commandment (mitzvah). Schwartz-Weitz has been working on maquettes, scale models of the finished images, which will eventually be assembled as a complete wall.
When completed, the Mitzvah Kotel Project will be a wall made of life casts that depict all of the 77 positive commandments a Jew can keep outside of Israel. Her vision of the completed project includes interactive software allowing for a discovery process in which each individual can relate to the commandments in a personal way.
Schwartz-Weitz casts are provocative, and she wants the audience to be able to present their concept of what the mitzvah means to them, either in text or speech, and to allow others to benefit from that interpretation as well. There can be as many ways to view a mitzvah as there are Jews in the world, and the artist wants to see those become part of the wall.
After a long process of deep introspection on how to depict a particular mitzvah, Schwartz-Weitz is ready to create the mold. For example, when contemplating the four species used during the holiday of Sukkot, she focused on the unity of many types of Jews coming together.
She make her casts from impressions of living models using a non-toxic alginate of seaweed. They are deeply personal, and Schwartz-Weitz takes special care in choosing the models, trying to find a person who personifies that particular mitzvah.
“I see the neshama (soul) of the person in the cast,” Dorene says.
One of the more striking examples of this is seen in the mold depicting the writing of a Torah scroll. A Torah must be written by hand on the hide of a Kosher animal, using a special quill and ink. Though this work is usually done by a male scribe, Schwartz-Weitz chose to use two women for this life cast. The end result is a powerful image, with barbed wire spanning the piece.
The artist explained her unconventional choice in models. The hands she chose were those of Rebbetzin Ruchama Shain and Rebbetzin Dr. Yaffa Eliach. Holocaust Survivors and writers, they represented the living Torah for the artist. “Despite the horrors they went through in their lives, they are both full of life and joy, as the Torah should be,” she explained.
Schwartz-Weitz grew up in a religious environment, going to Hebrew schools. She studied at Rutgers University, earning two Master’s degrees in Art and Holocaust education. Religiously observant, she describes herself with the acronym F.F.B.W.W: “Frum From Birth, With Wonderings” (Frum means religiously observant).
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the spiritual leader of the Chabad Hasidic movement who passed away in 1994, chose her to work on art projects he sponsored. She even admits that in a strange twist of fate, Pope Francis now has a CD of her artwork.
There are still many more life casts to be made, and Schwartz-Weitz is still undecided about where the wall will stand. However, art and Torah are lifelong processes with much yet to be revealed.