“Be the Change” installations, produced by the Jewish Arts Collaborative, are now on exhibit in Boston. Photos: Zev Fisher

The humble tzedakah box hits the streets

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The humble tzedakah box hits the streets

“Be the Change” installations, produced by the Jewish Arts Collaborative, are now on exhibit in Boston. Photos: Zev Fisher

BOSTON – Should you happen to find yourself in the Fenway neighborhood this fall – perhaps watching the Red Sox get trounced once more – you might spot something surprising on Van Ness Street: An illuminated red heart sculpture fashioned from chicken wire, on a concrete base inscribed with images of antisemitism.

Among these images are a prisoner’s number – A-7713, the number tattooed on the arm of Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel in Auschwitz; and a yellow star, evoking the Star of David that Jews were mandated to wear by the Nazis. The concrete base, inscribed with the word “justice” in multiple languages, is a nod to a coffin or a sarcophagus. The intention is to put a spotlight on hate and antisemitism.

It’s not what you’d expect to find near the Target store and Wahlburgers, but a label next to the heart elaborates: The sculpture is part of a “Jewishly Inspired Public Art Movement” called “Be the Change” produced by the Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts).

Five more large art pieces are installed nearby. A tree made of steel, wire – and handcuffs – meant to highlight racial bias in the criminal justice system. A gigantic wooden human rib cage sheltering a small garden, addressing the need to live in balance with the earth. A sculpture resembling a traditional wigwam made of metal and glass, designed as a sanctuary, and information source, for those experiencing domestic violence. A geodesic dome encasing a soothing healing garden.

There are six sculptures in all, each of them an example of art as activism, or “artivism,” and they’re installed in the vicinity of Van Ness, Kilmarnock and Boylston Streets. Scanning the QR codes on the sculptures, you learn the art is meant to “help viewers connect to issues of injustice and empower them to become agents of change.” The codes also link to resources related to the social justice issues showcased by the artists.

Blending social justice activism with art is not a new idea. What’s unique about “Be the Change” is that it was inspired by the humble tzedakah box.

For decades, American Jews have associated household tzedakah boxes with the iconic tin containers into which they drop loose change – with a resounding “clunk” – meant to help develop the land of Israel, and nurture philanthropic values.

Tzedakah is Hebrew for “charitable giving,” based on the root word tzedek (justice), and the concept behind the collection boxes has now been reimagined in the Fenway sculptures, which play with the notion of “change.”

“We’re thinking about how to expand people’s understanding of change, which is not just putting change into an old blue and white box, but making change for social justice,” said Laura Mandel, executive director of JArts.

Sam Mendoza Fraiman’s sculpture, It’s Giving, addresses transgender rights.

The idea has been simmering for about two years, and originated with Boston-based artist Caron Tabb, creator of the red heart sculpture, who’d previously worked in the nonprofit world. Not long ago, Tabb was working on pieces for a show that included tzedakah boxes dedicated to women she admired who were working for social justice. One of them was political activist Ruth Messinger, who told Tabb she’d long wanted to put a lucite tzedakah box with the word “Change” on it, in front of the Museum of Modern Art in New York to promote the idea of giving back.

Tabb ran with the idea for that show, called “Humanity is Not A Spectator Sport,” at Boston’s Beacon Gallery – and then kept running. “I went to Laura (Mandel) and we spent a lot of time talking to her about a crossover between the ritualistic object and this idea of tzedek, or justice, and how powerful it would be to take this object into downtown USA,” Tabb said. “The idea was to do this twofold thing – bring Judaica into the street, and bring to the forefront [this object] so many of us feel so near and dear to.”

“I was sold,” said Mandel. “It wasn’t just the idea of the art, but the community connections we’ve fostered along the way.”

There are about 30 organizations involved with the project in various ways, including Keshet, which supports LGBTQ equality in Jewish life; the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute; the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center; Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action; ME2/Classical Music for Mental Health; and The Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action. Funding came from Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

All six artists live in Greater Boston, and were selected based on “whose work is thematically in line with what we are looking for, and who had the fabrication skills,” Mandel said. “It’s not a small feat to build a piece of art that will be outside for three months.”

Half the artists are Jewish. (They all attended a study session to learn about tzedekah.) They are Sam Mendoza Fraiman; Ngoc-Tran Vu; Nayana LaFond; Carolyn Lewenberg; Jason Talbot; and Caron Tabb.

There will be a series of programs to complement the exhibition, including music, theater, and online discussions with the artists, activists, clergy and others. They begin on Sunday, Sept. 4 at 2 p.m. with a performance by the Anishinaabe Theatre Exchange, a group of Native artists who use theater to share Native stories and activate community networks. The performance, at The Green at 401 Park in the Fenway, will illuminate the issues of domestic violence addressed in artist Nayana LaFond’s Be the Change piece.

Although the show will be up until Oct. 26 in Boston, the concept will live on in other cities. The idea emerged in Boston, but “Be the Change” has created partnerships with the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and ish (as in Jew-ish), a Cincinatti arts and cultural organization. Mandel said interest has been expressed by other cities, too, though all will use their own local artists and follow the same guidelines.

“It’s really exciting to see this come to life,” said Mandel. “We talk a lot about how to express social justice through art, and I’m so excited the art is actually doing what it sets out to do, which is to make change and have fun.”

For information about the exhibition, the artists, and the programs, visit jartsboston.org/bethechange

For more about the “Be the Change” installation and artists, read Spotlight on ‘Be the Change’ artists.

Matchan can be reached at matchan@jewishjournal.org

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