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By Judie Jacobson
NEW YORK CITY- Growing up in Longmeadow, Rebecca Schweiger always felt a creative streak running through her. And she did all she could to nurture it: she went to art camp, she signed up for every elective art class in high school, she took classes at the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts School, she picked up a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting from Boston University - magna cum laude.
But it wasn't until she spent time in Israel that Schweiger discovered a spiritual voice buried deep within. Now, her painting has a Jewish soul. And the world is beginning to sit up and take notice.
"I always thought of Israel as some ancient place in some old books," says the 26-year old Schweiger, who grew up in what she refers to as a "secular" family.
Then, in the summer of 1997, while she was a college student, a friend suggested that she visit the Jewish state. Schweiger took the advice and signed up for a month-long trip that took her to Eastern Europe and Israel. The trip, sponsored by the World Zionist Organization, was called Odyssey. For Schweiger, the name could not have been more descriptive.
"In Poland, I stood in the gas chambers, I inhaled the human ashes of the crematorium…," she recalls. "I saw the scars and memories of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. My great grandparents came from Eastern Europe and it brought me back to a world that I had never experienced but had heard about. It was very intense."
Twenty four hours after visiting a concentration camp, Schweiger saw the sun rise over the Old City of Jerusalem - an experience she calls surreal.
"Everyday of my three-week stay in Israel was an exploration of something within my soul. We had Shabbat in the Old City, lit candles as the sun set over the desert mountain, hiked all over the country. For me, with so little religious background and very little knowledge of religious observance, it was like candy - I wanted to eat it up."
The experience left Schweiger a changed person.
"I look at my life today as pre-1997 and post-1997. It gave me new eyes. The way I look at things, the way I look at Jewish identify, the way I see myself fitting into Jewish history…I went from painting landscapes to painting every moment I had in Israel. I was questioning ‘Who am I?' ‘What is life all about?' I had lots of ideas relating to the Holocaust and to growth after the Holocaust n to rebuilding. And ideas dealing with Israel n hope and faith and light. I took those ideas and turned them into abstract paintings on canvas."
In October 1999, Schweiger returned to Israel to take part in the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) Arts Project, a seven-month residency for professionals in the arts - painting, writing, music, acting, photography, etc. Participants travel throughout the country, participate in workshops and an ulpan, and are given a studio in which to create. At the end of the residency, the artists' work is included in two large exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout Israel.
The goal of the program, says Schweiger, "is to look at your relationship to Israel and to Judaism and to have the opportunity to produce some serious work. I did a multitude of exhibitions." Following the residency, Schweiger moved to Jerusalem for several months, where she taught art to children.
Since returning to the States in 2000, and moving to New York City, Schweiger has picked up the pace on her burgeoning career as an abstract expressionist artist. Her work has been featured in galleries in New York, and Boston, as well as several private collections. She recently was featured in a major show in Cherry Hill, N.J., that was part of an annual festival. In a critique of her work, Nobel laureate Elie Weisel, whom Schweiger describes as a mentor and role model, noted the young artist's strong ability to express human sensitivity and Jewish experience.
While much of Schweiger's work is rooted in Jewish themes, she sees her message as universal.
"I've had a lot of Jewish experiences, I'm involved in the Jewish community and my soul is in a Jewish form. And, as an artist, whatever you are is reflected onto the canvass. So, while I deal with all kinds of universal life themes - purpose, growth, struggle, history - my lenses are Jewish. But this is not your typical Jewish art. My painting is heavily expressive, pretty modern, somewhat abstract, and very open to the viewer. I want to welcome the viewer into the world of the painting. Many different people can enter my world. And that's my goal."
That is also why Schweiger, when she isn't painting, likes to talk and teach.
"Whenever I have an exhibition, I like to lecture on my journey as an artist. I also do a lot of workshops dealing with spiritual creativity. I don't talk about how to become a professional artist, but about enjoying the moment, being expressive and dipping into your internal world - your soul."
"I want to help people find their true potential, to find what they're good at. I believe everyone has a unique potential to bring something into the world that no one else could. I want to help them find their own unique spark."
Schweiger wants to help others, just as she herself was helped.
"I was not involved in the Jewish community at all. But I felt the need to be in Israel and the Springfield Jewish federation supported that by giving me a scholarship. I find it pretty amazing that the federation took a chance on me, not knowing what road I would take. I like to think that I turned out to be one of their success stories."