The Yiddish word shidduch usually refers to romantic matchmaking. But it also can mean the propitious meeting of individuals who share similar ideas about faith, even if they come from different backgrounds.
In the case of Kol HaLev, a Reconstructionist synagogue that holds services at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church in Towson, the creation of a ner tamid, or eternal light, sparked a shidduch between a rabbi and an African-American artist.
Rabbi Geoff Basik of Kol HaLev wanted a ner tamid that would reflect the congregation’s philosophy and inclusive spiritual outlook.
“The ner tamid signifies groundedness,” says Rabbi Basik. “It shows we’ve arrived as a congregation.”
Enter Loring Cornish, an innovative Baltimore artist whose glittering mosaics and mixed-media creations often employ religious and socially conscious themes. Cornish’s work has been exhibited at the American Visionary Art Museum, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture and the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
“I am a Christian, and my religion goes along with feeling,” says Cornish. “I was struck by the connections between the struggles of Jews and blacks.”
One of Cornish’s most distinct works is his West Baltimore rowhouse. Every inch of the dwelling is embedded with colorful mirror and glass proclaiming words of welcome, peace, forgiveness and mercy.
“Loring Cornish is a change agent,” says Rabbi Basik. “He transforms our perceptions by using materials that others might not see as beautiful.”
In 2016, Cornish was commissioned by Rabbi Basik and Kol HaLev congregant Dr. Jane Guyer to craft a special ner tamid that would retain traditional elements but also would be slightly out of the box.
Cornish — who incorporates everything from old shoes to dolls in his work — repurposed a nearly 3-foot-tall chandelier as the skeleton for Kol HaLev’s ner tamid. The six-sided ner tamid is inlaid with glass panels and is lit from within by several bulbs. The result is a contemporary glass sculpture that invites interpretation and reflection.
“I always allow the art to direct the art,” says Cornish, who says he was inspired by the image of the Star of David. “The whole basis of my work stems from wanting to worship God. The joy I put into my art adds to the uplifting of the community.”
For Guyer, commissioning the ner tamid was easy.
“I’m a bit of a nut for colored glass,” says Guyer, who donated the ner tamid to honor her husband, Dr. Bernard Guyer, Kol HaLev’s first president.
“I was transfixed by Loring’s work,” says Jane Guyer, who first saw the ner tamid this summer at Cornish’s studio in Fells Point. “It was artistically created so anybody at the particular moment can connect with it. If you’re sad or joyful, there is something for you there.”
Kol HaLev debuted the ner tamid last fall at High Holiday services. The congregation’s response was overwhelmingly positive.
While there is no commandment that a ner tamid hang over the ark, due to its size and weight, Kol HaLev’s supersized ner tamid sits physically atop its aron kodesh, or Torah ark.
“It looked like a crown,” says Guyer. “It was so big, bright and captivating.”
Rabbi Basik says the ner tamid’s glass shards remind him of tikkun olam, the Jewish precept of repairing the world.
“We are all broken in pieces,” Rabbi Basik says. “What is the hope and what will make us whole?”
“We’re a label-defying congregation,” says Rabbi Basik. “I think there’s a positive spin to it as far as Kol HaLev’s spiritual flexibility. We’re a congregation that’s here to stay.”
For his part, Cornish says he has been positively affected by crafting the ner tamid.
“I allowed my spirit to flow,” he says. “The flame of life is always burning.”
For information, visit kolhalevmd.org.
Jill Yesko is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Rabbi Geoff Basik (left), spiritual leader of Kol Halev Synagogue, and artist Loring Cornish show off the congregation’s new ner tamid, or eternal light. Photo by Jill Yesko
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