2016-08-03 / Features

Local Express

Ayelet Pearl

Ayelet Pearl, a graduate of Barnard College and native of Queens, passionately documents the lives that surround her through exceptional photography. Previous projects that she created – including Shivim Panim (Seventy Faces) at the Columbia Hillel, and Faces of Barnard at Barnard College – catapulted Ayelet’s photography from hobby to a specialized expression of community engagement. She is the daughter of Rabbi Jonathan Pearl, Ph.D., of Astoria Center of Israel (27-35 Crescent Street, Astoria). Her upcoming project, Beyond Esther, is a collection of interviews and photographs with Jewish women across the world that explores the various facets of female Jewish identity.

QG: The Astoria Center of Israel celebrated its 90th Anniversary on June 25. Can you share with us the ways in which it has changed aesthetically and systematically?

AP: There is a lot about this in many of the interviews, as the congregants, who have been here for its entire 90 years, have much to say about that (especially Sydelle Diner). Originally intended as a gym, Hebrew School, and community center for the (no longer in existence) synagogue next door, its many aesthetic changes reflected its changes in use. Pews were put into the main auditorium, turning it into a permanent sanctuary; murals by Luis Pierre Rigal were added; a memorial tablet in the back of the synagogue was designed and donated by a member; a smaller chapel was decorated, etc. Systematically, it went through fewer changes, although significant. Much was influenced by historic factors. The very strong Rabbi Goldberg, in the beginning, had much to work with in terms of the huge Jewish population in Astoria in the 1920s - 40s, the Holocaust, WWII, the reestablishment of the state of Israel – all playing a huge role in the place of the synagogue in the community – then the change in demographics with Jews moving out of the area, and more recently the resurgence with Rabbi Pearl. Leadership, of course, plays a significant role as well.

QG: In curating the exhibit, did you discover unique objects from the Astoria Center of Israel archives?

AP: I honestly had the time of my life exploring these back rooms of the synagogue. I discovered a number of incredible resources that spoke both to the history of ACI, the community, and the world. Many were records from the synagogue itself – minutes from 1925 board meetings, blueprints from 1926 (and then with the redesign of the bimah, or stage, in 1939); and a number of secular documents, like a Metropolitan Museum of Art list of events for 1948. One of the most interesting discoveries was a series of affidavits and telegrams from Rabbi Goldberg dating to 1938 that dealt with trying to get many Jews in Europe resettled in America. It was especially fascinating to look at our old weekly bulletins and see how the synagogue dealt with the happenings of the time.

QG: Why did you decide to curate the exhibit for the anniversary? Briefly outline how it all came together.

AP: Initially, I was planning to photograph all our members to document how the synagogue community looks after 90 years. I still hope to do this project, but Rabbi Pearl thought it would be prudent to begin with some of our older members. It then naturally clicked that when honoring them during our journal service, I would display the photographs of each of our nonagenarian honorees. I have done a number of photography/interview projects, but there was something incredibly special about speaking with these lively, vibrant humans who have nearly a century of wisdom and experience. I wanted to piece together their stories with a history of the synagogue, and with the help of some devoted volunteers, discovered that our collection of historic documents was more extensive and rich than I had hoped. Putting together an exhibition to share these bits of history seemed like the natural reaction to discovering such a treasure trove. It came together as a beautiful mosaic of past and present.

QG: What opportunities and services provided by Astoria Center of Israel are you and your father, Rabbi Jonathan Pearl, Ph.D., most proud of?

AP: The Hebrew School and the resurgence of our youth program. We’ve worked many years to develop this and it has been growing dramatically and diversely over the years. Every one of the nonagenarians with whom I spoke mentioned the thriving Hebrew School as a major part of their experience and love for the Center, and it is especially meaningful to be working on its renewal. Our musical services are also a huge factor in the growth of the synagogue, and a huge part of the spirituality that I think many are finding here now.

This column was originated in July 2013 by Nicollette Barsamian.

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