Life of Jewish Art

Comments and discussion about the role of Jewish visual arts in Jewish civilization.

Ephraim Keyser , Sculptor and Teacher

In the United States, Teacher Appreciation Week is in the spring. This year May 5-9 is Teacher Appreciation Week, with Tuesday May 6 being designated as National Teacher Day. It is a fitting time to remember Ephraim Keyser, 1850-1937, whose long tenure as a teacher in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute (now The Maryland Institute College of Art or MICA) and the Rinehart School of Sculpture affected the lives and careers of many students.

KeyserpassportIn 1893 Keyser was hired to teach modeling in the Maryland Institute's day school. He also was an instructor in the Freehand Division of the night school. In October of 1900, a third teaching position was added, as Keyser became head of the Rinehart School of Sculpture, which was allied with the Maryland Institute and offered advanced instruction in sculpture. He remained head of the Rinehart School until 1923 but continued to give lectures there and in the day school of the Maryland Institute until shortly before his death.

We can learn about Keyser as a teacher by looking at some of his correspondence that survives and by reading statements about him from his students and contemporaries.

Keyser wanted his students to have the best possible opportunity to learn and tried to acquire proper aids for his classroom. Toward that end, he wrote to the chairman and trustees of the Rinehart Fund in a letter dated October 14, 1909, and asked for a skeleton. He notified them that, "a well articulated and mounted skeleton is a need greatly felt and it would add greatly to the efficiency of the class could one be obtained."  The trustees apparently did not purchase the skeleton that year because on October 14, 1910, he again pleaded to the chairman and trustees for a skeleton. "My work in the class is greatly handicapped by the lack of a well articulated skeleton so necessary to teach the structure of the figure and I earnestly request that one be obtained."

Keyser's concern for his students did not stop after they left his classroom.  In 1907 one of his sculpture students was awarded a Rinehart scholarship to study in Paris. Keyser, concerned that the student, who had never been away from home, would have difficulty adjusting to life in Paris, promptly wrote to his nephew, Leo Stein, asking Leo to look after the student.b2ap3_thumbnail_images.jpg

 Keyser was well regarded by his students as evidenced by the following quote from Isabelle Schultz Churchman in The Rinehart School 75th Anniversary Catalogue, 1896-1971, "Mr. Keyser considered anatomy as vital for both sculptors and painters and would give lectures on it to the whole Institute. The students would flock to hear him…His most popular lecture was the one on the face and head for he would demonstrate the facial expressions and even wiggle his ears, to the delight of all."

A lighthearted comment found in the 1908 yearbook of the Maryland Institute demonstrates esteem for Keyser. The unnamed wag reported in the yearbook that, "With that left paw Keyser could draw."

The September 17, 1924 Baltimore Sun reported on a dinner honoring Ephraim Keyser held at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  During the dinner, J. Maxwell Miller, another Baltimore sculptor and teacher gave a testimonial of his esteem for Mr. Keyser as a teacher. According to Miller, a young student obtained from Keyser, more than guidance in art, but a philosophy of life.

According to the February 21, 1937, Sun newspaper, a past student of Keyser's, Miss Valerie H. Walter,  wanted to honor  her late teacher and called a meeting of his former pupils to  plan a memorial exhibit.  The newspaper reported that Miss Walter had exhibited in New York, Rome, Paris, and London but had never found anything to equal the inspiration she derived from Ephraim Keyser.

Keyser's students are deceased themselves now. It is well that some of their written praise of their former teacher survives to validate the career of this fine educator. 

Photo Credit of Keyser: Jewish Museum of Maryland

Image: A monumental bronze figure of a cavalier

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Students Connect Jewish Art and Sacred Texts

RAVSAK, a national Jewish community day school network, has always sought to identify unique opportunities to build stronger connections to Jewish art and sacred texts and enhance the creative potential of our students. 

Three years ago, in support of that mission, we launched the RAVSAK Judaic Art Contest for elementary, middle and high schools. This year, students from 20 schools studied a text-rich and thought-provoking curriculum, discuss the material in class and arrive at their own understanding of the subject. Students then translated their interpretations into artwork as photography, sculpture and visual arts.FirstPlaceSculpture HighSchool TalyAkermanAmericanHebrewAcademy This year's theme, "Creating Together," was taken from the 2013 curriculum produced by our partner, the Global Day of Jewish Learning. Winners are concentrated in categories reflecting their school year and format and arranged as clickable galleries online.

The RAVSAK Judaic Art Contest counts schools of all sizes among its participants. Especially for small schools in isolated communities, the art contest serves as a bridge, connecting students with the wider day school field by equalizing their contributions and adding their voice to the conversation. The only program of its kind, the contest's growing popularity is a direct result of the value and learning it brings to day schools nationwide.

This year, our students work was judged by renowned and distinguished individuals including, Jason Hutt, a digital media artist and film director; Tirtzah Bassel visual artist and a member of the visual arts faculty at the Brandeis Institute for Music and Art; and Dr. Judah Cohen, associate professor of musicology and professor of Jewish Culture at Indiana University. Winners have their works highlighted on the RAVSAK website and in our prestigious journal HaYidion.

We invite you to browse the 2014 winners of the RAVSAK Judaic Art Contest and read the artist's artistic statements. Additional galleries of all 400+ entries are available on RAVSAK's Flickr page, linked from the RAVSAK art contest website above. 

"The RAVSAK Judaic Art Contest not only helps students develop their artistic expression, but reinforces the links between creativity and Jewish tradition. By interpreting texts and creating visually stunning works that relate the words and narratives to their own experience and understanding, participants gain a meaningful appreciation for Judaism and develop a deeper sense of Jewish literacy," said Dr. Marc N. Kramer, Executive Director of RAVSAK. 

"What an amazing opportunity you created for our students; RAVSAK's compilation of extraordinary talent in the arts is so inspiring! Our students learned as a community, and then an amazing thing happened: sixth-grade students studied creation with first graders. Children talked about their understandings of BIG topics like God, and love, and creativity. I had the clear experience that our children were truly partnering in the work of creation. Thank you for allowing our children's creativity to roam, and for highlighting those students whose self-expression lived through the arts. We LOVED being part of this project," said Alina Gerlovin Spaulding, Head of School at The Akiva School in Nashville, Tennessee.

"This amazing opportunity gives our students an exciting platform to bring together two passions: the arts and Jewish text. RAVSAK's Judaic Art Contest encourages participants to artistically express themselves in creative enriching ways through their interpretations of Torah. We are excited to be a part of this project." Karen Feller, Head of School at Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Florida.

We are honored to bring the RAVSAK Judaic Art Contest to students across the country and look forward to expanding the program next year to include even more schools.

Learn more about RAVSAK online at We also invite you to Like us on Facebook ( and follow us on Twitter (@RAVSAK).


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