At the head of a conference room in Yemin Orde Youth Village, just south of Haifa, stands a woman with bright red hair and a booming Bronx accent. Her name is Maureen Kushner, and she is an art educator who has dedicated her life to teaching children how to channel their anger, frustration, hopes and dreams, into meaningful art projects.
The focus of her life’s work has been to encourage Israeli children of different backgrounds to interact and confront political and personal conflict — war and peace, and the accompanying emotional turmoil — through an artistic outlet, using cartooning, humor, modern word play, biblical inspiration and a lot of heart.
Each child’s painting in the resulting “Peace through Humor” exhibit has a story behind it, and Kushner recites them all for the crowd as if they were made yesterday.
Starting off as the operator of a children’s comedy club and teacher in her native New York, Kushner went to Israel with the encouragement of her rabbi, the famed Shlomo Carlebach, in 1994 to work with Israeli children. Starting in Jerusalem’s Old City, a microcosm of people of all faiths, she eventually made her way through 50 Israeli schools with the support of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Education. Her project lasted 15 years, coming to a close in 2009.
The pieces in the “Peace through Humor” exhibit range from cathartic representations of words, such as a painting of the word “noise” in Hebrew surrounded by depictions of the unpleasantries of daily life during the second intifada, to a hopeful “Peace Bus,” which shows a bus making its way through the Middle East to pick up passengers to bring them to Israel for a picnic. Others, like “I Lift Up My Eyes To the Mountain,” represents an Ethiopian immigrant girl’s family in their arduous journey to reach Jerusalem, which they dreamed would be a place of love and harmony.
Kushner offers the following explanation: “When you use humor, it allows you to take a step backwards, and see things through a different perspective. Different levels of humor such as satire, parody and farce are what get us through the tough moments in life. They are what allow us not to take ourselves so seriously.”
Two decades later, her students are still by her side. Sisters Michal and Miriam Luxemburg, whose paintings are featured in the exhibit, are artists in their adult lives. Miriam builds ecological mud houses, and Michal is an art educator for children at the Israel Museum. Another student, Tanyia Grade, is an art therapist. Needless to say, the humble art project of their youth had a lasting effect on them.
The youth village is the final resting spot of the traveling exhibition, previously shared in the Israeli Knesset as well as more than 170 cities worldwide over the years. At Yemin Orde, troubled youth of different backgrounds live and study, and learn how to live purposeful lives together as community leaders.
“In the Torah it says that the power of love and kindness is 500 times stronger than the power of hate. I have to believe that; I have no other choice,” Kushner says.
The exhibition will remain on these walls to inspire the students here each day as they pass by on their way to the living quarters in the village. It will serve as a daily reminder of the power of art and humor in a world that can too often seem like such a cruel and hateful place.
For more information on the “Peace through Humor” exhibit and how you can visit, click here.