By Kathy Carlson
Perhaps the first thing visitors to Akiva School’s Hassenfeld Chapel will see from now on is a colorful tree of life, growing from spiky and shiny blades of glass and showing what makes the school unique.
The tree is a large mosaic, four feet square, displayed on the back wall and facing the ark and Torah. This year’s eight Akiva graduates, guided by Nashville artist Yvette Renee Parrish-Cowden, crafted the mosaic over many after-school sessions. The students – Brandon Coleman, Naomi Horn, Zoe Lewis, Marissa Lipschutz, Sam Oppenheimer, Frances Palumbo, Itzik Sedek and Yoni Taeedkashani – presented the mosaic as their gift to Akiva on their graduation day, May 31.
“In the beginning, none of us really knew what it was going to look like,” said Marissa Lipschutz. The 6th graders were confused, but as more pieces of tile fell in place, it looked more realistic, she said.
There was still a little confusion even when the piece was completed, but “once it was on the wall, we all loved it,” Marissa said.
When the artwork was unveiled at graduation, Naomi Horn said, “there was a moment (when I thought) did my class actually make that?”
The graduates’ parents had commissioned Parrish-Cowden to design and help the students create a mosaic that embodied the seven middot or values that Akiva works to instill.
Parrish-Cowden offered three different designs, but “this one was my favorite, the middot growing within the tree.” She donated stained glass; Marissa’s father, Jay Lipschutz, provided technical work to color some of the tiles that made up the sky; and Werthan Granite and Lowe’s home improvement store donated broken tiles that the students shattered for the mosaic’s raw materials.
The students worked for several afternoons after school, placing tiles in the spots Parrish-Cowden had sketched out on base of the piece. Parents brought snacks, helped with supervision and kept the students on track, parent Naomi Limor Sedek said. Each year, graduating students present a gift to the school, and the mosaic was this year’s gift.
“We mainly placed things down and made color decisions,” Marissa said.
“It was really fun to make,” Naomi Horn said. “We had to take tiles and smash them. We put them into a pillow case covered with a towel and hit it with a hammer.” She smashed a $1 golden yellow plate that became the sun behind the tree of life.
“It was a lot like a puzzle but the only thing was, we didn’t have a box to make it from. We had the sketch on the board and our mind and our thoughts,” said Naomi. Not all of the students worked on the piece at the same time, so they saw the work gradually emerge as others worked on it, she said.
“It was really cool seeing them work together and see it come through,” said Bobbi Lipschutz, Marissa’s mother.
The seven middot – Torah, learning, respect, the Jewish people, community, responsibility and spirit – are spelled out in Hebrew at the tree’s roots and along its branches. At the base of the tree is responsibility, and at the top are the Jewish people and spirit, Parrish-Cowden said.
“The Akiva Middot are the values that drive our school,” said Daniella Pressner, Akiva’s director of Judaic studies. They “are what we value in our childrens’ education and what we strive to build.” Wherever Akiva students continue their education, she said, “people speak about specific middot that shine through each student.”
On the day of graduation, Parrish-Cowden was at the Gordon Jewish Community Center preparing an exhibit of her works and those of her husband. She wasn’t able to attend the graduation and unveiling of the mosaic that integrates, she says, “probably a couple thousand pieces of stained glass and tile.”
“I just feel it’s very special, full of positive energy. … I hope that piece serves the middot and people will feel that energy when they walk into the room,” Parrish-Cowden said. As I told the children, I believe in the same values.” •