On a shady hill in Jerusalem, a group of students and their teacher pass around a poster. It’s a series of rainbow-colored arcs set against a grey background. Halfway down, a quotation, in black and white, from Martin Buber bisects the page: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”
Buber was referring to the biblical story of God’s cryptic command to Abraham to go “to the land that I will show you.” But for the group assembled on a February trip to Israel sponsored by Hebrew College in Boston, the quotation sparked ideas on everything from the unfolding process of learning and discovery to the winding life trajectories that took them to Israel.
Buber’s words could also refer to the unlikely journey of the artwork itself.
Designed by Tel Aviv artist Yarom Vardimon, the work is one of 18, produced by some of the top names in modern design, that comprise the Voices & Visions campaign. The $1.1 million effort by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation is sparking discussions about Jewish thought while beautifying the halls of federations, synagogues and Jewish community centers.
The foundation, which also has an ongoing initiative to offer free Jewish literature and music to families, is not measuring success in dollars, but “engagement” — sparking conversations about Jewish values and strengthening a sense of Jewish identity.
Starting in 2012, the foundation sent roughly 3,500 sets of the posters to any Jewish organization that requested one. It wasn’t until November of 2013, according to Madeline Calabrese, the project’s director, that “We really started to hear the buzz.” Talk of the posters was coming from all over the world , not just from students in Israel, but among nursing home patients in Massachusetts and the staff of a progressive Jewish philanthropy in London.
Those efforts continue. The foundation has been working with Jewish camps this summer to use the posters in counselor training, and hopes to expand their presence in elementary schools this fall. And the organization has plans to unveil two new poster sets for different audiences beginning later this year.
“We were just completely blessed,” Calabrese said. “We didn’t even know what we had until much later.”
It began with Grinspoon’s love of a long-running ad campaign by the Container Corporation of America called the “Great Ideas of Western Man.” Running from 1950 to 1975, the famous campaign paired the work of prominent modern designers with inspirational quotes from thinkers like Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln and John Stuart Mill.
Grinspoon wondered if he could echo the project by using Jewish artists and graphic designers to bring some of the great ideas in Jewish thought to life. Through a friend, Grinspoon spoke with Louis Danziger, who worked on the original Container Corporation campaign. Danziger, in turn, recommended Arnold Schwartzman as artistic director for Voices & Visions. In addition to his Oscar-winning work as a director of the 1981 documentary “Genocide,” Schwartzman contributed designs for Coca-Cola and the 1984 Olympic Games, and has worked on posters and invitations for the Academy Awards since 1996.
“He was in a society where he knew many, many graphic illustrators for many years, and he knew which ones would have an interest in this Jewish project,” Calabrese said. “After we gave him a list of quotes we wanted illustrated, he was able to recruit really high-end illustrators that we never could have known how to get in touch with. Within two weeks, he had them all committed.”
The foundation had been working with “quote teams” that included academics and rabbis to cull thousands of examples of inspirational Jewish thought. The resulting 18 quotes spanned from the bible to Susan Sontag.
Schwartzman took on Sontag’s “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” The rest went to some legendary names in graphic design, such as Paula Scher (who did “When I marched in Selma, I felt my legs were praying,” from Rabbi Abraham Heschel), Seymour Chwast (Maimonides’ “A miracle cannot prove what is impossible. It only confirms what is possible”) and Ivan Chermayeff (“A community is too heavy to carry alone,” from Deuteronomy).
The artists may not be household names, but their work is iconic and inescapable: Members of the group are responsible for the bunny symbol of Playboy magazine, NBC’s peacock logo and the “I Love New York” campaign.
“These are people who are still at the top of their game,” Calabrese said. “We were just blown away by who he was able to get for us.”
The foundation decided to call its first set of posters the Masters Series, a nod of respect to the artists. “A lot of them are getting up there in age, and it may be one of the later pieces they do,” she said.
The basic rule of thumb guiding the design, Calabrese said, was that the posters “have to be interesting. They have to grab you from across the room. They have to… have a twist or multiple layers that you can keep thinking about.”
Calabrese is a particular fan of the Buber quote which appears straightforward but elicits different insights from every viewer. Some see in the collection of abstract arcs a pregnant woman, bringing life into the world.
“When I see it, I see two things,” she said. “I see a reminder of the rainbow concept from scriptures, that God will no longer destroy the world. The reason it is not a full rainbow is that everybody has fragments of those promises in their lives and it represents many lives. It’s amazing how many versions people see.”
Jean-Paul Maitinsky, who curated exhibits for museums in New York City, consulted with the foundation on a study guide for the series, and took the idea with him when he became a magnet school resource specialist at Van Sickle Middle School in Springfield, Massachusetts. He posted some of the works in the hallways, and some of the teachers used them in classroom discussions.
His favorite is the Chermayeff: “A community is too heavy to carry alone.” The poster features two hands struggling to hold together a series of buildings, which seem to fly into the air.
“It’s very provocative,” he said. “While it stems from Jewish thought, the question of what is a community and how do we hold it together are important questions for everyone.”
Susan Halpern, vice president of philanthropy at Jewish Life Care in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, first saw the posters in the stairwell of Grinspoon’s home in the western part of the state. As head of fundraising for a network of Jewish geriatric care organizations, she was also drawn to the Chermayeff, which hangs in her office.
“It just goes to the essence of what I do here,” she said.
Halpern worked with her staff to make the design campaign more interactive. Residents in Life Care’s buildings held discussions about the posters and many designed their own interpretations. Another program paired local Hebrew School students with elder mentors to talk about the posters.
“I feel like it brought the posters to life,” Halpern said. “It’s one thing to look at the posters passively. But when you have to think about it and interpret it in your own words, and transmit it back to someone else, it then becomes a part of you.”
Contact Andrew Brownstein at firstname.lastname@example.org