Home September 2013 Light out of Darkness

Light out of Darkness

Even as a boy, Clifford Lester realized that he saw things that other people just walked by without noticing.  He observed angles, light patterns and other effects that eventually made him want to capture them through the lens of his camera.
Lester’s first foray in photography was for the Downey High School yearbook staff, in Modesto, California.  Symbolically, in 1973, he went to Israel, where he bought his first camera.
Eventually, Lester became a photographer, a professor of photography at Cypress College and a student of the Jewish experience.  A photography client inspired him to take classes with Rabbi Alter Tenebaum of Chabad of Irvine, and then he moved closer to home, taking classes with Rabbi David Eliezrie at Chabad of North Orange County in Yorba Linda.  His career as a photographer and his faith in Judaism began to form a parallel union.  Through his collaboration with Rabbi Eliezrie, Lester’s photography has become Jewish art for the whole world to enjoy.
“Rabbi Eliezrie encouraged opportunities for me to take pictures of Jewish life, to see, witness and photograph things other people didn’t get to see,” Lester said.  “It took me on a magical path through Jewish life experiences in Crown Heights (in Brooklyn, New York), Los Angeles and Israel.  One thing led to another, and every opportunity brought learning and brought me closer to Judaism.”
Lester has donated pictures to his synagogue and has had exhibits where he noticed that people from all walks of Judaism were buying traditional Jewish photos.  He decided to create a website (JewishPhotoArt.com) and eventually put his work into a book in collaboration with Rabbi Eliezrie, with the proceeds going to the congregation.  The rabbi wanted the book to include a chapter on the resurgence of Jews in Europe and helped Lester to coordinate with rabbis in various towns.
Another emotion came into play when Lester contemplated photographing the towns of Eastern Europe – “finding light in a lot of darkness, looking for beauty and hope for the future.”  Inspired by his late mother, Ursula Lowenbach Foster, a Holocaust survivor who grew up with Anne Frank, Lester has followed in her footsteps of embracing life.  In honor of her brother, Ernest, who was killed in Auschwitz, his mother showed everyone around her that life was something to be grateful for, something to celebrate.
In fact, one of Lester’s photos, which he dedicated to his mother, now hangs in the lobby of Chabad of North Orange County, next to the yellow star his mother wore during World War II.  Lester described the picture, which depicts dancing rabbis, as “a focal point of the shul.”  Still, he wanted to do more, both to honor Eastern European Jewry and to give back to his congregation.
Now Lester could witness and photograph the lives of Jews who live a life that serves as a reminder of his mother, a life of gratitude and celebration.  This summer, Lester embarked on his latest journey – a three-week tour of Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Krakow and Budapest to document contemporary Jewish life there.
According to Lester, “I think what we’re trying to show here is that the Jews survived, and that their lives are beginning to thrive again in these countries where Judaism was almost wiped out.  So I want to show the full circle – the cemeteries and new life and kids and older people, all again celebrating their faith.”
He added, “I started in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate after 26 straight hours of being awake.  There, a rabbi started davening with me and screaming “Am Yisrael Chai” at the very spot where Hitler had condemned the Jews years before.”
While in Krakow, Lester contacted the JCC there, “perhaps one of the most vibrant, if not the most, in Europe,” he said.  “One thing I wanted to accomplish on this trip was to photograph survivors with the idea that Judaism continues in Eastern Europe and the fact the survivors are still here is just another way to show our strength and perseverance throughout the worst of times, i.e. the Holocaust.  I had the idea that a different way to photograph these survivors was to give them the opportunity to say something to those who follow them, their grandchildren, great grandchildren, and so on.”
The first one Lester photographed was Philip Bialowitz, a survivor of Sobibor who speaks around the globe.  Lester asked him to hold a piece of cardboard with his name and a message for future generations.  He plans to have the images of the survivors posted on images of the walls, including ghetto walls and gas chamber walls.  The exhibit could be called “If these walls could talk.”
He found that following this formula for the other survivors was very successful, as many wished to participate.  In fact, once he gets the images done, the JCC in Krakow will be hosting an exhibition of the images that he photographed, and he is in the process of trying to get an exhibition at Auschwitz.
“Our tour guide there was very supportive of the idea and will be contacting the deputy director to get his thoughts about this,” Lester said.  “Hopefully, they will find, that despite the horrors they faced, this will provide an opportunity for all those who see the images to gain something positive from their message.”
Lester hopes that people will see light coming out of the darkness in the photography.  He said that during the trip he “felt the presence of the survivors” and “felt their souls live on.”
“Everybody gets inspiration from different pieces in the photo collection,” Lester said.  “If it inspires others and brings light to their lives, it will be well worth it.”

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