"Projecting Light in a Time of Darkness," a video art installation at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, will be visible every night of Hanukkah. (Photos/Heidi Sanders)
"Projecting Light in a Time of Darkness," a video art installation at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, will be visible every night of Hanukkah. (Photos/Heidi Sanders)

Historical light show illuminates Emanu-El for Hanukkah week

Every evening throughout the month of December, people strolling or driving past Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco will notice an ever-changing lightscape of images projected on the historic building’s facade.

The light installation, by multimedia storyteller and congregant Ben Wood, animates the history of the 170-year-old Reform synagogue. Interweaving holiday imagery into the display of archival photos, the project aims to remind people of the presence of the temple in the community even while it is closed due to the pandemic.

A statement announcing the project, the brainchild of Rabbi Jonathan Singer, said that “Emanu-El is committed to celebrating Hanukkah during the Covid-19 pandemic with innovative experiences that transcend the screen, connect the community, and highlight its sacred space, all while maintaining social distance.”

The installation consists of two projectors rotating four slides each. Some of the key people in Emanu-El’s history are represented, including prominent Jewish families, Emperor Norton, Rabbi Elkan Cohn (1860-1889) and Julie Rosewald, considered America’s first female cantor though unordained. The Emanu-El website provides background for those who would like to know more about these historical figures.

The slides bear a series of messages tying the Hanukkah theme to the community. “Our ancestors kindled the first lights,” says the first. Then: “They dedicated sacred space.” “They were originals.” “They had vision.” “They brought great teachers.” “They broke down barriers” “They helped build our city. ” It concludes with the message, “In our 170th year, the lights still shine.”

Congregation Emanu-El, founded in 1850, is one of the two oldest congregations in California. Its current Byzantine revival building, on Lake and Arguello streets, was completed in 1926 and features soaring exterior walls suitable for projections.

Ben Wood, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, is a public video artist known for his large-scale projections combining  digital media art with historical subject matter. His work aims to animate public spaces with images of their often unrecognized history.

He has previously created large-scale displays on Coit Tower, Haas-Lilienthal House, St. Ignatius Church and other notable San Francisco landmarks. His work has also been exhibited at venues such as the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City, the London Jewish Museum and the California Historical Society.

“Projecting Light in a Time of Darkness” by Ben Wood, at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. On view from 5 to 10 p.m. through December.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.