The three Torahs in the center are decked out in the covers Congregation Sinai commissioned from artist April Berger.
The three Torahs in the center are decked out in the covers Congregation Sinai commissioned from artist April Berger.

San Francisco artist April Berger leans into Judaica with Torah covers project

For a long time, April Berger considered herself an abstract artist, not a Judaica artist. Born into a secular family on Long Island, she moved out west after college in 1980 and settled in San Francisco. She made mostly secular abstract paintings until the aughts, which is when she felt inspired by the Hebrew alphabet.

At the time, she didn’t know which letter was which.

April Berger
April Berger

“I was drawn to the Hebrew letters purely as abstract shapes,” Berger, 65, said in a recent interview. While studying Kabbalah online with the Kabbalah Centre, she learned that each letter has a different energy, and she decided to create a series of tapestries based on the letters. It was shown at a few area JCCs and led to commissions.

Around 2009, Congregation Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in San Jose, commissioned Berger to create two tapestries — an alef and a tav, the first and last letters of the alphabet — to hang on either side of the bimah. She also created a cover for the Torah table. Then the shul wanted new, white Torah covers for the High Holidays.

Now, she is working on her largest commission to date: new covers for all nine of the congregation’s Torahs.

Commissioning an artist to create a Torah cover by hand is rare, given the cost and time involved, according to Julie Krigel, a professional designer who chairs Sinai’s design committee. She said she knows of no other local synagogues doing so.

An internet search for Torah covers yields plenty of results, but the covers are not usually done by hand, noted Berger. “When you search for someone who makes mantles or covers, they have huge machines and their output is very fast,” she said. “With mine, everything is done by hand. I do use a machine, but it’s a very simple embroidery machine, and I’m making the designs myself, not using a computer.”

This tapestry of the Hebrew letter aleph by April Berger that was commissioned by Congregation Sinai in San Jose.
This tapestry of the Hebrew letter alef by April Berger that was commissioned by Congregation Sinai in San Jose.

Typically the Torah is dressed in monochromatic (often navy blue) velvet with white satin and gold accents. Some modern covers have intricate designs, but these traditional covers are still the norm. By contrast, Berger’s colors are bold and bright, with hot pinks, reds and teals on blue or teal backgrounds.

“Her style is more eclectic than modern,” said Krigel, who teaches art at Yavneh Day School. “It’s complex and colorful and weaves both traditional and contemporary fabrics and imagery, but puts [them] in a more modern context. It’s inviting and interesting. You want to explore when you look at her work.”

The process is collaborative, with the shul committee and Rabbi Josh Berkenwald coming up with specific images and Berger showing them sketches before she starts. While many shuls wouldn’t consider spending money this way, Krigel and her committee felt differently. To commission these latest covers, the shul held a fundraiser.

“The goal of a well-designed synagogue is to create connection, collaboration, and a meaningful communal experience, visually, emotionally and spiritually,” said Krigel, who introduced Berger’s work to the committee. “This is achieved when one overarching vision is seen through from start to finish, and all elements — spaces, objects, colors, materials, etc. — work together cohesively. Commissioning the right artist, April Berger, whose vision, style, and spiritual intent perfectly complemented our overarching vision, was key.”

Each of the three covers she’s completed so far features a different image: the burning bush; the tree of life; and a menorah design created by Maimonides, the medieval Torah scholar.

“I don’t work quickly,” Berger said. “I’m a perfectionist.” She’s had to learn different sewing techniques and how to use “a special kind of sewing machine,” she added.

Given the times, Berger has a Covid story to share. The shutdown happened just as she was about to start her first cover. Fabric stores had all closed, and she didn’t trust buying fabric online because onscreen views of the color or texture might be off.

On Nextdoor — a social media site that allows neighbors to communicate with each other and share information — she posted that she was looking for velvet or silk fabric remnants that people might want to get rid of, which she would be using to make Torah covers.

“Within two weeks, I had so much fabric,” she said. “I went all over San Francisco to different neighborhoods, and people would throw big bags to me.” No one took any money; they all wanted to get rid of the fabric, she recalled, some of it having been “in the attic for 30 years.”

The cover that Berger is currently working on features an image of Miriam, arms aloft, playing her tambourine.

“For each cover, I have to do some reading, which forces me to learn more about the topic, and I love that,” she said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."