Chana Helen Rosenberg, who grew up in England, is a surprising woman. She dresses in Orthodox Jewish garb while at the same time is a talented artist who creates incredible paintings.We met at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue at her exhibition of paintings that depict a religious Jewish lifestyle. There is something very unique about Rosenberg’s paintings, and this is because Chana Helen was not born Jewish and only recently underwent a conversion. She was born in 1946 in a village near Manchester as Helen Patricia Wilkinson, the daughter of Frank and Jean Wilkinson.
“When I was nine years old my father, who flew as a pilot in the RAF during the Second World War, told me about his experiences during the war and specifically about the Holocaust,” she says. “He told me of his appreciation toward the Jews he had grown up with as a youngster in Manchester, and this made me curious as to who the Jews were, as I couldn’t recall ever having actually met someone Jewish. When I was 11 my paternal grandmother gave me a book of Psalms which I really enjoyed reading, and this encouraged me to write spiritual poetry, at the time one of my favorite subjects at school.”Where did your love for art come from? “I was interested in art from a young age, and at 16 I started to study art at a college in Bradford. Two years later I began a BA in Arts at Maidstone University near London. It was my interest in art that resulted in my being drawn to research the theme of spirituality in several churches nearby, however I was unable to find myself. After I graduated from university I moved to Leeds to teach, and I lived in an area called Chapelton – which is a very Jewish area. I loved to peek through the windows of the Jewish tailor shops, where there was activity day and night, and wondered who those Jews were about whom my father often spoke.”In 1973, as a 23-year-old art teacher, Chana Helen met her husband, Shlome Rosenberg from Brooklyn. “We met while traveling in Wales, as we were both interested in the same subjects. I was attracted to Shlome even before he told me he was Jewish. Shortly after, we traveled together to Israel to volunteer on Kibbutz Revivim, where I worked in the kitchen with a lady called Miriam who suggested I come to live on the kibbutz, despite not being Jewish. I liked the idea very much, and ended up moving to the kibbutz. Shlome and I were married in a civil wedding in 1977.”Tell me about your conversion.“I often asked Shlome to tell me about the Jewish education he received, and he was very patient with my numerous questions. I read many books on Judaism that Shlome bought for me. We traveled to Israel again with our nine-year-old daughter, Naomi, and it was while I was at the Western Wall that I realized that there is only one God and the Jews received the truth through the Torah. This when I finally realized that I really wanted to become a Jew.“When I returned to England I joined a nearby Reform synagogue and I started keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat and lighting candles. I put up mezuzot at home, and asked Shlome to teach Naomi and me Hebrew. In 1989, the three of us traveled to New York to learn about Shlomo’s childhood. I was thrilled to see the grocery store his family owned, the yeshivot in which he studied, the synagogue in which he prayed with his father and where he celebrated his bar mitzvah and where he read the Torah until age 19.”
After many more visits to Israel, Rosenberg made aliyah with her family, and after retiring from teaching in 2006, became an Israeli citizen. They rented an apartment in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood, and she studied Hebrew at ulpan every morning, working on her conversion at the Orah Center every evening. In her spare time, Chana Helen travels around Jerusalem, drawing the vibrant scenery she sees around her.