‘To be here with both feet’

On a visit to Chicago that summer, Braun showed his portfolio to a senior industrial designer. In the back were several drawings of Israeli landscapes and Judaica themes.

Moshe Braun (photo credit: Courtesy)
Moshe Braun
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In his studio in Ramat Beit Shemesh, artist and scribe Moshe Braun creates ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts), family trees, manuscripts, illuminated blessings and prayers on paper and parchment, using media such as watercolor, gouache, pastel and charcoal and techniques including papercutting and calligraphy.
His works often incorporate classical and contemporary representations of architecture and landscapes of Israel, his home since 1995.
He and his wife, Marla, arrived in Jerusalem with their six-week-old son in tow to study at David Shapell College of Jewish Studies/Yeshiva Darché Noam for a year. They boarded in a tiny apartment in the basement of the yeshiva.
“That was an amazing absorption center of sorts,” he says.
During that year, the couple debated the idea of making aliya. Much as they loved Israel, their families were in the Chicago area. Braun had been an industrial designer and was now learning traditional scribal arts at the OU Israel Center every Friday. His Shapell teachers encouraged him to use his artistic abilities to make a positive impact on the world. But how could he provide for his family? “About a year in, we went to visit friends in the Shomron [Samaria] and I asked to meet the community rav. He asked me about my plans. I said, ‘If I can find a way to make a living, we’ll stay.’ He said that would not work because I was using the word ‘if.’” The rabbi told Braun that the blessings that come with living in the land of Israel would be bestowed on him only if he decided “to be here with both feet.”
“What he said was a major shock, but I internalized it,” says Braun. “Not long after, we were sitting in our kitchen one night and my wife turned to me and said she’d made up her mind that she wanted to stay. She just felt right with the whole concept of building a life here and the long-term ramifications for our family.”
On a visit to Chicago that summer, Braun showed his portfolio to a senior industrial designer. In the back were several drawings of Israeli landscapes and Judaica themes.
“When we got to those drawings, he was fascinated. He looked at me with my beard and kippa, and he said, ‘This is what you should be doing. It’s everything you’re about.’ That was the tipping point for me. Long ago, my uncle had said, ‘If you do something you’re good at and something you enjoy, you’ll be in demand.’ I had already started studying to be a certified sofer [scribe] and I realized this was the next step of my journey.”
That journey began in a traditional Jewish home, where from a very young age his parents encouraged his artistic bent. Braun earned a bachelor of fine arts degree with a concentration in industrial design at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
While in art school, he came to the conclusion that, just as he was striving for excellence in his study of art and design, he should strive for excellence in his Torah studies.
After graduating and initially working as an industrial designer for a start-up in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Braun decided to leave the business. He knocked on the door of the local Hebrew Theological College. The yeshiva did not have a program for someone with little formal Jewish education, but agreed to devise one for him.
To support himself and his bride, Braun worked for NCSY, the youth movement of the Orthodox Union, and taught Hebrew school. “I made our own illuminated ketuba, although I had no formal training in calligraphy. One of my study partners was getting married and commissioned me to do his ketuba, and then another, and it snowballed.”
The commissions continued when the Brauns were studying in Jerusalem.
They officially made aliya in the spring of 1997, and moved to Ramat Beit Shemesh in 2000.
“In Jerusalem, I felt like a number. I felt we had to move to a place where we could be givers. Ramat Beit Shemesh was just beginning and people said to come and take a look. And I think it was a very wise decision.”
Three years after they moved in, a new synagogue was founded by a rabbi with whom Braun had become close. He soon became the main gabbai (sexton) and still fills that role 13 years later.
“That experience, without question, has been the biggest recipe for success in aliya. Every day you walk into the synagogue and people ask your help for all sorts of things and that takes you from the mind-set of what you need for yourself to what others need of you,” he says.
Braun has exhibited his work in Israel and the United States. About a year ago, his former partner from the startup in Skokie – who had since made aliya – contacted him about coming back to work part-time in industrial design.
“Working together again after a 24-year hiatus is amazing,” he says.
The Brauns’ children range in age from 21 to 10. Their oldest son is now studying toward rabbinical ordination in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Their 18-year-old son is in a pre-army mechina in the Golan. Their 16-year-old and 10-year-old daughters and 14-year-old son all are in school locally.
“The biggest challenge in acclimating to life here by far has been being away from our parents and siblings and their families in Chicago,” says Braun. “My wife and I have done everything possible to maintain and develop our relationships with our families.
“We have an open-door policy here for our siblings’ children and even children of cousins when they’re here. We’re the ones with boots on the ground and that gives us a foundation to host family and friends, and I feel they are a bridge for more people to come.”
Braun once gave a studio tour to a couple from Brooklyn and their son.
The teenager, he saw, “was clearly struggling to find his place. And when I put the feather quill in his hand, his eyes really lit up. This is what my rabbis were talking about.
“You try to put your ideas on paper and you never know how the artwork and your approach as an artist will touch people and affect them for good. That is what I’m trying to do. And I don’t think I could do it anywhere else.Being here gives me the ideas and the inspiration.”