by David Golbitz
Temple Israel Staff Writer
Timed to coincide with Temple Israel’s dedication weekend, the sculptures for the Philip G. Schrager Memorial Garden were installed in the week leading up to the celebration. The Garden, designed to be a warm, introspective space, was designed by Philip’s son Jeffrey and local artist John Lajba, who is perhaps best known for his Road to Omaha College World Series sculpture that sits in front of TD Ameritrade Park.
“My siblings and I knew that we wanted to create something special at the new Temple Israel building to celebrate our father and the impact he had on the Omaha Jewish community and our congregation,” Jeffrey said. “After viewing the architectural plans, we were presented with the opportunity to design a small, special, outdoor space in the middle of the building.”
Philip’s brother Harley, who had previously worked with Lajba on the College World Series sculpture, introduced Jeffrey to the sculptor and the two began thinking of a way to honor Philip Schrager.
“First, we worked through an idea about who Phil was,” Lajba said. “Instead of making it a sculpture garden, we wanted to make it a memorial to him and use sculptures as artifacts of his life, sculptures that represented passions of his life.”
Jeffrey and his siblings, Timothy, Richard, Angel and Jack, chose four sculptures from their father’s collection that they felt best represented the various facets of Philip’s life.
There is a red-orange aluminum sculpture called Mandela’s Mantle, created in 1990 by an American sculptor named John Henry, “known worldwide for his large-scale public works, which grace numerous museum, corporate, public and private collections,” Jeffrey said.
Another piece is a 98-inch tall bronze-cast pillar called Bell Jar, created in 1992 by Baltimore-born artist, Jene Highstein. And the three carved white marble pieces comprise a sculpture by Omaha artist Dan Whetstone.
The fourth sculpture, which resembles a man kneeling in prayer, is a bronze casting called Humanidad, which means “humanity” in Spanish. It was created in 1975 by Mexican artist Victor Salamones, who “was considered the most widely-known sculptor living and working in Mexico during his lifetime,” Jeffrey said. “And, coincidentally, he was born in the same year as our father.”
In addition to helping to design the Garden, John Lajba also created a memorial piece specific to Philip Schrager: a six-by-six foot, 4,000 pound copper plate, colored black, to serve as the focal point of the garden.
“We wanted to create a piece that would be iconic,” Jeffrey said,” to represent the life that our father led and be a thoughtful contribution to our congregation and the space in which we would place it.”
The copper sculpture was created in Germany because there is only one factory in the world that can roll a piece of copper that large.
Added Lajba, “One company in the world that would take copper, heat it up and shape the copper. I wanted all the marks they used to hammer down and press the copper into the plate form, I wanted all those marks to be there. I wanted it to be as raw as possible. I wanted to create a vast space around it out of very neutral gray. I thought that would give the blackness of the copper its power. I wanted to create almost a void that can be filled by what people bring into the space.”
“His intent was to create something that represents both the strength of Phil’s life and the void that all of us leave behind when we leave this earth,” Jeffrey said. “It represents our father’s love for minimal art and its simplicity and beauty.”
The Garden walkway is made of the same Jerusalem limestone used in the construction of the building and two benches will sit amidst flowers on either side of the copper plate. The stained glass windows are also visible from the walkway, and parts of the garden can be seen from within the contemplation room.
“When you’re out in that space, I want you to take another breath and feel like this world is very special,” Lajba said. “I wanted this memorial to be as strong and as powerful as it could possibly be.”
Lajba concedes that his work and the work of the other sculptures, “might be hard to understand” at first, “but by that journey it will create a better experience, a much deeper experience.”
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel has already taken to walking through the Garden and standing among the sculptures.
“I’ve taken a little walk out there and stood in front of those sculptures and felt inspired,” he said. “I think the outdoor display of the sculptures is something that uplifts the spirit. I think people will find the garden is inspirational.”
“Tim, Rick, Angel, Jack and I hope that this special space strikes the right balance between a dedication and remembrance of our father and his love for art and the beauty it brings to the world and a peaceful, intriguing and beautiful space for all our congregation to contemplate and enjoy,” Jeffrey said. “We created it out of love for our dad and what his memory means to us. Temple Israel and the Omaha Jewish community were so important to him that creating this space in the middle of our new building feels fitting and restful.”