As a first-generation American and a second-generation Holocaust survivor, Renée Weiss Chase, always internalized a familial sorrow. Her mother, along with Chase’s four aunts, escaped Auschwitz, but her father’s family wasn’t as fortunate. Before meeting her mother, Chase’s father had a wife and three young sons, who were among the 6 million European Jews murdered during the Holocaust. So, when Chase, a retired Drexel University fashion design professor, heard that Drexel's Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life was in need of artwork to accompany its newly donated Torah, she knew the project was meant for her.
“I approached the project from the vantage point of a designer seeking to generate an integrated whole of meaning, fabrication, symbolism and spirituality that would enhance the beautifully realized religious space,” said Chase. “Beyond the thousands of images and details that drove the effort, a larger meta picture emerged that gave new meaning to the work. It’s as if the creative response to loss found a means, through my hands, to find hopefulness, spiritual expression and undeterred optimism.”
Chase and Drexel go way back. After earning a bachelor’s degree in fashion design at the University, she launched her own company and created a sportswear label that was sold in more than 200 department and specialty stores. In the early ‘80s she worked as a fashion writer for the Philadelphia Bulletin and returned to Drexel as an adjunct. By the mid 1980s she had received a master’s degree from Drexel and became the director of the Fashion Design Program. Before her retirement in 2017, she was a tenured professor at the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.
Chase created six sets of accessories for the Torah to be used on Jewish holy days and the remainder of the year. Her life served as an inspiration for the symbolism in her pieces. Three of those pieces were dedicated to her half-brothers who at ages three, five and seven died during the Holocaust. Another is dedicated to a grandmother she never met. The 26 pieces of art she created will be on display at an exhibit on May18 before their use at the Perelman Center.
The hand of God is present in many of the pieces. “It reflects a reaching towards us, his flock, to deliver perhaps the most important message of this project; that out of unthinkable tragedy is born new hopefulness, richness of spirit and connection among all who will ultimately pray in this space,” said Chase.
Chase also honored Drexel’s contribution to her career and incorporated the words art, science and industry—translated into Hebrew—reflected in the University’s seal in many of the works of art.
“Drexel has offered a powerful foundation for my life and has afforded me an excellent education, as well as an extraordinary career,” said Chase. “My gratitude is expressed in this project.”
Chase’s family will be present at the opening celebration for the “Through These Hands: The Drexel Judaica Collection by Renée Chase” exhibit that will take place on May 18 from 4-6 p.m. at the Perelman Center, 118 N. 34th Street, Philadelphia.