Through the large, wooden doors and down the main hallway of Hillel at UCLA lies the office of a woman whose work with the arts has influenced a decade of students. On any given day she is either organizing art galleries or speaking with famous dignitaries, producers and authors of the modern era. Yet she always has time for those interested in the arts — to guide them and to inspire them.
“It enriches your life to give back and to have empathy for others,” Perla Karney, artistic director at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at Hillel at UCLA, smiled as she explained her life philosophy. “The arts have helped me do exactly that!”
Karney was born in southern Germany and lived in the United States, Canada, Switzerland and Paris during her teenage years. She then returned to the United States to get her Bachelor of Arts at UCLA and completed several years of graduate work in English literature at Loyola Marymount University. It was only then that her journey into the world of art and culture really began.
“Books have been my greatest love — they are art — and they opened worlds to me that I didn’t know existed. They opened whole new experiences. They were something I fell in love with, and have been in love with ever since.”
Karney’s passion for literature (especially books by Leo Tolstoy and Chekhov, as well as books by other classic writers) took her on a path that wove through screenwriting, theater production (including “Woman in Mind” with Academy-Award winner Helen Mirren), and television and documentary films, finally leading her to the steps of the art world.
“I connected to that world,” she said, looking around her office filled with an array of colorful photographs, paintings and fliers from her previous and upcoming art exhibitions. On one side of her desk lay a stack of bright-red fliers titled “The Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1933-1941),” an art symposium Karney organized during the past fall quarter. On the other side was another set of fliers titled “Hillel student Maya Harel opens her photo exhibition at Hillel,” referring to the latest exhibition Karney helped organize, which opened on Feb. 13. On the wall hung pictures of her family and from experiences while working at Hillel at UCLA. Perhaps most notably, the latest issue of The Jewish Journal always seemed to make it onto her desk; it marked the connection between her love of literature, art and Judaism.
The same world of art that had inspired Karney became a canvas for her greatest passion: Jewish expression. The books she read in her youth about the Jewish immigrant experience gave her the desire to see art through a Jewish lens: one that would serve to inspire and remind the Jewish community (as well as future generations of Jews) of their Jewish culture.
“When you are a Jew — no matter where you live — you are the ‘other.’ You see yourself as an outsider, not as part of the majority,” said Karney, drawing from her own experience immigrating to the United States.
“Art opens up boundaries students didn’t even know existed,” Karney’s voice explained, commencing the documentary about the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA. “It enriches student’s lives and gives them a dimension that helps them in their identity as Jews.”
Her opportunity to give back to the Jewish community came when Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller hired her to be the artistic director of Hillel at UCLA.
“It was her combination of knowledge of the arts and devotion to promoting Jewish life, [as well as] her intellect and experience in theater,” said Rabbi Chaim as he recalled the reasons that fueled his decision to hire Karney for the position. “I knew we would be able to work together — we had a common understanding of the value and role of art and culture in our lives and in Jewish life, in particular. We shared a vision.”
Since then, ten years have passed and in that time Karney has not only organized nine art exhibitions each year, but has also introduced documentaries and authors, and organized several Hillel lecture series. Karney is now the vice president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, a founding member of the Temple of the Arts, and is on the board of the UCLA Fowler Museum of the Arts. Moreover, she leads all of these organizations while also mentoring students who share her passion and vision for art through the Jewish lens.
“Perla, the artistic director at the Dortort Center, was really very instrumental in making my [art] show happen, and walking me through the process of my first exhibition,” said Eli Rubel, an aspiring artist who had the opportunity to showcase his first exhibition at Hillel at UCLA.
Karney said that she has worked hard to be a good role model through building lasting relationships and by giving back to her community. “I believe that it is very important to have meaningful relationships in life and to not go through life in isolation. Art is my way of connecting people in a visceral and educational manner that impacts students and futures generations of Jews.”