JTS to Establish the Block / Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts

The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) is pleased to announce the creation of the Block / Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts in honor of Gilda and Henry Block and in memory of their dear friend, Kenneth Kolker (z”l). Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, director of Liturgical Arts at JTS, will serve as the Center’s director. Expected to open this fall, the Center will be an incubator for inventive forms of prayer and liturgy, building community through learning and meaningful shared experiences. 

Uniting the most creative thinkers and practitioners from across the Jewish spectrum and beyond, the Center will serve as a vital resource for students and the community, a place to exchange insights and draw inspiration. It will be a laboratory space for experimenting with approaches to prayer, both ancient and new, that will catalyze a transformation of the broader community’s engagement with spirituality. A dedication ceremony, including a special learning session, will take place at JTS on Wednesday, September 30, 2015. For more information, please call Michele Carlin at (212) 678-8935. 

“Finding the spiritual place within ourselves blends ritual and creativity,” said Professor Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of JTS. “Revitalizing prayer and spirituality is the key to making Judaism exciting and accessible to future generations of Jews. We’ll start with our students and draw on the many creative models in the New York area and around the country. We are honored that Gilda and Henry have decided to underwrite this important project.” 

“What Gilda and Henry Block have made possible through this gift is especially timely,” said Rabbi Uhrbach (RS ’03), who also serves as rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in Bridgehampton, New York, a congregation she helped found. “We are experiencing a simultaneous renaissance and crisis in prayer in that there is a strong thirst for compelling prayer experiences that are personally relevant and deeply grounded in tradition. Every denomination, however, is struggling to revitalize communal prayer. We’ve lost the tools, as well as the language-and I don’t mean Hebrew. All of us-professional and lay, leaders and participants-need to start talking about prayer as both a spiritual practice and a form of art. That’s what we’re taking on here.” 

“Prayer has always been a passion and focus of my rabbinate,” Rabbi Uhrbach continued. “Gilda and Henry have not only been congregants, but also cherished friends and cheerleaders for more than a decade. They’ve been at the center of our congregation in Bridgehampton, where their support enabled me to grow in my own prayer experience and prayer leadership. It’s especially meaningful now that we’re joining together at JTS to expand our impact.” 

“It is extraordinarily meaningful to us to be able to create this Center at JTS and to recognize our rabbi, Jan Uhrbach,” said Henry and Gilda Block in a joint statement. “JTS touches lives across North America and trains Jewish leaders. We want people to be touched as we have been. We know our dear friend Ken would appreciate this creative and artistic approach to spiritual life and prayer.” 

The Blocks are dedicated philanthropists in the areas of education, art, culture, and communal affairs. Mr. Block followed his father as head of Block ArtWorks, a stained glass artisan business. Following a successful career in advertising, Mrs. Block served on the advisory board of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and is active in the music program and art school at the 92nd Street Y. The Blocks are proud supporters of three Conservative congregations: Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in Bridgehampton, New York; Sutton Place Synagogue in New York City; and Temple Emanuel in Palm Beach, Florida. They have also supported Lincoln Center Theater and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, funded scholarships at the New School, and established the Gilda and Henry Block Rabbinical School Scholarship at JTS. The Blocks have received the JTS Community Service Award at Temple Emanu-El of Palm Beach in Palm Beach, Florida, and have been inducted into the JTS Society of Fellows. 

Mr. Kolker was a longtime senior executive at the May Department Stores Company, where he served as friend, confidant, and mentor to several generations of retail leaders. He served as president of May Merchandising and chairman of May Department Stores International, continuing as an informal advisor following his retirement. In addition to nurturing the careers of many of today’s top retail executives, Mr. Kolker, a dear friend of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons, had a great passion for the arts and a commitment to many Jewish institutions.