Claude Riedel believes that his career as a psychologist doesn’t run counter to his artistic expressions. The disciplines coexist perfectly, he says. “Both include a subtle level of listening to acting upon your intuitions.” Riedel designs and creates ner tamids for synagogues and individuals around the world.
Ner tamids (the Hebrew phrase for “eternal light”) typically hang above the front of the ark, which contains the Torah, in the front of the synagogue’s sanctuary. “It is a constantly burning flame, reminding us of the fire burning on the altar, where sacrifices were burned in the ancient temple,” says Norman Cohen, rabbi emeritus at Minnetonka’s Bet Shalom congregation. “More powerfully, it reminds us of God's eternal presence.”
Through the light from above, Riedel’s ner tamids radiate the stories of the lives of the congregation, his ancestors and himself. Through his work, he also tries to enhance people’s spiritual experience through the evocative focus of the synagogue. “Beauty is inspiring,” he says.
After viewing the 25-by-55-foot Wall of Joy memorial wall, which Riedel created at B’nai Emet Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Cohen, who is Bet Shalom’s founding rabbi, was inspired to ask Riedel to create a new ner tamid for the Minnetonka congregation, which serves more than 700 families. Riedel’s piece was the first ner tamid created uniquely for the congregation. “He is a thoughtful, sensitive artist with a deep commitment to his Jewish heritage and history,” Cohen says.
After creating Bet Shalom’s ner tamid and witnessing its effect on the congregation and receiving members’ expressions of gratitude, Riedel felt inspired to continue creating ner tamids. “It felt like the perfect fit with my story and my life and how people experienced it,” he says.
Riedel, a licensed psychologist in private practice, never formally studied art. He didn’t need to—Riedel has an organic, spiritual connection to his art. He was born in Germany, and his father was a music historian. While Riedel was surrounded by high art and artistic aesthetic, his family’s history also gives him purpose. His maternal grandfather, Aaron Beuthner, was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimer, Germany, in November 1938 on Kristallnacht—a wave of anti-Jewish street violence, which took place on November 9 and 10, 1938. German streets were littered with shattered glass from the broken windows of homes, Jewish-owned businesses and synagogues. “I am inspired to put the shards of glass back together in new and meaningful ways,” Riedel writes. “My energy is to take bits and pieces of myself—of the personal, as well as the artistic parts—and make them into something more whole and holy.”
Riedel includes personalized elements (“hidden jewels of meaning”) in his pieces. For the ner tamid at Bet Shalom, he included a quotation in Hebrew—“Light is sown for the righteous, happiness for the upright in heart.” For another commissioned ner tamid, Ruth and Walter Elias of St. Louis Park requested that Riedel incorporate barbed wire from Poland’s Hasaq concentration camp, where Ruth’s parents and relatives worked as slave labor. (The piece has not found a permanent home and can be viewed on Riedel’s website.) He’s also added Stars of David, trees of life and Torah references in other works.
Riedel collaborates with glassblower Michael Boyd, and also incorporates stained glass in his works. While using metals to ground the light and glass to refract it, Riedel pours his emotional and artistic energy into his art. But it doesn’t ever deplete him. “I absolutely get refilled and refueled by the final piece,” he says. The work is also about relationships that he builds with clients during the collaborative planning process and beyond. Riedel hand-delivers and installs most of the ner tamids. “Those relationships that evolve absolutely replenish me,” he says. Riedel has overseen well over 100 installations, including in Brazil, Canada, Croatia and England.
Riedel’s first installation at Bet Shalom required a reinstallation. When Bet Shalom moved from its first location in Hopkins to Minnetonka in 2002, not all was left behind. “We took several items from our old building to make the transition easier, bringing familiar things from our comfortable place to the new location,” Cohen says. Among those items were the chair of Elijah, the Yahrzeit Board (remembering those who have died) and the ner tamid. Riedel was moved by the gesture. “It represented how meaningful the ner tamid has become for them,” he says. “When it’s done right, it’s the visual focal point of the sanctuary.”
In the new setting, Riedel says the ner tamid was enlarged to complement the larger space, and a gas line was added to convert it from electric lighting. “A flame moves. It dances. It captivates the eye,” Cohen says. “It’s alive, in a sense.”