Rebecca Kowalsky has reinvented herself multiple times. Her latest passion, which she initially taught herself nearly 20 years ago, is photography. The mission of this latest venture is “to help people appreciate the beauty that surrounds them through photography.”
Living in Israel since 1985, Kowalsky was raised in Chicago and still speaks with a distinctive Midwestern accent.
Her Eastern European grandparents, who came to America before World War Two, helped give her, “a very strong Jewish identity. My parents brought us up as Modern Orthodox, religious Zionists.”
Her Zionist training started young, through associations with HaPoel HaMizrachi, Bnei Akiva and Camp Moshava. “All the Zionism circulating in these areas of my life were instilled in me as the norm.”
“But we were a very plain, middle-class family,” she elaborated. “All our vacations were driving to Wisconsin.” Summer trips to Israel weren’t common in her world.
Her first Israeli experience was a gap year program after attending a “wonderful day school on the south side of Chicago. It was a really tightly knit group. Everything about my childhood was so positive – a warm, tight, caring community.
“It was very clear to me that I was going to Israel after high school. I was 17 years old and, practically from the moment I stepped off the plane, it seemed to me the most obvious next step in my life. Of course I will live here!” she explained.
While really experiencing the Land of Israel for the first time at 17, Kowalsky recalls that “Everything about it was wow!”
Besides inspiring her current work in artistic photography, Israel also brought Kowalsky her future husband, Yossi, who was learning Torah at Shalavim while she studied in Michlalah. “I fell in love with the intense learning there,” she commented. “And it was very clear to both of us that [Israel] is where we eventually wanted to live.”
The young married couple made aliyah shortly after Yossi finished dental school. “To their credit, our parents helped us and they were very supportive, even as it was painful for them, unlike parents who raised their kids in a Zionist home, but don’t want their kids to make aliyah,” she explained.
During the earliest years, as Yossi began his career in dentistry, Rebecca was a bit at a loss, living in Beersheva. “It was really the desert. It was very hard. There were nice people, but there was nothing really going on. I stayed home with one child. It was a very lonely two years.”
When the couple decided to move to Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, Rebecca took responsibility for building two houses, one for her family and one for her parents, on land they bought together.
At the same time, her husband opened a private dental practice and Rebecca ran the business end. “I learned everything about running a business without an MBA, the hard way. It was nothing I was formally trained in.”
This became a theme in Kowalsky’s life, developing a passion and turning it into a job. From a lifelong interest in sports and “raising children in a healthy way and bringing exercise and outdoors into their daily life,” she became a personal trainer, running after-school fitness groups around the same time she began volunteering to take photographs of community events.
“My personal training business started with a woman who wanted to lose weight and asked me if I would be her personal trainer. I said sure. It was a word-of-mouth thing. I started working with adults and teenage children.”
After simultaneously running her husband’s dental practice, working as a personal trainer and establishing herself as a photographer, Kowalsky reported that, “the photography business, with God’s grace, started giving back to me.”
“Initially, I offered my services for free. Toby Klein Greenwald, Sharon Katz and Arlene Chertoff helped give me my start, through my work with them in the Raise Your Spirits Theatre company. I still do a number of tzedakah projects. I also do portrait photography and events.” She works both in Israel and overseas. “A really fun part of my job is being able to travel,” she commented.
In addition to portraiture and simcha work, Kowalsky has done street photography workshops and private 1-on-1 sessions. But arguably the most exciting part of her passion for photography is attending art school in a class designed for artists who are age 40 and above. “Our group has been together for two full years. We’re going to London to do a gallery tour and I’m the only Orthodox Jew. It’s a tremendous environment of tolerance. It has been an amazing eye-opener,” she reflected.
“Photography has become my overwhelming passion and obsession. I’m trying to grow myself in the modern art world, [beyond] portraiture and simcha photography. Art school has broken open a whole new world that I never really knew.”
Even so, Kowalsky still gets tremendous pleasure from photographing smachot. “By the end of every event, I love a part of each person. A little bit of their souls opens up,” she noted.
Although she doesn’t actively work in her husband’s dental office anymore, with six children and six grandchildren, a thriving photography art business and her involvement in sports, she still has a lot to balance.
“Sports are vital. I work out an hour a day. Before the photography business took off, there was never a competition that I didn’t register for. I ran marathons before they became professional events in Israel. Every time there was a race, I registered for it. I can work out, do my runs, and if I’m not registering for races, that’s okay. I’m also trying to grow myself as a mindful person.”
With all that, she said, “I hope and believe that I put my family first. My husband and children are very supportive of all the things I do. They help me have the space for that.”
Kowalsky and her husband have a goal to see each of their children and grandchildren at least once a week. “That’s what life is about,” she emphasized.
All that balancing continues to challenge Kowalsky. “I never go away without the camera. When I go out in the morning, do I do my run first and miss the really good light with the camera? It’s always a dilemma; it’s a constant, beautiful struggle. Which passion am I entertaining first? I’m blessed that I have many passions that I enjoy!” she enthused.
Recently, Kowalsky combined her triple loves of Israel, Torah and photography to create a line of Functional Judaica Publications, designed for the Orthodox Jewish home. In the beginning, she created a bencher for her daughter’s wedding, printed some extras and sold them privately. The line is constantly expanding to include highly customizable benchers, siddurim and greeting cards with gorgeous photographs from all over Israel, allowing her to use her images of Israel to connect people to the Land.
“As an Orthodox Jew, everywhere in the county has tremendous meaning. Every step and every inch of the Land cannot be taken for granted. I’ve told my kids that when I walk in Israel, I am mindful of the miracle that I have been privileged to live. The photography enables me to internalize it.”
Looking back over her multi-faceted life in Israel, Kowalsky sees that she has built and rebuilt herself over and over. Each new passion “was a new revelation of myself. I rebuilt myself here… without ever planning it.”