Mark Seliger donates artwork
By: Kayla Rosen
In the mid-1980s, before his celebrity portraits graced the covers of “Rolling Stone” magazine and his photography represented the biggest brand names in fashion, Mark Seliger was just a photography apprentice crashing in his yeshivah bochur brother Yoel’s basement apartment in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Seliger was a loosely affiliated Jew living in the heart of the Chabad-Lubavitch community, learning about the Chassidic movement right at its source, in the presence of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
Seliger and his brother were born and raised in Texas into a secular Jewish family before Yoel began to draw closer to his Jewish roots, eventually enrolling in yeshivah and becoming fully observant. Though Mark chose a different path, he found deep meaning in his experience over the months that he spent immersed in Chabad and believes that his time in Crown Heights helped him find a connection to his own personal strength and core values.
“I would tag along with my brother to the Rebbe’s farbrengens, and the energy was just electrifying,” Seliger tells Chabad.org. “The Rebbe would finish speaking, and you could feel the presence of thousands of Lubavitchers as they sang nigunim together. There was such joy, such passion and so much kindness.”
After a few months in Crown Heights, Seliger decided to make the move to Manhattan, where he could pursue his career in fashion photography. His brother immediately suggested he write a letter to the Rebbe asking for a blessing. “I never thought I would get a response from the Rebbe when my brother helped me write to him, asking for a blessing to move, since thousands of people wrote every day,” Seliger shares. “But 10 minutes later, the Rebbe’s secretary called with the Rebbe’s blessing, [which stipulated I should relocate] on the condition that I live near a ‘place of Torah.’ Thank G‑d, there was an old shul four doors down from a place I was interested in.”
As a young man in his early 20s, that blessing gave him the courage, he says, to follow his internal compass. Even today, Seliger attributes the Rebbe’s initial blessing as a driving force that led to many invaluable experiences in his life.
In a sign of his appreciation for the Rebbe and in support of the Jews of Ukraine, on March 1, Seliger and the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine (JRNU)—Chabad-Lubavitch’s war-time unified effort for funding and providing humanitarian work in Ukraine—will release 250 limited edition prints of abstract mixed-media artwork featuring Mark’s original 1984 photograph of the Rebbe with Yoel’s digital painting superimposed to create a one-of-a-kind artwork that marks the first collaboration between the brothers.
Marking the first anniversary of the war, the Seliger brothers and the JRNU, together with Chabad.org, the 250 prints are being sold to raise funds for Ukrainian Jewry—a community that stands today because of the Rebbe’s initiative and ongoing inspiration.
36-Year-Old Photograph an Opportunity for a Mitzvah
During his time in Crown Heights, Seliger often brought his camera along with him to weekday farbrengens and community events. It was at the Lag BaOmer parade of 1984 that Seliger took a photograph of the Rebbe that has stayed with him for nearly 40 years.
Yoel Seliger began experimenting with digital painting when he was gifted with an iPad during the Covid pandemic lockdowns. He found great joy in adding vibrant colors to existing photographs and sharing them with friends and family. When he told his brother about this new passion, Mark suddenly knew what he wanted to do with this photograph that had been sitting in his archives.
He always knew that one day he would share that photograph with the world. Although he generally doesn’t allow anyone to alter his photographs, he took the opportunity to begin collaborating with his brother to create a modern and unique work of art, fusing photography and abstract painting.
As the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine approached, the two knew it was time to release the photograph in a way that would support the Jewish communities of Ukraine, with the help of organizations who have been working tirelessly to save Ukrainian Jewry.
The Jewish Relief Network Ukraine (JRNU)—formed almost immediately after the war broke out as the U.S. division of the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC)—has been the leading force in building strong Jewish life in the region ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. From the very beginning, the FJC has worked closely with Chabad institutions around the world to ensure an expanding and rich Jewish infrastructure for the Jews of Ukraine, while Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries continue breathing life into these communities.
As the war progressed, it quickly became clear that support was needed from American Jewry to help raise both funds and awareness for the quickly deteriorating situation in Ukraine. The JRNU formed overnight with the invaluable help of Chabad institutions in the United States and has grown rapidly over the course of the war, bridging the gap between U.S. funders and the FJC, who are stationed on the ground in Ukraine.
The Rebbe’s personal connection to Ukraine continues to serve as a source of deep meaning and encouragement for the activists of the JRNU. Not only was the Rebbe from Ukraine, but his emissaries built the Jewish communities there from the ground up, ushering in a golden age for Ukrainian Jewry.
“The Rebbe’s life work was about helping others, leaving no one behind. And that is exactly what JRNU is all about,” Judi Garrett, JRNU’s Chief Operating Officer, tells Chabad.org. “With the help of the Seliger brothers, we have the opportunity to raise both funds and awareness across the U.S. and open the hearts of the American people, who are gracious and giving.”
Mark, who left Brooklyn decades ago but still thinks of Crown Heights as “home,” believes it is in the blood and bones of every Jew to help those in need, and that the Rebbe taught one and all to do so joyously and with open arms as they venture out into the diverse world.
For Seliger, his photograph of the Rebbe is not just a photograph; it is the Rebbe’s reminder to each and every individual of who they are and what they stand for.
“The deep presence we feel from the twinkle in the Rebbe’s eyes rekindles our own fires,” shares Seliger, “and inspires each and every one of us to continue illuminating the world wherever we possibly can.”
For Mark Seliger, there seems no better time than now—with the one-year anniversary of the war—to release this limited-edition photograph and fight for a community the Rebbe himself revived and inspired.