HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Can the Arts Foster Serious Jewish Learning?

by Bradley Solmsen and Rachel Happel Issue: Formal-Informal Education
TOPICS : Arts

Artistic exploration and Jewish exploration can and should be one and the same. Here's how.

For the past five years we have been engaged in a quest to better understand how to help teens learn and grow both as artists and as Jews. Many young people today spend their time in a highly compartmentalized fashion. Talented young artists take lessons or have studio time after school and on weekends. Their opportunities for Jewish expression are often relegated to less than inspired time in synagogue. We believe that these two areas, when connected and mutually nurtured, create a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts: young Jewish artists strengthen and deepen their artistic voices while enriching their Jewish practice and beliefs. This article suggests possibilities for applying this approach to practice in the day school setting.

BIMA, the Brandeis Institute for Music and Arts, is a month long residential summer program for talented teenage Jewish musicians, artists, writers, dancers and actors. BIMA was founded in 2004 by Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, whose vision was to create a rich, pluralistic Jewish setting in which teens could grow as artists. At BIMA, teens work intensely on their skills and portfolios as emerging artists with the guidance of professional artists. They do not necessarily explore “Jewish art,” but instead ask themselves who they are as artists and as Jews, and how these two parts of their identities might relate to one another.

When the arts are not secondary but rather primary, what do meaningful Jewish learning experiences look like? How can art expand my understanding of and connection to Judaism?

We know that few schools or educational programs share our combined focus on high level artistic and Jewish growth. Yet we believe that the questions and issues with which we regularly grapple will be relevant to many other Jewish educational environments: questions regarding the roles and relationships between professional artists and Jewish educators, as well as the programming, approaches and curriculum they utilize. Our main question is: When the arts are not secondary but rather primary, what do meaningful Jewish learning experiences look like?

BIMA’s approach places an emphasis on learning through living and through creation. We believe that the most meaningful Jewish learning takes place when all members of the community are encountering Judaism as an active part of our lives, both individually and collectively—in our case, as individual artists and as a community of artists. We strive to blur the lines between “formal” instruction and “informal” community building and creation, in order to create an environment where all community members are actively exploring, discovering, creating, and expressing themselves—both Jewishly and artistically—all the time.

BIMA employs two separate faculties: accomplished professional artists interested in working with younger, emerging artists, and experiential arts educators whom we call community educators. The community educators live in the dorms with the participants; they develop and facilitate programs blending artistic and Jewish exploration.

The role of the faculty in helping us promote Jewish growth is crucial to our success. Many of the young BIMA artists seem to be more comfortable taking risks with a musical instrument or paintbrush than with Jewish traditions and practices. Our faculty, who “speak their language” in their art forms, play a key role in helping them translate their artistic risks and growth into Jewish risks and growth and in helping them connect these disparate parts of their lives.

The community educators recently developed an Artists Beit Midrash. As in a conventional beit midrash, the participants work together to learn and interpret Jewish texts in chevruta. Participants use artistic creation, not just dialogue, as a way of exploring source material. The “texts” explored range from traditional sacred sources to poetry, fiction, visual art, music, film, art history, artists’ writings and more. The participants and educators ask themselves: How can Judaism inspire my art? How can art expand my understanding of and connection to Judaism?

As the community educators work and create alongside the participants, they model various ways of connecting the arts and Judaism. They develop creative ways of engaging with text through improvisation, experimentation, and associative processes. They demonstrate how an artist can use Jewish sources to inspire artistic work. They reflect on the differences and similarities between their interpretive process and their artistic process, and how their artistic process can serve as a gateway to understanding a source. They model how working in chevruta can stretch, challenge and support both partners in developing interpretations and also in creating and refining each partner’s artistic work. Individual teens will rarely connect with all of these ways of integrating Judaism and art. When educators model a variety of approaches and provide multiple opportunities to try them, they help teens to find the ways of connecting that work best for them.

In a well-composed work of art an idea of outstanding importance is not introduced haphazardly, but like a king at an official ceremony, it is presented at a moment and in a way that will bring to light its authority and leadership. In the Bible, words are employed with exquisite care, particularly those which, like pillars of fire, lead the way in the far-flung system of the biblical world of meaning. Heschel, The Sabbath

We want high school students to grow as artists and as Jews. We believe that these are two distinct parts of a person, but that there are also relationships between the two. We want their art to nurture Judaism and their Judaism to nurture their art. We want these relationships to be defined and explored by each artist on an individual level, in a supportive communal setting where everyone is engaged in the same exploration. As a painter has to make a series of choices in composing a work, so a Jew, we are teaching, has to make choices how to compose his or her Jewish involvement. We aspire to help our students grow, expand both their artistic and Jewish palettes, and to consider the fullest repertoire that is available to them within Judaism.

Practical Directions to Consider

Professional artists who happen to be Jewish can be found in every community. Consider inviting professional artists into your school to work with your students, and provide the appropriate setting and materials to create an environment for high level artistic work. We have found this to be fundamentally different from the experience students have with art teachers or Jewish educators who use the arts as a tool. When you treat and relate to students as serious emerging artists themselves, this increased level of intensity can spill over into the entire learning environment of the school.

Consider a broader definition of “text” for your school’s beit midrash or other study opportunities. Bring works of art as texts to be studied or as commentaries on traditional texts. Music, visual arts and literature, for example, can often engage students in ways that traditional texts cannot. Consider creating opportunities for students to respond to texts using an artistic process in addition to more traditional chevruta approaches.

Create arts-infused learning opportunities for your faculty. Adding the arts to professional development can provide faculty with new ways to be engaged and consider subject matter, pedagogy, and the school’s Jewish community from new perspectives.

If you have artists on your faculty, allow them opportunities to present their own work and to serve as models of people who are engaged—seriously—in both arts and Jewish life.

We believe that the arts can serve as a portal to unlock creative expression within students far beyond the range of artistic forms. Artistic expression can inspire the creative reading of text and creative approaches to ritual, belief and commitment. In short, the arts can endow students with the creativity, confidence and flexibility to engage with Judaism with their hearts and souls.♦

Bradley Solmsen is Director of the Office of High School Programs at Brandeis University, which includes BIMA, Genesis and Impact Boston. He can be reached at solmsen@brandeis.edu.

Rachel Happel is Director of BIMA: the Brandeis Institute for Music and Art. She can be reached at happel@brandeis.edu.

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Formal-Informal Education

If only school could be like camp… Many people’s fondest childhood memories are of camp with its unstructured days and enjoyable activities. Increasingly, under the rubric of informal or experiential education, schools are capturing some of the atmosphere of camp in the classroom and beyond. How can this model be adapted effectively to the educational rigor of a day school?

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