HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Cultivating Young Jewish Artists

by Rachel Happel Issue: The Arts in Jewish Education

BIMA is a summer institute at Brandeis University that brings together talented high school artists, musicians, actors, and writers with professional artists to pursue serious artistic growth in a diverse Jewish setting. Its mission is to guide participants as they develop their artistic faculties and explore the dynamic encounter between artistic expression and Jewish life. Participants come to BIMA from all over North America and Israel, from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and experiences. BIMA was founded in 2003 by Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, former headmaster of Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts, and took place at Williams College for its first three summers before relocating to Brandeis University in 2007.

What does it take to cultivate young Jewish artists? We have been learning a great deal about this subject at BIMA over the last five years. While our setting enables us to devote significantly more time to the arts than a typical day school schedule would allow, our core concepts might be adaptable to a wide variety of settings.

Our program is guided by three central commitments: (1) artistic growth, (2) Jewish exploration, learning, and commitment, and (3) pluralistic Jewish community. These commitments are interrelated and inform each other throughout the summer, creating a unique, holistic approach to learning and teaching in a Jewish environment.

Artistic Growth

A strong arts program takes seriously the growth and education of young artists. Our focus in BIMA’s arts majors is not on “Jewish art” or “Jewish music.” Rather, our primary goal is to guide the participants as they advance their skills, learn new techniques, expand their repertoire, and pursue excellence in their artistic disciplines. Our approach includes:

Technique and Skill Development

Faculty members work with participants to advance their technical skills in their artistic disciplines. This involves instruction, directed assignments, structured group and individual work, and faculty coaching.

Self-Direction

Being an artist requires more than exceptional skills and techniques. Artists who aspire to “make it” must have the ability to conceive their own work and develop their own artistic style. They should also have sophisticated notions of what art is and where it can happen. The arts faculty works with students to understand the artistic process and to prepare them (technically, conceptually, and personally) to create their own work.

Structured Individual Practice Time

Serious pursuit of artistic growth involves dedicated practice. Without it, artists in any discipline are limited in their potential for development. Teachers should aim to instill in participants a commitment to regular, deliberate practice. They should build practice time into the daily schedule for all of our arts majors. Faculty members model this commitment through their own daily practice, and they provide guidance for participants to create structures and goals for their practice time.

Collaboration

Arts programs should include opportunities for collaborative work. They should also encourage cross-major collaboration on specific projects and performances. Naturally, ensemble work is inherent in music and theater, but artistic collaborations have also become an important part of other artistic disciplines, including visual arts and writing. The ability to work with other artists is thus an essential skill. Beyond skill building, collaborative work is a cooperative way to experience the artistic process, and it creates an alternative focus when a break from individual work is needed. The faculty members guide participants as they learn to work together to create collaboratively, and they model collaboration in their own work and their faculty performances.

Peer Critique

Art is not only about creating, but also about viewing, listening to others and being able to respond verbally to others’ work. Commenting on the work of fellow participants, as well as receiving peer and professional artists’ comments on their own work, are integral experiences for participants in every arts major.

Challenge and Risk

Pushing yourself to try new experiences and take risks within a supportive environment leads to growth and increased self-confidence. Members of the arts faculty should work hard to create a safe environment where participants can take artistic risks and challenge themselves and each other. Faculty members also can work with participants individually to identify areas for growth, and to set and regularly evaluate realistic goals that will challenge students over the course of a program.

Reflection

The deepest learning takes place when participants have time to reflect on what they have experienced and find personal relevance and meaning. Time for both individual and group reflection ought to be built into all elements of a class or program.

Immersion in an Artistic Community and Exposure to World Class Culture

For most participants, a summer at BIMA is the first time they have ever experienced immersion in an artistic community. We spend significant time considering what it means to be a community of Jewish artists and working together to create a dynamic context for artistic discovery and creativity. We also strive to develop a sense that our participants are part of a larger artistic community, beyond our campus. We expose our participants to world-class artists through trips to performances and exhibitions in Greater Boston and in the Berkshires, as well as workshops and performances by guest artists we bring to campus. Likewise, schools can facilitate opportunities for student artists to become part of artistic communities in the society beyond the walls of the school.

Jewish Exploration

Jewish day schools have a unique opportunity to spark Jewish creativity and examine the intersection between Jewish identity and the creative process. Jewish creativity depends upon Jewish learning and exploration. Participants at BIMA engage in a rich program of Jewish learning that includes (1) Shabbat planning and celebration, (2) arts workshops that integrate the pursuit of an artistic discipline with Jewish texts, values, or traditions, and (3) personal and group exploration of the intersection between Jewish identity and artistic identity.

Pluralistic Jewish Community

We believe that interaction among teens of diverse backgrounds (Jewishly, artistically, educationally, geographically) enhances Jewish learning and creativity. We further believe that exchanges among artists of different disciplines enrich artistic growth. Schools might include opportunities for dialogue, collaboration, and relationship building across arts majors and among participants with different backgrounds.

These three commitments form an integrated approach that results in a vibrant community packed with artistic discovery and Jewish exploration. At the best Jewish art programs, students come away not only with a serious commitment to pursuing the arts, but also with strengthened commitment to Judaism and Jewish community. ♦

Rachel Happel is Associate Director of BIMA at Brandeis University. She can be reached at happel@brandeis.edu.

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