Integrating the Arts and Jewish Learning
Can the visual arts redefine and ignite a new approach to learning Jewish texts, ideas and history?
That’s the goal of the newly established Teacher Institute for the Arts (TIA), which opened in 2015 in the United States. The TIA was created and is generously funded and overseen by a national Jewish foundation, one dedicated to raising the quality of Jewish education in schools. The foundation has retained my services as well as my staff at Kol HaOt—a Jerusalem-based organization, whose mission is to integrate Jewish texts and values with the arts—to direct the Institute. Our TIA team believes our approach is an extremely powerful way to cultivate creativity, and to enhance and deepen Jewish learning.
Eight US schools have been participating in the TIA initiative and already have begun intensively integrating the arts into their respective schools’ Jewish curricula. These programs are always built around creative, project-based learning, but with a difference. They never come with a preconceived project in mind. Neither I, nor the institution, nor the kids have any idea what project they are going to undertake. It’s essential to this process that the kids are brought through the entire process of making real art, from identifying a challenge, a problem, a text, or an issue that matters to them, to presentation of a final work of art.
Participants are guided through the entire creative process that any artist typically undergoes and are thus highly empowered: identifying the problem/need; creative problem-solving to come up with a fresh, unique idea; the design process; gathering materials, implementation and presentation of the final project. The goal is to draw on the process of artistic creation to educate and inspire authentic Jewish values through traditional Jewish texts.
Since originally all art was ritual art, it’s important to include ritual in the process. This may be an initiation ritual, a prayer, a meditation, a dedication, or a consecration. This is an important factor in moving these artistic experiences beyond “projects” to more engaging, meaningful and elevating experiences.
Themes have varied from texts such as Lecha Dodi, the Amidah or the Book of Jonah, to values like tzedakah or preventing leshon hara, to enhancing meaningful prayer and fostering chesed. The commonality is that every artistic/educational/Jewish project has a clearly defined goal that drives the entire creative process.
SELECTING A PROBLEM OR CHALLENGE
The work always begins with a free discussion of the challenges that students see in their lives. Some students focus on a general theme, such as, How can davening be less boring and more meaningful? Others, on a physical need: How can a room be transformed from a gym to a synagogue and back daily? Another approach is to concentrate on a text: How to make the Amidah prayer something we can relate to personally? Or a value: How can help ourselves act with more kindness toward each other?
Each project has a serious text-study component. Participants confront, engage and mine appropriate texts for better comprehension, as well as for images and ideas. The texts are carefully chosen to become the focus for the entire project, and each project can be understood to be an artistic reworking in very different form of a classical Jewish text.
Once the challenge has been clearly defined, we use a special technique of group problem-solving to spur creative, out-of-the-box thinking. My assumption is that all people are creative and that creativity can be sparked, fostered and released. I have honed an efficient, powerful creative problem-solving methodology, known as “synectics,” and effectively utilize it in Jewish educational settings. A typical synectics session takes about an hour and begins with careful problem definition, moves through problem expansion and contraction into a fantasy stage where the problem is deliberately abandoned only to create a rich, evocative pool of metaphorical ideas and images, which are then used to solve the problem in an efficient, practical and always surprising way. Participants bond through this process and realize that their own creative efforts have brought something beautiful and meaningful into existence out of nothing.
DESIGN, CONSTRUCTION AND PRESENTATION
Once the group is satisfied that they have a brilliant, surprising and unique idea, they move on to physical design. They figure out what materials, tools, equipment they need, then set out a work plan. They work as teams, pairs, and/or individuals to do the hands-on construction of the project, learning important real-life skills of cooperation, encouragement and mutual support.
Finally, the completed work is presented in a thoughtfully worked out celebratory group demonstration to the entire institution.
EXAMPLE: A PRAYER SPACE IN THE DANCE PAVILION AT A RAMAH CAMP
The problem presented was how to create a meaningful, personal and intimate prayer space in a large, vacuous dance hall. The texts chosen were the seven daily psalms. The whole eidah (age group) began by studying these psalms with their text teachers. The night before the activity day, long bolts of muslin were ceremonially placed in dying vats with original kavvanot (prayers), so that this was the opening, preparatory act being done leshem kedushat mekom hatefillah (for the sake of the holiness of the place of prayer).
The next day, groups were divided into seven. Each group then studied one of the daily psalms and discussed how to express its essence visually. Six groups created tall, narrow panels (8’x30”) using felt collage on the dyed muslin. A phrase from each psalm was done in uniform lettering in the same position at the bottom of each panel.
The seventh group repainted the holy ark, based on the psalm for Shabbat. Three panels were hung on each side of the ark along the eastern wall, so that the days read from right to left. Plain muslin panels hung over each collage as a cover. These panels were each attached to pulleys and cords running across the entire ceiling and down the opposite wall.
The benches were all repainted in colors echoing the panels. The notion of a makom kavu’a, a fixed, intimate, personal prayer spot, was explained, and each camper imprinted his/her handprints on a spot on one bench. During normal use of the room as a dance room, all the panels remain covered and the ark is turned toward the wall.
Before services begin each morning, the ark is faced forward, and the cover for the psalm of that day of the week is raised. On Shabbat, all six covers are raised, exposing the entire work of art at once. The covers drape across the ceiling and create a beautiful space by becoming a six-fold canopy for the Sabbath services.
This method of Judaic project-based learning that I’ve developed and honed over decades serves two main educational goals. By synthesizing Judaic learning and art it opens students up to new ways of understanding, integrating and internalizing Jewish texts, ideas and values. By taking students through the entire art-making process, this methodology seamlessly integrates skills such as analysis, close textual reading, metaphorical thinking, planning, design, spatial visualization, project management, practical interaction with the physical world, and manual dexterity and communication, in order to palpably model and embody how real creativity works in any human endeavor.
As my experience has proven, project-based learning that harnesses the magic of the arts is an effective way for formal and informal Jewish institutions to meet the manifold educational challenges of the 21st century.