Photography: The Door That Connects

Photography can have a potent impact upon students in two ways: by looking at photographs and by taking photographs. Both of these activities are woven into a curriculum that I have developed in coordination with Avoda Arts, called The Jewish Lens. The program grew out of an experimental course given at the Morasha Jewish Day School in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, in which my photographs were used to teach about Jewish values and community.

I. Looking at photographs

I am a professional photographer whose focus is Jewish life around the globe. I try to understand and in turn highlight nuanced differences among the diverse Jewish communities. What has always captivated me and piqued my curiosity was this unique ancient Jewish experience that I am a part of. Observing the clear divide in looks, customs, and even some traditions among all these Jewish communities strewn around the world, it is fascinating to see that many Jews seem to share a deep connection, common ground, and a sense of responsibility towards each other.

The more I have traveled, the more these differences as well as similarities are apparent. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to be a witness and at the same time exhibit and publish my work. With these exhibits and books, I have come to realize the educational advantage and the impact that photography can have in helping people of any age comprehend and explore ideas.

For teaching to be effective I realized some emotional exchange must happen. I saw it more and more in the effect my work was having on people who came to know it. This was not only an intellectual exercise, but also an emotional one.

My photographs of Jews from different ethnic and religious backgrounds convey a message of Jewish diversity with an immediacy and force that students get right away. Young students often want to be like everyone else. They may feel ashamed about the ways that they or their families stand out—being more religious, less religious, Moroccan, Chasidic, Israeli, converts; they may question their own legitimacy as Jews and want to hide their family’s particularity from their friends and peers. By seeing images of Jews who are like them, within an exhibition of Jews from dozens of different backgrounds, they are overwhelmed with a sense of belonging to the larger tapestry of the Jewish family. Their fears over questions of legitimacy melt away, and they feel a new sense of pride and belonging as the circle of Jewish identities expands in their minds.

This power of photography to educate about Jewish diversity was brought home to me recently when I visited a school in Jerusalem with a predominantly Ethiopian student body. Seeing pictures of Ethiopian Jews alongside Jews from Yemen, Uzbekistan, Poland, Hungary, Iran, the United States, and other countries made the students feel a part of the larger Jewish world in a way that many had never fully grasped before.

II. Taking photographs

The struggle that educators have in making texts relevant to students is nothing new. The traditional Jewish approach to learning has been cerebral. Intellectual dissection of ancient as well as contemporary texts has been the norm for millennia. Of course, the problem with this approach is that not everyone is cut out for it. Many students do not thrive on intellectual challenge, just as others do not succeed in expressing themselves through writing. These students need other avenues.

It seemed natural to me to use my photographs as a springboard to teach about Jewish values. Asking students to use cameras to express themselves and explore their identity and surrounding community can be a great experiential learning tool. Students use photography to give voice to their own sense of themselves, their families, and their communities. They are given an assignment to create a collage of portraits which enables them to discuss the complex web of relationships surrounding them. They come to understand how their own identity is enmeshed in the circle of Jewish life in which they live.

By holding a camera and focusing it upon the people and spaces in their world, students undertake experiential learning that gives them a tremendous sense of empowerment. Standing behind the camera not only trains them to look at their environment with fresh eyes; it enables them to control it to some extent, cutting it through shot selection and photo cropping to express what they feel about their world. The process of framing and selection in photography gives students tools to become more conscious of many things in their lives that they are then able to articulate and discuss in words through critical reflection. They discover that photography is another language to be explored and analyzed, just like written texts. What photography enables these learners to do is to engage with Jewish tradition, ideas, community, and symbols in ways that significantly supplement other kinds of Jewish learning that takes place in Jewish day schools.

Increasingly, educators are realizing that the arts are not an addition to the real learning within a school, but are essential means for learning in all areas of study. Through its power and immediacy, photography has the potential to reach many students who are turned off by more traditional learning methods. Schools should consider the many ways that both viewing and taking photographs can engage students in both Jewish and secular studies. ♦

For more information about The Jewish Lens, please call Program Director Karen Jarmon at 917-558-9018 or e-mail her at Or go to the program’s website at

Zion Ozeri is a photographer whose work exploring Jewish communities has been exhibited in museums throughout the world and been published in numerous books and magazines. Zion’s website: He can be reached at
Zion Ozeri
The Arts in Jewish Education
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2008