A Redesigned Beit Tefillah
My colleague Mo Fisch, a Jewish studies teacher, and I were awarded a Teacher Institute for the Arts grant for the purpose of creating a learning project for our middle school students that combined the visual arts with Jewish education. In consultation with administrators, we decided to challenge our seventh grade students to make artistic changes to the Beit Tefillah, our school’s dedicated prayer space, which would enhance their spiritual connection to the space during services. They were asked to reflect upon how or where they connected to God and prayer, and what elements inspired those feelings. They then investigated ways to incorporate these ideas into the current space. The project had two foundational goals: to combine Jewish studies and artmaking, and to be student-driven.
The project continued to be developed during a weeklong seminar, for our cohort of art and Jewish studies teachers from all over the country, designed and facilitated by Kol HaOt, an education and arts organization centered in Israel. Sessions led by artist David Moss, Elyssa Rabinowitz and a staff of talented mentors left us well prepared and supported. We returned home with several Kol HaOt toolkits—Synectics, Text to Symbol and Middot (Values)—to share with the school and enough excitement to see this project through.
Synectics is a condensed “creative” problem solving process that helps speed up the natural process of finding new ideas from unexpected places. First, the problem is defined in detail and obvious solutions are discarded. A fun brainstorm called “the problem as understood” generates wild word connections. These words are then narrowed down, used in improv skits and, through the careful recording of key concepts, a new possibility is presented.
The second toolkit, Text to Symbol, is a process of interpreting text by assigning key elements of a text different colors. Then each section of the text is depicted by a series of shapes. The struggle and deep learning comes from deciding how to tell the story through the shape itself. The learning really happens in the process of making.
The first semester, students chose to create a series of paintings about animals in the Torah and Jewish teaching. The students chose text to study and researched the actual qualities of each animal. At first, their images of the animals were very literal. Over time, they began to focus in on the different qualities of their animals, zooming in on their drawings, cropping the edges of the images so that just the parts of the animal spoke to the text.
In the second semester, a new group of students created images based on the theme of Holiness, of place, time and soul, using an essay on this subject from Adin Steinsaltz’s Thirteen Petalled Rose. The class chose to work with the idea of the five senses as a basis for their images for the Beit Tefillah. The whole seventh grade class focused on the concept of holiness for several weeks before the art rotation began, and this set the foundation.
The students worked in small groups and chose to paint or print their images depending on the medium that they enjoy most. The painters had to work through the same process as the first semester,s students of finding images that they felt strongly represented their own ideas, but which would also work as a whole. Other students choose to make besamim bags, with block-printed images or painted washing bowls for the Beit Tefillah, with symbols from the Pesach story. Playlists for soundtracks and a challah cover with decorated kiddush cups completed the senses of sound and taste.
As they prepared their writings for presentation, many of the students were surprised to discover that the process of designing and creating their images led them to understand the text in different, richer ways. The real gift of this project is that the students were empowered to express their learning through the art they designed, which served to expand the beauty and student ownership of the school’s prayer space. The toolboxes designed and passed on through Kol HaOt allowed the artwork to be a true expression of a journey and deep interaction with Jewish text through the medium of art.