HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Putting the Arts into Jewish Education

by Dr. Ofra Arieli Backenroth Issue: The Arts in Jewish Education

Enter a seventh-grade Hebrew class at the Toronto Heschel School, taught in an art studio. The students, wearing aprons, are sitting around large tables covered with plastic, kneading, rolling, piercing, and shaping clay. They are learning vocabulary pertaining to sculpture in Hebrew and at the same time learning the basics of sculpture. The students are busy working the clay while simultaneously describing their activities in Hebrew. As they knead, they run through a verb conjugation in present tense: Ani lashah chomer, Tovah lashah chomer (I knead the clay, Tovah kneads the clay).

Traditionally, the arts have been absent from Jewish day school curricula.

During the class, the number of verbs and nouns expands. Later, the students will have a homework assignment in which they will have to use the new verbs they learned in sentences. Additionally, they will write a detailed description of the new skills of sculpture they acquired during the class. A few days later, the students will have to submit a proposal for creating a sculpture of an oil jar based on old Greek and Etruscan jars they studied a few days earlier in the art museum. The proposals, written in Hebrew, will spell out all the steps that are needed to accomplish the design; they describe the sources of inspiration, the symbols used to decorate the jar, and the historical background of the oil jar. Instead of a formal evaluation, the students will give an oral presentation explaining their project during a schoolwide Chanukah exhibition. The teacher who runs the class is both an art teacher and a Hebrew teacher.

The Toronto Heschel School is not an art school; however, the arts permeate every aspect of the school curriculum. Teams of teachers design the lessons, and in this case the unit was designed by the integrated art supervisor, the art and Hebrew teacher, the homeroom Hebrew teacher, and the social studies teacher.

More and more educational institutions realize that reading is only the beginning of Jewish education.

Traditionally, the arts have been absent from Jewish day school curricula, relegated to occasional visual art classes, choral music courses, or extracurricular classes after school hours. Currently, the arts are making their way back into Jewish education in day schools, informal education, camps, colleges for Jewish studies, and graduate programs in Jewish education.

Even though Jewish education is fundamentally text-based and most educators believe that making knowledgeably Jewish students requires practice and mimetic education, more and more educational institutions realize that reading is only the beginning of Jewish education. The ultimate goal of teaching Jewish texts does not end with transmission of knowledge, but requires the complex process of understanding and interpretation by the mind and transformation of the spirit. Jewish day schools want to contribute to students’ spirituality as well as make students knowledgeable and culturally literate, and most of all, make learning memorable.

To this end, more and more educational institutions include the arts in their curricula. Some teach the arts as discrete disciplines, enabling students to explore the world around them and to express their inner lives. These schools teach techniques, theory, and performance. Other schools teach the arts in conjunction with other disciplines. Teaching the arts and teaching through the arts allows teachers to vary their teaching methods and find new ways of appealing to learners.

Teaching through the arts implies that the teachers need to teach in an integrated method. There are various models of subject integration, and they are defined differently in the literature about integration. Integration of the arts into the curriculum moves on a continuum from discipline-based teaching, in which each subject is taught as a discrete discipline, to theme-based teaching, in which all the curricular subjects are focused around a central theme. Creating integrated curricula or units relies on Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences: linguistic, logical mathmatical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic; and on principles of differentiated learning based on the understanding that people learn in different ways.

Here are some examples of programs and courses at different levels that integrate the arts throughout the curricula:

  • At Gann Academy, a high school in Waltham, Massachusetts, students are required to take at least eight trimesters in the arts over four years, but are free to choose which courses they take. The school has multiple arts events throughout the year and offers jazz, chamber music ensemble, visual art, dance, Israeli folk dancing and many more.
  • The Columbus Jewish Day School in Columbus, Ohio, a kindergarten through fifth-grade school, seeks to combine a focus on academic excellence with a commitment to the arts. The school believes that integration of the arts—visual and language arts, music, drama, and dance—into the curriculum affords the students the possibility to use their imagination, spirit, compassion, understanding, and creativity.
  • At the Prozdor High School program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Elisheva Gould teaches a class called “Woe is Me: Difficult Experiences Within Jewish Art and Text,” which integrates text study, art making, and visits to the Jewish Museum. The teacher and the students examine expressions of suffering that run throughout Jewish art and biblical and rabbinic texts. They analyze painting, photography, film, and other artistic media, they create art, and they study related biblical and talmudic sources.
  • In introductory Bible courses, students at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s undergraduate List College are introduced to visual art midrashim. They study works of art during class, and they investigate biblically inspired paintings and sculptures during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They learn how to “read” visual images as valid, multifaceted interpretations of text.
  • The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education offers a course titled “Arts as Exegesis in Jewish Education,” in which students learn the theory and practice of using the arts as a powerful tool for motivating students to apply their knowledge, work cooperatively, and make connections across content areas. The students explore how the arts can be used as a basis for learning and teaching the content areas of Jewish education to people of all ages in a variety of educational settings. They read texts and discuss them in a traditional way, but their awareness is enhanced and they become more fully engaged as they recreate them visually. The art helps fill in the gaps in the biblical narrative, imagination is engaged, and the students can better identify with the characters and create personal artistic interpretations. By interacting with the content, the students make the Bible more vivid and relevant.

Another initiative to promote the role of the arts in Jewish education is the MeltonArts website, dedicated to teaching Judaism through the arts. The website is a project of the Melton Coalition for Creative Interaction, which was created by Samuel Melton in 1993 just before he passed away. MeltonArts.org’s goal is to emphasize the role of the arts in Jewish and Israeli education and to demonstrate that educators can integrate the arts with all areas of Judaic studies, including Jewish text study, Jewish history and civilization, Israel, and Jewish holidays. The website supplies Jewish educators of all affiliations and in all settings with resources to develop their own awareness of the arts, and provides tools that will help them utilize the arts to further the teaching and learning of Judaic studies and the enhancing of Jewish identity.

In his book Back to the Sources, Barry Holtz posits that the “Torah remains unendingly alive because the readers of each subsequent generation saw it as such, taking the holiness of the Torah seriously, and adding their own contribution to the story.” Given the opportunity to interpret the text by creating their own artistic midrashim, students fulfill the most essential mitzvah of Judaism, becoming links in the long chain of those engaged in the interpretation and the teaching of Torah. ♦

Dr. Ofra Arieli Backenroth is the Assistant Dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. She can be reached at ofbackenroth@jtsa.edu.

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The Arts in Jewish Education

With innovation recognized as a premium for all education, the arts need to be taken more seriously, plumbed for pedagogy and curriculum, and integrated into the classroom across the curriculum. The arts represent distinct disciplines with their own histories and methods. For Jewish studies, they offer a vehicle for student interpretation, a different entry point into Jewish text and tradition.

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