A Case for the Arts in Jewish Education


julie-wohl-2016 by Julie Wohl

There is an old Robert Frost poem that says  “good fences make good neighbors” in which two neighbors spend their time mending the walls between them. As we read, Frost guides us to wonder: just because conventional wisdom says walls and fences are good, does that make it true?

When it comes to the arts and Jewish education, I have come to think that good fences make for neighbors who are cut off from each other, who don’t work together, and are weaker for it. Since we have no cows that need to be fenced in, I find myself, prompted by Frost, thinking that perhaps we don’t need fences at all*.   

The prevailing ethos in general education is blending– engaging in multimedia experiences, using technology and integrating subjects to create a more holistic learning approach.  We know from the research that human brains are not wired with fences between subjects.  Our brains are glorious connection making machines.

This is why, when talking about the arts in Jewish education, it is so surprising when they get shrugged off.  As a synagogue educator and a teacher of Judaics at Camp Ramah, as well as a working artist, I KNOW that in most Jewish learning environments we are faced with a lack of time, a paucity of resources, and a crisis of disconnection.  When forced to make choices, it is easy to see why the arts often fall off the list of offerings.  And yet, ESPECIALLY because we are so limited, we NEED the arts even more.

Our twenty-first century socially connected children are digital natives in a constant state of seeking. They spend their days communicating and connecting in ways that previous generations could not have even imagined. They are passionate and discerning and accustomed to the regular search for meaning. They want to learn about things they see as personally relevant.  It is precisely in this context that we must recognize that while skills and content literacy are building blocks that we cannot do without, if we do not provide our students with context, with an opportunity to slow down and consider their relevance, then we are providing only half of an education.

In an age where facts and information are readily available, all educators must rethink our approach to learning. Our only choice is to educate towards greater spiritual engagement, to explore moral education, to present our tradition in terms of the great human desires: for belonging, for creative exploration, for moral development, for connection. When viewed with this lens, we know that Judaism and Jewish education have much to offer. And there is no field more ready to help take this on in real, human ways, than the arts.

When we look at practicing artists and craftspeople in the world, we primarily see the results of their creations. We see that the potter molds the clay and creates the vase. What we may not see, unless we are intimately involved in the act of creation, is that the reverse is true as well. Just as the artist molds the clay, the clay also molds the artist. During the act of creation, the maker is fully engaged—they are thinking, analyzing, making choices, trying, failing and trying again. When they are done, they see the world a little bit differently. The maker is transformed during the act of making. Doesn’t that also sound like our goals for Jewish education?

I would argue that in any Jewish educational setting our primary goal is that of transformation. We want our community members to be engaged, to make meaning and to find relevance in practice. As teachers, we are in search of ways to engage the whole person—mind, body and spirit. Our students are also in search of ways that they can reflect and learn in deeply personal and meaningful ways. So, what does this look like in Jewish educational and camp settings?

When we think creatively and integratively, we can find endless ways in which the arts can be employed to help us build compelling and rich Jewish environments. When we teach Torah and reflect on relationships by acting them out, this is Jewish art education. When we create prayer based meditation collages that reflect on and inform our kavanah (intentions), this is Jewish art education. When we find natural objects around camp and bring them together to create a communal mosaic, and reflect on what it means when we all share a small piece to create something larger (like in the creation of the Beit Hamikdash or in the building of our edah community) this is Jewish art education. When we bring Jewish ideas into the art room and onto the stage, and when we bring art-making and reflection into our praying, playing and living spaces, when we break down the walls dividing the arts from everything else, we can find incredible opportunities to enrich our learning experiences and environment. Jewish art education is, simply, the exploration of Jewish values, texts or ideas, through the act of creation.

When you think about it, the integration of art into the whole of Jewish education seems like an obvious choice. The arts help us to think about meaning in metaphorical terms. They inspire us (even require us) to make our own connections. When our Jewish settings allow us space and time to create visual imagery, dramatic interpretations, perform, build, communicate and create, we make our learning and our Judaism our own. We find our voice and add it to the voices that came before us, and those that will come after us. I don’t think it is too bold to say that engaging with the arts can be life altering, and when we build that practice into our learning, the effects can be truly dramatic. In truth, I think we are all thirsty for this kind of learning. Our job is to break down those fences, grapple with our limitations of time and resources, and find innovative ways to make it happen.

(*Note: I originally came across this analogy in an article by Connie Dalke on art education and special needs inclusion, “There Are No Cows Here”, 1984)

Julie Wohl is a Jewish Educator and artist living and working in Central Pennsylvania. She is the owner and lead educator of Jewish Learning Thru Art, a Traveling Creative Arts Beit Midrash, and the author and illustrator of several books and resources for Jewish children, families and schools. She has spent the last four summers as a Yahadut and Omanut teacher at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. You can find out more about Julie and her work at http://www.juliewohlfineartandjudaica.com.

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