The Power of the Arts in Judaic Studies

Mrs. Daniella Botnick
Judaic Studies, Tanach
Fuchs-Mizrahi School
Cleveland, OH

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This year I was given a group of five junior and senior students who all were uninterested or unable to take Gemara. I was asked to teach them anything related to Judaism that they would connect with, and I decided to try to focus on midrash, as this way the students would be exposed to some form of Rabbinic writing. I also chose midrash because of its often metaphorical approach that need not be taken literally and lends itself to multiple interpretations. As I began teaching, I experimented one day with taking a midrash we had just learned and asking the students to  convey their connection to the midrash through drawing. We had just learned the midrash about why Chana's tefilla became the paradigm of a perfect prayer, and I conveyed to them the idea that what made it so powerful was Chana's ability to honestly open up to G-d and speak her mind freely. I asked them to draw how they thought Chana felt throughout her tefilla. The drawings they produced were phenomenal, but more importantly, the students seemed extremely engaged throughout the process. 
 
I realized I was on to something. 
 
So I stuck with this approach -- I would teach a section of pshat [literal meaning of verses in the Torah] in Tanach, and then I would teach some midrash on the topic. I would then ask the students to draw their interpretation of the midrash and attach a "write up" that explained how their art connected to the pshat and drash [Rabbinic interpretation] of what we learned. Most of the girls in the class preferred the medium of fine art (using different forms of paint, pastels, paper and canvas), but one preferred taking photos and writing poetry. I'm sure if I had a larger group of students I would have had some students write songs or create drama. 

The course was more successful than I could have imagined it would be, and we culminated the year with a very successful art exhibit where many people came to hear the students explain the meaning behind their artwork. The most successful part of this exhibit for me was hearing from my students who were interviewed for a video we showed at the exhibit about why they liked learning in this manner. They explained that prior to this year, they had felt disconnected from Rabbinic writing, as if it were "made-up" stuff that didn't seem relevant to them. Throughout this course, however, they felt like they had a voice in understanding and interpreting the pshat through their own eyes, while still being able to appreciate the perspective of the Rabbis on the text.  

Because of the success of the class it will be offered again to students interested in taking art and exploring midrash. A few tangible successes that emerged from the course was that one of my senior girls decided to go to learn in seminary for a year in Israel. This decision was, in large part, due to her reconnection to learning Torah. Another junior student insisted at the end of year that she had to learn Honors Gemara next year. Whether or not she does is not the point for me: obviously something has been reignited in her soul. I am truly humbled by the power of the arts to help reconnect people to their Judaism and to learning traditional text. This year was an amazing experience, and I'm very curious to see how next year will be.
 

Why Now? Why The Idea School? Why Me?

Richard Langer, Board Member

In the few days since I joined the board of The Idea School, conversations with friends, acquaintances and family have all started with at least one or two and sometimes all three of these questions.

Why would a proud and dedicated Frisch parent who always talks up the school become so involved in this new venture?  Why would someone who already has a full calendar of late night board and committee meetings take on more of the same?  Why do we need another high school at all?  Most of all, what is it about The Idea School that makes it so compelling?

Why now?  

Simply put, the existing Yeshiva high schools (2 for girls and 3 for boys) in Bergen County cannot absorb all the students coming out of our growing day schools.  That is why the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey is supporting our efforts.  That is why we are creating up to fifty seats in our first freshman class in fall 2018 to meet the demand.

Why The Idea School?   

Smaller Jewish communities don’t have the luxury of choice and experimentation. Many Jewish communities struggle to fill all the seats in one day school or high school. We are blessed with six day schools that have the opportunity to experiment and differentiate themselves without the pressure for “one size fits all” curricula, which in some cases turns into “one size fits none”.

Having choices is a blessing and a little friendly competition keeps our schools committed to high-quality education. The plethora of schools, shuls, kosher shopping and dining make Bergen County attractive to new families.  New families in turn create new opportunities for all these organizations and businesses to grow and flourish.  

Yet care is needed in a community with so many choices. We have to be vigilant that competition does not lead to narrow bands of differentiation.  A parent told me the reason they chose a particular school for their daughter was because the girls learn Talmud from photocopies and they rejected the school where the girls learn from a volume of shas.  In other words, everything about the schools was the same so the decision came down to the smallest differentiators.

The Idea School is purposely not “more of the same.”  Our Project-Based Learning model offers a unique Yeshiva high school experience. Side by side with building a great high school, we will be developing open-source materials and providing hands-on training for teachers to learn and take back to their home schools.

Parents and student can learn more about our educational model at https://www.theideaschool.org/mission/ and https://www.theideaschool.org/approach/, or by attending one of our upcoming parlor meetings.  To see how the model has worked in the world of education, watch this video about the High Tech Schools in San Diego, CA.

Why me?

So what motivates me to work nights and weekends bringing The Idea School from concept to reality?  The answer starts with our co-Heads of School, Tikvah Wiener and Rabbi Michael Bitton.  I met Tikvah during her time at Frisch when she became a teacher, mentor and friend to my oldest daughter. Since meeting Michael I have become convinced that they are the right people to lead this venture.  

I believe in our educational model.  Before moving to Teaneck, I was a parent at the Netivot Montessori day school in Edison.  The experience convinced me that alternatives to the traditional subject based classroom with lecture, recital and homework are needed in our schools. The net result of the Project Based Learning model is that teachers spend more time one on one or in small groups with students, and students take a more active role in their education. I have also been impressed with the effect that alternative educational models have on the social structure of schools with more collaboration and partnership leading to fewer incidents of bullying and isolation.

Finally, I am passionate about building Jewish institutions committed to best practices in both daily operations and corporate governance. I look forward to working with Tikvah, Michael and my fellow board members to create a school committed to transparent, open communications and a true partnership with parents, donors and other community organizations.

To get involved with The Idea School or to make a donation, please visit our website www.theideaschool.org or email us at tikvah.wiener@gmail.com.