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The ‘Art’ of Torah

Posted on Thursday, October 24, 2013 by Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz

Students from San Francisco's Jewish Community High School of the Bay use moving images to express their feelings and reactions to the Holocaust, in Kol HaOt's powerful 'Processing Yad Vashem and Mt. Herzl Cemetery' workshop.

I recently had the privilege of teaching an adult Birthright-style group from St. Louis. When the group first booked Kol HaOt’s ‘Mapping the Journey’ program three years ago, it was unchartered territory for the Jewish Federation and for the participants. After a 10-day journey in Israel, Margo, the Federation professional, wanted a summary program that would enable the participants to begin talking about their journey in serious, profound, and emotional ways.

Margot, with the guidance of Andy Katz of the Federation’s Israel office, turned to us. I vividly remember Margot saying to us that when you bring a group of first-timers to Israel, “it is like trying to drink water from a fire hose”. So many rich experiences tantalize and overwhelm the group. There simply is no time to process an experience or group of experiences. And so how do you begin processing an Israel experience in a way which combines head, hands, and heart?

Five years ago, David Moss, Yair Medina, Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz, and I founded Kol HaOt: Illuminating Jewish Life through Art. Our mission is to teach Jewish values, history, and texts through the visual, performing, and culinary arts. We believe that the arts need to be an integral part of Jewish education – both in formal and informal settings – to further our vision. The responses have been inspiring, transformative, and predictable.

Throughout the past five years, we have worked with day schools, Federations, synagogues, and families to enrich their experience of Israel and Jewish education through the arts. Some of our most popular interactive programs include: Processing Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl, Mapping the Journey, Mentschmaker Make Me a Mentsch, The Gates of Jerusalem, and a program on Peace.

Our groups span the Jewish spectrum: The Young Judaea Year Course commissioned Kol HaOt to create a semester-long program focused on Jewish art in Israel – one that involved multiple encounters with local Jerusalem artists, as well as hands-on, interactive projects. Yeshiva University brought a talented group of undergraduates who wanted to weave the arts more deeply into Jewish education. We have worked with a jointly-sponsored HUC-JTS group of early childhood educators who were seeking ways to expand their artistic repertoire in the classroom.

We have identified performing arts productions that incorporate Jewish ideals into their shows, and invite these talented individuals to our magical theater, located near Emek Refaim St. in Jerusalem’s German Colony. We have hosted Rebecca Joy Fletcher, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumna, who performed her riveting “Cities of Light” one-woman show; as well as current Wexner fellow Jessica Kate Meyer, who moved the audience with her musical interpretation of piyutim. In addition, Kol HaOt is now exporting some remarkable programs to North America. This past year, David Moss and I had the privilege of leading a week-long artists-in-residence at The Golda Och Academy in New Jersey. We helped students address some of the challenges of their tefilla experience in creative and artistic ways.

Most significantly, this past year Kol HaOt received its first gift from a major North American Federation – the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles – to work with students, synagogues, Federation professionals, and lay leaders on their trips to Israel. Additionally, the LA Federation has challenged KHO to work with one of its Israeli partner organizations, so we can expand our base and approach in Israel as well. We were also deeply honored to be part of the First Jerusalem Biennale of Contemporary Jewish Art, which took place recently during Chol HaMoed Sukkot, conducting an interactive ‘Text to Symbol’ program, gallery tours, and an absorbing panel discussion with leading Jewish artists.

It has been an amazing and inspirational journey to harness the arts as a vehicle to transform Jewish education and its educators. How can you get involved? We are always seeking new talent, partnerships, and supporters. If you are headed to Jerusalem for the upcoming General Assembly - Jewish Federations of North America, be sure to come by Kol HaOt at booth #2, to learn how Kol HaOt can inspire your organization via the arts. Visit Kol HaOt at www.kolhaot.com to see our full range of offerings, or contact us at info@kolhaot.com to discuss how you can be involved in furthering the magic of the arts in Jewish education.

Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum, is the Director of Israel Programs for The Jewish Theological Seminary of America and co-founder of Kol Ha-Ot, a new Jerusalem-based venture devoted to exploring the arts and Jewish learning.  For ten years (1999-2009), Matt served as the JTS Senior Rabbinic Fellow, organizing substantive adult learning throughout Florida and beyond.  He is a member of The Wexner Heritage Program Faculty and has taught the Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, and Phoenix groups.  Rabbi Berkowitz resides in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem and can be reached at maberkowitz@jtsa.edu.