In this minyan, students use art as a medium for exploring and more deeply engaging with tefillah. Students study the themes of traditional Jewish prayers and create original works of art through which students can express their own feelings and ideas on these themes, using their art as an extension of their tefillah.
Minyan presents one of the greatest challenges in Jewish day school education. Teachers often experience frustration trying to engage students in traditional forms of tefillah. Students often exhibit little interest in repeating long Hebrew prayers that they don’t connect to and largely don’t understand day after day.
I created Frankel Jewish Academy’s Art & Tefillah Minyan in the spring of 2016 to provide an alternative space for students to engage in a personal and meaningful way with the prayers in the siddur using the medium of art. In this minyan, students study the traditional prayers in the siddur and then make original art that expresses their own ideas and reactions to the themes of the prayer.
My goals in creating this minyan were to help students:
- Think more deeply about the meaning of the prayers in the siddur;
- Find personal relevance in these prayers;
- Express their inner spiritual and emotional experiences;
- Develop an appreciation of traditional and contemporary Jewish artistic traditions;
- Grow as artists.
FJA’s minyan program consists of Egalitarian and Mechitza minyanim that do full, traditional services, as well as a range of alternative minyan options, of which Art & Tefillah is one. Ninth graders who do not choose to participate in the Egalitarian or Mechitza minyanim attend special 9th grade learners minyanim. Eighteen students from grades 10-12 have chosen to participate in the Art & Tefillah Minyan on a semesterly basis since its inception.
The Art & Tefillah Minyan meets for 40 minutes, four mornings a week. During the first ten minutes of minyan, students recite the Shema and have silent time for davening the Amidah or engaging in silent prayer or reflection. Boys are required to put on tallis and tefillin. During the remaining 30 minutes, students in engage in art.
Each unit is built around one prayer (or set of prayers) and a particular artistic medium that will be used to explore that prayer. The steps of each unit include:
1) Teaching students the art form.
2) Exploring the prayer.
3) Creating original art.
Here are several sample units that demonstrate the methodology I have used with this minyan.
Micrography (Spring 2016)
For our first project, students explored the two berachot before the Shema in the weekday morning service using the medium of micrography. Micrography is the art of making art out of tiny words. Here’s how I structured the unit:
- First, I gave students an introduction to the history of micrography, showing them examples of work from its roots in ancient China through its adoption as a traditional Jewish folks art in the Middle Ages up to its revival in post-Holocaust American and Israeli Jewish art, including a piece of my own work (“Keren”). Here is the PowerPoint I used.
- After introducing them to the art, I then taught my students how to do micrography. I chose to start the semester with this art form because it is very easy to learn, creating a low barrier to entry for those students who might not have well-developed artistic skills. Students did a practice design using the first few verses of Bereshit.
- The next day, we spent the class studying the text of the two blessings. Working with a partner, students read through the prayers and identified the specific themes that the rabbis included in these blessings. As a class, students shared their personal reactions to these prayers. Here is the worksheet.
- Before working on their own projects, we spent a period looking at examples of contemporary paintings that deal with the themes of light, love and creation – the major themes of the blessings the students worked with. This exercise aimed to stimulate students’ minds about a broader range of images, colors and ideas associated with these themes as they set to work designing their own art. After discussing these pieces, students began gathering their own thoughts on the Project Design Worksheet. Then they set off to create their own original art. Here are the art pieces we looked at and the Project Design Worksheet.
- Students spent a number of minyan periods creating their own art. After finishing the art itself, each student wrote a paragraph explaining the image they had created and how it related back to the themes of the prayer they had studied.
- Finally, students hung their artwork and write-ups on the walls of the school.
Here are several examples of students’ artwork on the themes from the berachot before the Shema.
Here are examples of students’ artwork from a micrography project focusing on Kabbalat Shabbat. (Fall 2016)
Jewish Paper Cutting (Spring 2016)
For this project, students explored the theme of Geulah/Redemption in the berachah linking the Shema and Amidah in the morning service using the medium of paper cutting. The unit followed the same structure as the micrography unit described above. Here are the materials:
Here are the tools students used for the project.
Here are examples of students’ artwork:
This piece depicts the parting of the Red Sea. The girl who did this piece never thought of herself as an artist. All of her pursuits at the school were focused on math and sciences. She was surprised to discover that she is extremely talented with an Xacto knife and took great pride in what she created.
Teshuva – Mixed Media (Fall 2016)
When God commanded Noah to build an ark to save him and his family from the Flood, God said:
וְכָפַרְתָּ אֹתָהּ מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ בַּכֹּפֶר
“You should cover it inside and out with tar.” (Genesis 6:14) – the tar serving to make the ark waterproof. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, noted that the verb for “to cover” – וְכָפַרְתָּ – shares the same Hebrew root as the name Yom Kippur, suggesting that the spiritual work of teshuva – repentance – is not so much ridding ourselves of our sins as painting over them, incorporating them into ourselves and repurposing them for some beautiful and productive purpose.
In this project, students physically enacted this process of teshuva. By collecting detritus from the forest floor that nature had cast off to decay, painting over it and repurposing it into images of renewal, rebirth, return (teshuva), students have modeled with leaves, sticks, bark, canvas and paint the spiritual work going on in our souls during this annual period of teshuva.
Here are examples of students’ artwork and the write-ups explaining their art.
Repentance is making up for your sins, or in other words renewing ourselves. Our class decided to renew the life of fallen leaves and rotting wood and turn them into beautiful pieces of art. The large leaf represents a life and its impact on the world and people around it. The roots show the values and goals which hold that leaf together. My piece relates to repentance because the leaf/person’s actions reflect upon its surrounding. Unfortunately, these actions can sometimes be negative. This results in the yearly need for repentance.
My piece represents teshuva through the use of dead leaves that I painted and turned into art. The fire symbolizes renewal and the new beginnings that come with teshuva. It represents both the destruction of the past year’s sins and the new beginning that comes with the new year.
My image is very dark and foreboding. It looks at the negative side of teshuva, where you feel the pressure of heat and expectation and it’s incredibly difficult to continue, but you keep reaching. It is a depiction of hope in the face of trouble.
Over the four semesters of its existence, the Art & Tefillah Minyan has achieved a number of important outcomes:
1. Connection to the Texts
Through their artwork and write-ups, students have shown that they have thought deeply about what the ideas in our prayers actually mean. They may or may not be intimately familiar with all of the Hebrew language of these prayers – that is not the goal of this minyan – but they have thought deeply about what redemption and love mean, and, more importantly, what these ideas mean to them.
2. Emotional Expression
Through their work, students have used their art to access their emotions and give expression to their inner thoughts. In addition to the examples above, I was very touched by this piece a student created on the theme of Redemption, attesting to the anxiety many of our students feel during their high school years.
3. Therapeutic Value
A month after the minyan first began, the school social work reported that the minyan has had significant therapeutic value for some of our students. She specifically mentioned two girls who suffered greatly from anxiety who had stopped by her office every morning at the beginning of minyan to help them calm down. After spending a few weeks in the Art & Tefillah Minyan, they stopped coming to her office and reported to her that the process of creating art calmed them down sufficiently that they no longer needed her help.
4. Positive Minyan Experience
Students who attend the Art & Tefillah Minyan leave having a positive minyan experience. Many of these students had previously disliked minyan and had bad associations with minyan. While this minyan is not designed to transform students who dislike traditional davening into students who will choose traditional davening on their own – that is a much larger issue – it usually leaves students with a positive feeling for the time they spend in minyan. Indeed, a number of students have commented to me that they missed coming to minyan on days when they were out sick, or that minyan was their favorite part of the day.
5. Growth as Artists
During their time in the minyan, many students have grown as artists. Some have come into the minyan with artistic ability and have learned new skills and explored new themes. Others have come in with no previous artistic background and have discovered talents that they did not know they had. As students spend more time in the minyan, they have taken ownership over the skills they have learned by transferring skills from one unit to the next (e.g. combining paper cutting and micrography) and freely using the range of different supplies and media available to them in our room.
In the spring of 2017, the Art & Tefillah Minyan was commissioned by a local rabbi to create original art for a new siddur he was creating for the Tikvah special needs program at Camp Ramah Canada. This partnership yielded a beautiful, full-color siddur that will enrich the spiritual life of campers with special needs at Camp Ramah and students at many other Jewish educational institutions who will eventually use this siddur. Here is the draft of the siddur incorporating students’ original artwork that was used at Camp Ramah Canada in the summer of 2017
In the fall of 2017, following a year and a half of success with the Art & Tefillah Minyan, I created an additional full-scale Jewish Text & Art class to build on the minyan’s success. In this senior elective, students delve deep into the study of Jewish art and create original works that respond to Biblical and rabbinic texts that they study. During its first semester, students have been studying medieval illuminated manuscripts and creating their own original illuminations. Here are several examples:
The Art & Tefillah Minyan has had a significant effect on the Frankel Jewish Academy, creating positive minyan experiences while raising a cadre of newly-inspired Jewish artists whose work has beautified the school. The methodology of this minyan can easily be replicated in other schools, whether as an alternative minyan, as a supplement to traditional minyanim, or as a means of more deeply exploring Jewish texts in other Jewish studies classes.
I have already begun the process of trying to share and spread these ideas to other schools. In the Fall 2017 issue of Jewish Educational Leadership, I published an article about the minyan. This article sought to give Jewish educators an overview of the structure, goals and accomplishments of the minyan to help them think about how they might apply these ideas in their school.
In November 2017, I presented a hands-on workshop at the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators’ conference “Cultivating the Whole Child Through a Jewish Lens”. In this workshop, I introduced nine educators from half a dozen different schools to the minyan and took them hands-on through an entire unit, creating original micrography on the theme of Shabbat. All of the educators left the workshop excited to bring back what they had learned to their schools and classrooms.
Rabbi Peter Stein serves as Chair of the Bible Department at the Frankel Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit where he teaches Bible, Personal Theology and Jewish Text & Art, and leads the school's Art & Tefillah Minyan. He earned Rabbinic Ordination and an M.A. in Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a B.A. in Urban Studies at Yale. In 2016, Pete was awarded the Grinspoon Award for Excellence in Jewish Education for MetroDetroit. In his spare time, Pete works in a variety of artistic media including painting, quilting and paper cutting.