Rabbi Adina Allen and Jeff Kasowitz co-founded the Jewish Studio Project (JSP) in 2015. However, they incubated ideas for JSP and laid the spiritual foundation for the organization from 2008 to 2014. At the time, Allen was a rabbinical student at Hebrew College and Kasowitz worked for City Year in Boston.
The couple initially experimented with merging beit midrash, or communal learning practices, with what would become the organization’s signature “studio process.” The process combines art therapy practices as developed by Allen’s mother, Pat, an expert in the field, with Jewish text-based learning. The overarching goal was to form a spiritual community where everyone’s creativity comes to the surface in a supportive and safe environment.
Allen, who serves as JSP’s creative director, and Kasowitz its executive director, described Boston as their “training ground.” The two fondly recalled living in Jamaica Plain in a house with a big red barn in the backyard where they hosted creative evenings, salons, song sessions and other communal events. The organization is now based in Berkeley, California, where the couple lives with their two children.
They recently spoke with JewishBoston about the Jewish, spiritual and theological aspects of creativity and how they can be deployed in this High Holiday season.
Your mission statement is intriguing: “Through a unique methodology (the Jewish Studio Process) that combines creative practices from the field of art therapy with Jewish learning techniques and spiritual community building, JSP helps people to cultivate curiosity, navigate uncertainty, sit with discomfort, and process complexity so that right action can emerge.” How does that reflect what you do at JSP?
Rabbi Adina Allen: The “Jewish Studio Process” is a methodology adopted from a process that came through my mom, Pat Allen, who’s a pioneer in the field of art therapy. She has written a number of books, one of which is a foundational book of art therapy called “Art Is a Way of Knowing: A Guide to Self-Knowledge and Spiritual Fulfillment Through Creativity,” and taught at the Art Institute in Chicago for 25 years. She started a nonprofit and community studio called the Open Studio Project. Note the similarities of the name.
And so this methodology first came through her and what she was doing with her cause, called the “Open Studio Process,” which is a methodology that addresses the foundational question of JSP: “Have you made art about it yet?” Then there is the foundational question of this process: “What is it that you need to explore, unpack, go into, process, surface?” That forms your intention, the first part of the process of, “What is it that you’re seeking to do?”
We’ve brought it into the Jewish community as the Jewish Studio Process and added on the beit midrash component, this textual inquiry component, which drops us into wisdom that has come before us and allows us to use Torah as a mirror to see what’s being reflected to us today as we looked at the text. Both of these are creative processes: The method of textual inquiry of beit midrash that we’ve inherited from our ancestors and this creative process method build our ability to be with uncertainty, both the uncertainty of, “What does the text mean?” There’s no right answer. The text is inherently multi-focal and multi-valent and is designed that way, so there is no clear right answer. And it’s the same in creative process—the ambiguity of what this thing will turn into and what’s coming out on the page.
How can people participate in the Jewish Studio Project?
Jeff Kasowitz: We are based in Berkeley, California, and we have a studio there that serves as our national headquarters, our R&D lab and our demonstration site. We’re a national and international organization that has grown through virtual programming, especially in the last year-and-a-half of the pandemic. We have 230 alumni of our studio immersive program, which used to be a five-day deep dive intensive in Berkeley for people from all over the world and is now a six-hour Sunday. We call it the Sunday Studio Immersive and it’s a virtual experience for the pandemic times.
We have a creative facilitator training, where we’re training people from all over the country to bring this work and be able to facilitate the process for their communities. We have several public programs. One that Adina leads is called “Have You Made Art About It Yet?,” a monthly core methodology practice within our spiritual community. And we have a professional development practice too. Organizations from all over hire us to work with their fellowship cohorts, networks, teams and boards to activate their creativity in service of team-building or working on a particular issue or theme that is important to them.
I imagine that when facilitating one of these programs in person, you brought paintbrushes, canvas and paper so people could do hands-on creating.
Allen: Before the pandemic, we were flying around the country and setting up studios in non-studio-like places, like Marriott hotel rooms, where we had to tarp the floors and walls and bring the paints. There was a special magic to transforming these places that were mundane or corporate into beautiful, messy, vibrant, wild spaces. But we’ve also brought this programming through virtual and certain facilitation practices to transform the mundaneness of a Zoom screen into a deep and spiritual space.
Do you offer High Holiday services?
Kasowitz: We have an organic and wonderful partnership with the Berkeley High Holy Day community and the JCC. We’ve brought on the JSP people, and it’s this amazing mix of folks. Music is a huge part of the service in helping to open and soften people to receive the messages and the hard truths and challenges of these Days of Awe. It’s also an opportunity for us to hone and deliver the theology of Jewish Studio Project through this more traditional mode. We offer a high-quality audio and visual livestream from Berkeley. We have people from all over joining us, and it’s great.
What’s the JSP theology you deliver through the High Holiday services?
Allen: We have five foundational Jewish texts on the walls of the studio that guide and underlay all of what we do. One of them is “chaos and void.” Creation comes from chaos and void. We look at God’s creative process in shaping the world in Genesis, and there is chaos, void, darkness, water, wind and the depths—those are the elements that existed before creation. God as an artisan and as a creator works with what was on hand with those materials to create. We see ourselves as humans made in the image of the Divine, and that is an invitation to all of us not to avoid or shun or push away those elements within our own lives. It’s an opportunity to embrace, honor, befriend and work with the chaos, void, darkness, water, winds and the depths as they exist within our society and within each of our selves. We see those things as raw materials for our creative process.
How does JSP encourage the creative process?
Kasowitz: One of the prompts we use when we start a creative process is making marks on the page. We don’t know how to move forward; it feels daunting or scary. Sometimes people feel shame or something like that. Our process allows you to choose a color, make a mark on the page and then make the next mark. What you’re doing is enacting movement and moving forward.
How can people cultivate their curiosity without fear of judgment?
Allen: One of the most beautiful things about this creative process is how it allows us to be in community with one another. There are many valuable ways to be in community, but we don’t have enough opportunities or support to parallel play. Sometimes in a prayer service, you can feel that parallel play where everyone’s in their own space davening. You’re alongside one another. In many ways, this creative process is a type of prayer and offers that space where it’s valuable to talk and interact. However, sometimes we need to be near other human beings and to know we’re sharing energy by being in a space together working on our stuff. We don’t have to talk about it or explain it to each other. We can just be human.
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