Recently Temple Sinai’s religious school was invited by CJP’s Jewish Learning Connections to take part in an innovative, arts-based, Jewish learning program. Thanks to this initiative, our fifth-graders experienced the power of Jewish learning and the arts, while exploring their own creativity.
Early in the process, we were paired with CJP consultant, local artist and community muralist Tova Speter. First the teachers and I met extensively with Tova to begin formulating ideas. In Grade Five, students study the ancient prophets and the Jewish values they embodied. Together as a class we decided to bring these values to life by creating artistic panels to adorn the corridors of our soon-to-be renovated religious school building. Key to this process was creating a dedicated time for reflection for the students.
As a group, we brainstormed a list of 10 Jewish values that play an important role in our lives. Students were asked to discuss them at home with their families. Afterwards, they returned to class ready to engage in a lively debate about the importance of the different values. Eventually, the class took a vote and selected their four favorites to focus on for their project. They were as follows:
- Emunah – Faith
- Ahavat Ger – Love the Stranger
- Ba’al Tashchit – Do Not Waste or Destroy
- Rodef Shalom – Pursue Peace
The students were divided into four groups—each group representing one of these key values. For weeks, students grappled with text by exploring the narratives of key figures such as Amos, Isaiah and Hannah. In addition, we invited speakers from Tzedek@Sinai, our congregation’s social justice community, to come speak with the fifth-graders about their work, and how they live their Jewish values every day. Together we learned how our congregants are involved in refugee/immigration work, environmental initiatives, interfaith connections, and general social justice advocacy.
Once the students had a deeper understanding of the text, they began mapping out their ideas. Our young artists, along with several teenage helpers, gathered in the social hall to sketch and then paint four six-foot long panels. It was rewarding watching everyone work together to bring their amazing ideas to life. Students who were generally quiet came alive to express their creativity. They continually stopped their work to present ideas, give feedback to each other, and share their learnings.
On the last day of religious school, parents were invited for an art exhibit and mural dedication. With the music of Chopin playing in the background, families enjoyed a snack of sparkling grape juice, crackers, cheese and fruit. Each group had an opportunity to read their artists’ statements aloud and answer questions about their individual panels. The students shared their statements with pride, and impressed us all with their artistic interpretations of their learning.
Some excerpts included:
Emunah – Faith
“…We incorporated footprints into the mural to represent the time when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights March in 1965. Rabbi Heschel called his actions that day ‘praying with our feet.’ Everyone that day showed emunah that their actions would lead to equal rights for all. To show that we too can display emunah or faith through our actions, we used our own feet to create the footprints on the borders….”
Ahavat Ger – Love the Stranger
“…We chose to paint a strong brick wall, which is usually used to keep strangers out, and added big open, inviting doors; symbolizing openness to letting strangers in. Inside the open doors is an example of ahavat ger from the past. We painted the story from the Torah, of Rivka (Rebecca) giving water to the stranger Eliezer and his camels. The sages teach us that her act of ahavat ger is how Eliezer knew she would be the right wife for Isaac and worthy of becoming a foremother of the Jewish people. Outside of the open doors is an example of ahavat ger from modern times. The silhouettes represent people protesting against anti-immigrant policies….”
Ba’al Taschit –
Do Not Waste or Destroy
“…We painted a big date palm on the mural to represent a beautiful quote in the Talmud about not wasting…: ‘Israel is like the date palm, of which none is wasted: its dates are for eating, its lulavim are for blessing, its fronds are for thatching, its fibers are for ropes…its thick trunks for building…so it is with Israel, which contains no waste.’”
Rodef Shalom – Pursue Peace
“…In the book of Nevi’im (Prophets), the prophet Isaiah said many famous quotes about rodef shalom. In Isaiah 11:6-8 it says: “The lion shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid….” In other words, animals of prey and their prey, will become friends and live together peacefully. This is why we made the sun into a lion and our clouds into lambs. These two animals can usually not coexist, however, Isaiah dreams of a day when they will. Since the sun and clouds work together, we represented both animals as peaceful friends.…”
This educational experience has been transformative for all involved. We look forward to seeing these gorgeous panels on display in our newly renovated religious school!
Heidi Smith Hyde is the Director of Education at Temple Sinai in Brookline.