A trio of Jewish educators huddled around a computer one morning this past summer, Googling images of Star Wars characters and pasting them into iMovie, Apple’s user-friendly filmmaking program.
“Do we want Young Luke?” Dayna Gershon asked her fellow filmmakers, all of them students in the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education, who were spending the day learning at the foot of Jewish educator-artist, animator, filmmaker and New York City public school teacher Hanan Harchol.
Within a couple of hours, Gershon and her colleagues were ready to debut their effort: a 2-minute film starring Han Solo, Rey, Princess Leia and Luke, and exploring the ideas behind Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah.
“This makes everything so much more alive,” said Gershon, who directs formal and informal education at a religious school, as she marveled at her foray into text-based cinematography. “If it’s not relevant and doesn’t speak to [our students] individually, it’s not going to leave the room. What we want to figure out is, ‘How do we leave the room with them?’”
Harchol’s workshop was one of the first fruits of an effort by Dr. Miriam Heller Stern, the National Director of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in Los Angeles, to incorporate the arts — and creativity, more broadly — into HUC’s collection of graduate programs.
“The goal is for the arts to cease to be a side show in Jewish education,” Stern said. “We want them to be more integrated into the whole world of teaching and learning, and have a more central presence in the enterprise of Jewish education.”
“Often arts are brought in as entertainment, or they’re brought in as an experimental component, but they’re on the sidelines of the curriculum, they’re on the sidelines of the conferences. They’re perceived as something lighter, when in fact what they offer is much deeper, because of the variety of meaning that they unlock.”
Particularly in the world of traditional Hebrew schools, Stern said, there is “a real thirst for new pedagogy, for new models of engagement, for new methods of learning.”
“We are utilizing the arts to stretch people, to give them opportunities for deeper reflection, to learn to take risks,” Stern continued. “I want the graduates of all of our programs to be able to introduce their learners to a multi-vocal, multi-lingual Jewish experience, where they can learn to navigate their values not just with books and words.”
Stern’s effort began last year with the executive M.A. program, a two and a half-year course designed for mid-career educators who have at least five years of experience in Jewish educational leadership, and who want to take their work and communities to the next level.
Dr. Lesley Litman, who directs the executive M.A. program, said the infusion of meaningful arts programming made perfect sense.
“You don’t study a text and then go ‘do some art;’ it’s through the actual creative process that you come to understand the text more deeply,” Litman said. “What we really want to do is open up important life questions, and use Jewish texts and Jewish perspectives to show that Judaism is a way that we can walk through our world.”
Harchol, who is also a professional classical guitarist and currently at work on a live-action feature film about his experiences teaching high school, is well-known among Jewish educators for creating an animated series, “Jewish Food For Thought” (supported by The Covenant Foundation). The series explores themes such as envy, faith and chesed (kindness), through fictionalized conversations between sketched-out versions of himself (Harchol was born in Israel and moved to the United States when he was two) and his parents, who raised Hanan as a non-observant Jew but retained the religious values and worldview with which they had been raised.
Harchol watched eagerly as the executive M.A. students pored through Sefaria deciding which texts to base their films on, debated plot lines and muddled through the new technology.
“You don’t want to have a story that has one right answer,” he reminded them. “It should be something where at the end, the viewer is left feeling torn. When people are continuing to think about that argument, that’s Torah study.”
“When the final videos were shown, even the newly minted filmmakers seemed surprised by what they had created.
“I never expected there would be something this well-produced,” Harchol exclaimed of a film in which expertly sketched stick figures (one of the educators, it turned out, was a talented artist) debated the significance of having, and violating, boundaries.
“This could lead to a wonderful discussion,” Harchol enthused. “This leaves me wanting to engage in a Talmudic discussion.”
The educators left the workshop intrigued by the prospect of bringing iMovie back home. “When we teach, we’re always trying to think about ways to bring the text into today,” said Stacy Shapiro, who coordinates youth programming at a Westchester County temple. “This makes it so relatable on so many levels.”
There was also some hesitation; one educator acknowledged the “anxiety producing” nature of navigating new technology, and the implementation challenges she expected to face. “My concern is, ‘Who’s going to do it?’” she wondered.
Stern said she fully understands that there will be a certain amount of trepidation as graduate students tread into territory that may feel uncomfortable now, even if it was second nature earlier in their lives. She saw this first-hand in September, when School of Education faculty and administrators gathered for a workshop with the paper-cutting artist Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik, as part of a two-day national faculty retreat.
“For some it’s a stretch outside their comfort zone, but we are practicing what we preach,” Stern said. “Even our veteran faculty are rolling up their sleeves and being creative together, as a way to change the culture of what graduate school looks and feels like.”
As part of the workshop with Brynjegard-Bialik, leading faculty members and administrators sat around folding tables strewn with Exacto knives, watercolor paper and comic book pages, producing papercuts exploring Jewish themes of change and new beginnings.
It was a powerful way to prepare for two days of visioning the future of Jewish education, and how creativity might play a role.
“It was a way for everyone to connect where they were in that moment to where we want to go with the institution,” Stern said. “The range of metaphors was really interesting… The arts can provide additional languages when words fail us.”