ARTICLEEmpowering Students to Cultivate their Creativity, at HUC-JIR

Beit HaYotzer/the Creativity Braintrust had not originally planned to host a public event this spring. “But we felt compelled to create some kind of vehicle to help people process their experiences of this time,” said Dr. Miriam Heller Stern, National Director of the School of Education and Associate Professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

“The Omer is a time of loss but also of rebuilding and renewing,” she said. And as it happened, this April and May, the counting collided with the COVID-19 emergency.

In the age of COVID-19, the themes of vulnerability, wandering, humility, and redemption took on new meaning, as did the need for creative thinking in the face of what the Creativity Braintrust described as an “uncharted wilderness ahead.” The digital learning series “Reclaiming Time, Self and Voice: Counting the Omer with the Creativity Braintrust,” made possible by support from The Covenant Foundation, offered a public vehicle for reflection, conversation, imaginative work, and creative response.

The program’s live Zoom sessions (which are now available as recordings) were led by Dr. Stern and the Creativity Braintrust cohort of artist-scholars—Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger, Aaron Henne, Alicia Jo Rabins, and Jon Adam Ross. They invited a public audience to draw connections between Jewish ritual and culture, art-making, and personal experience, and to partake in the artistic practices of the Creativity Braintrust members themselves. The series featured reflections on the meaning of time; storytelling and poetry-reading; musical performance; a writing workshop designed for the online audience; and a chance to “put it together”—or to capture and interweave the insights that had emerged in each session.

“It has been especially meaningful to share some of our conversations and points of learning with the public,” said Aaron Henne, “so that some immediate impact, not just for ourselves but for a larger community of learners, can be felt.”

As an academic institution with a Jewish mission, HUC-JIR’s School of Education is committed to its students’ intellectual, spiritual, and emotional development. Through what Dr. Stern calls “integrating the intellectual work with the affective work”—and empowering students to cultivate and exercise their creativity—the School of Education equips future educators to put their hearts and minds in dialogue. This dialogue will help them engage with Torah and apply its wisdom; bring Jewish perspectives to urgent questions of social justice in our time; and deepen their own capacities for empathy.

The central work of Beit HaYotzer/the Creativity Braintrust is to “catalyze” creative thinking, and a major component of the program gives HUC-JIR School of Education graduate students the opportunity to learn from the artists, who serve as guest teachers in a variety of classes. By productively disrupting the academic environment, the artists in turn offer new approaches and modes of thinking and expression to the graduate students who will become leaders across myriad Jewish educational sectors and settings.

Creative practice can also broaden strategies and vocabularies for contemplating and expressing complexity. “The role of an educator is to constantly unveil nuance,” said Dr. Stern. “It’s to challenge learners to see things from multiple perspectives so that they gain deeper understanding. We’re asking educators to develop capacities for thinking in new ways, and to challenge the people who’ll learn from them to do the same.”

Creativity Braintrust-led workshops have helped future educators to discover the creative impulses that they already feel and fulfill every day. Sessions are fueled by the artist-scholars’ own creative processes and projects. Sometimes they even feature interdisciplinary, classroom-ready resources, such as Alicia Jo Rabins’ Girls in Trouble Curriculum.

“My work as a writer, musician, performer, and independent teacher of Torah is often carried out alone,” Alicia Jo Rabins said. “To be in community with other artists who are deeply engaged with Jewish texts and traditions is a profound support. Each time we meet—virtually, for now—I feel my practice expand and my sense of connectedness increase.”

The importance of that connectedness is the foundation of another major focus of the program: to nourish and sustain the creative work of the participating artists themselves. Monthly group meetings, facilitated by Dr. Stern, are meant to foster trust and support among the Creativity Braintrust group; encourage artistic risk-taking; and carve out space for creative exchange, feedback, and constructive critique.

Aaron Henne confirmed that learning from his fellow artist-scholars, with Dr. Stern’s leadership, is of enormous benefit. “This interaction has allowed me to grow my practice, and opened me up to the possibilities for engaging with people in this challenging moment in new ways,” he said.

Our challenging moment demands that we truly listen to one another; develop new strategies for moving through the world; and have the fortitude and willingness to hold different values in tension. It asks for our resilience and our care. The learning and growth of the Creativity Braintrust—and the value of their leadership through art-making—is in many ways rooted in the needs of the present. But its emphasis on creative thinking also resonates with Jewish history, and with the imperative to build the future.

“Jewish creative thinking has been the key to diasporic survival and thriving,” said Dr. Stern. “In every era, you can point to examples—in Jewish homes, on a Jewish communal level—of Jewish creative thinking sustaining Jewish life in new ways. That practice of creative thinking has to be learned. We should be teaching it in every Jewish educational context.”

By Miriam R. Haier, for The Covenant Foundation

Miriam is the Director of Content and Strategy at Pure+Applied, a multidisciplinary design studio in New York City.

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