ARTICLERevitalizing Jewish Life Through the Arts

When we think of Los Angeles, we think of art. After all, who doesn’t know of the iconic Hollywood sign in L.A.’s Hollywood Hills? Who hasn’t heard of the great film studios and the storied venues where musicians, visual artists, vocalists, dancers and so many others come to take a chance on their dreams?

Think of Los Angeles again. Only this time use a Jewish lens. Now, you probably envision a community rich in its Jewish practice, culture and diversity, third only to New York and Chicago in terms of Jewish population; and a world-class center of Jewish education, to boot.

With so many of L.A.’s Jewish artists working as part-time teachers in synagogue religious schools, leading choruses, helping tutor b’nai mitzvot or offering art classes to senior citizens, Miriam Heller Stern, Dean of American Jewish University’s Graduate Center of Education, began asking questions:

What if instead of standing on the margins of Jewish education, artists took center stage?

Why not connect the artists who are Jewish, with religious school curriculum?

What if arts could become the conduit through which Jewish Education is taught?

“What’s unique about the L.A. Jewish community is that it’s a very creative community. Lots of Jewish artists come here to pursue their careers in performing arts, visual arts, music or film. Over time, I started encountering many people who were working in the field of the arts and dabbling in Jewish education. They’d give theater workshops or do week-long residencies at a camp. But that’s what they were doing on the side. As Jewish educators, they operated in a marginal space. But they were offering a rich way of engaging with Jewish content; I thought maybe I could merge my professional passion for the arts with Jewish education.”

The result? Dream Lab.

Initially funded by a Covenant Foundation Ignition Grant in 2014 to convene a think tank and then later supported by an L.A. Jewish Federation grant to launch a teaching fellowship, Dream Lab is a strategic initiative aimed at infusing the field of Jewish education with creativity.

With a year-long teaching fellowship at the Graduate Center for Jewish Education at American Jewish University at its core, Dream Lab exists for professional artists and creatives who wish to deepen and expand their practice as Jewish educators. Last October, 30 creative practitioners from Northern and Southern California convened to talk about creative practice as educators and meet with Dream Lab’s seven fellows.

And now, just two years since its inception, Dream Lab has received another grant from the Covenant Foundation, which will allow Jewish artists and educators across the disciplines to develop and share new teaching methodologies and provide each other with valuable professional feedback and support.

“By mobilizing diverse Jewish talent,” said Stern, “our aim is to provide a meeting ground for a new movement toward creative Jewish education, grounded in research and theory from the disciplines of art education, philosophy, psychology and curriculum development.”  

In September of 2015, seven artists began the first year-long Dream Lab fellowship. Their goal “is to explore how to redefine the form and function of a Jewish education as a facilitator of creativity, interpretation and personal Jewish expression.”

Learning from the collective pedagogies of the different guest teaching artists, the seven fellows have since been studying how to implement the fusion of greater creativity, artistry and expression into Jewish education. During their monthly meetings, they study Jewish texts and ideas and discuss pedagogical assessments and human development with the goal of “incubating new creative methodologies of facilitating learning through creative processes,” Stern explained.

She describes Dream Lab as part “pedagogy test kitchen” and part “Inside the Actor’s Studio” in which the Dream Lab Fellows will learn to teach Judaics through the arts.

“What we call teaching artists, they themselves call `creative practitioners,’” said Stern. “We are expanding the definition of artist to include film makers, theater makers, writers, musicians and others. We’re playing with terminology in the field that’s useful to bring like-minded people together.”

The Dream Lab is an opportunity, said Stern, to redefine a vision of teaching Judaics through the arts.

“Our goal,” she said, “is to make the case, through our experiments, for bringing the arts to center stage in Jewish education.

Dream Lab Fellows will then co-create classroom lesson plans, courses and curricula with AJU educators to implement programs at supplementary schools, day schools, youth groups and camps.

Stern worked closely with Aaron Henne, the Artistic Director of theatre dybbuk, a Los Angeles area arts and education company whose work brings a focus to Jewish folklore, rituals and history. Henne is also one of Dream Lab’s seven fellows. He said that Dream Lab’s intent is to expand the footprint of Jewish arts as a vehicle of Jewish education.

“When people hear of arts education, they often think of it as siloed or separate from other topics,” he said. “The Dream Lab’s idea is that art modalities can be used to expose other topics. In this case, it’s Jewish learning. And it’s towards this goal of using art to teach Jewish education that Miriam envisioned.”

Stern added that the “dream” of Dream Lab was that Jewish creatives (as she calls them) have much to offer. “We should take their potential contribution as a serious opportunity to revitalize Jewish life against the landscape of a particularly creative moment in secular culture,” she added.

“There are a lot of Jewish artists who have great intentions about what they want to contribute to the Jewish world through education,” said Stern. “But they don’t know how to articulate their desired outcomes. They don’t know how to describe it and measure it, but they know what it looks like. This is our purpose, to help weave the arts into the agenda of Jewish education. We want artists to develop sophisticated students who can let their biggest questions about Judaism speak through dance, music and art.”

“Dream Lab also attempts to address the sense of profound isolation that many artists experience as freelancers in Jewish education,” Stern said. “Through Dream Lab, we cultivate a professional guild for creatives who want to deepen the impact of their educational work. When you put a group of genius artists together, that’s where you see the magic.”

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