At Oakland Hebrew Day School, Art Class is More Than Smocks and Brushes
by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz
To walk the halls of Oakland Hebrew Day School, nestled in the hills overlooking the Bay, is to be immersed in an ambitious show of Jewish artistic expression.
Here is a display – made of wire hangers, newspapers, paper bags and paint – reflecting students’ homage to Jews lost in the 1942 Vel d’Hiv roundup in Paris. Over there is an installation of colorful doll-like figurines representing the broad cross-section of modern Israeli society.
And down the corridor a bit is a mizrach collection, each beautifully stenciled with geometric form, design and personality.
Despite the student-made art consuming visitors at nearly every turn – and in the stairwells too – it’s easy to be lured into the place where this is all being generated – the first-floor art studio that is so much a center of gravity at this Modern Orthodox day school. Though relatively small, the studio looms large in the lives of the 170 students from across denominations in grades K to 8.
Here, Arts Specialist Laurie Bellet not only teaches and leads her students toward appreciation, interpretation and creation of Jewish-themed art, she is also dedicated to an environment where artwork hangs on nearly every available space, and where arts education is seamlessly connected to Judaic and general studies curricula.
“Art cannot be separate and compartmentalized from other learning,” said Bellet, who has led the arts department since 2005. “It all must be linked and layered to enhance education, knowledge, empowerment and understanding.”
The approach reflects the school’s overall philosophy and movement to break down walls.
“It is part of our mission to address the whole child,” said Rabbi Yehudah Potok, Head of School. “It is not enough for us to teach one aspect of education, but to create various entry points for our students and enable them to see crossover from one field of study to another. Science and math can link to Torah study. We are not teaching one thing here and one thing there.
“When it comes to art class, we want to integrate this into everything else going on in the school. This is a bottom-up approach. Teachers know what is available and they can find natural points of collaboration.”
Efforts to connect art with Judaic and general studies curricula are being noticed by other Jewish day schools and the Jewish philanthropic world. Other arts educators want to copy the approach, and funders are paying attention.
A new program being designed by Bellet – Artists of Jewish Heritage – has gained the support of The Covenant Foundation, which encourages innovative and trailblazing approaches within Jewish education.
The program is based on the study of Jewish artists – more famous ones such as Marc Chagall, Frida Kahlo, and Sol LeWitt, and on lesser-known ones such as Yohanan Simon and Moshe Castel – and using their lives, experiences and works as windows into the narrative of Jewish history and culture, and where possible, to link this knowledge and perspective to other areas of study.
“Too many arts education programs at stuck in the mode of crafting,” Bellet said. “There is value in making a Havdalah set or a Kiddush Cup. But is it really connecting a student viscerally or emotionally to Jewish heritage and history and emotion? We have to do more.”
On a recent afternoon in the art studio, about a dozen or so students joined to examine and discuss the works of Israeli master artists. Each student had chosen a painting to interpret and recreate on unfinished ceramic vases that would be baked in a kiln and displayed as centerpieces at an upcoming school benefit.
Fifth-grader Maytal Bach was busy recreating a colorful, whimsical painting of a shofar by American-Israeli master artist Mickie Caspi.
“We look at these paintings and we learn about the artist and their history,” she said, intricately applying color glaze to her ceramic vase. “We try to make connections to them because we are also Jewish. And in Jewish history, there was a period when these artists couldn’t produce art the way they wanted to, so we can see into their lives and their struggles and think about our own.”
Classmate Mira Kittner sat nearby, recreating a painting of the Tree of Life, also by Mickie Caspi.
“When I look at my own garden, I see trees of life all around us,” said the fifth- grader. “It reminds me of how everything goes back to Gan Eden. That was the very beginning, but it never dies out and it keeps going and never stops, just like the Jewish people.”
Support by The Covenant Foundation will allow Bellet to expand the program, acquire materials, complete a curriculum, and share it with other schools.
“Having the resources to formalize this program and curriculum is just amazing for us,” Rabbi Potok said. “It’s important that the Foundation sees the potential here, recognizes it as something really different, and sees it as a model that can be shared and duplicated elsewhere.”
In 2008, Bellet’s students in grades 6 to 8 designed an installation in honor of Nicholas Winton, the Briton who organized the rescue of 669 children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, and those he saved. The students were inspired by The Power of Good, a documentary film distributed to schools by The Covenant Foundation in cooperation with the Gelman Educational Foundation.
The project was an “evolutionary step” for the school in embracing art as an educational tool, and for student expression, Bellet said.
For their part, students creating the Israeli-inspired vases are thrilled that their creations will be going public.
“It’s so exciting that my art could be in the house of someone I don’t even know,” said Maytal Bach. “That’s pretty amazing.”