Exploring Art, Revealing Torah

DSC02281by Abigail Pickus

While teaching at a Jewish school in Seattle during a four-year stint in the States, the London born and bred Nic Abery had an “aha” moment. For the first time, she experienced true collaboration between the secular and Judaic studies faculty.

“In England, Judaic and secular studies are taught very separately. Sometimes the faculty even have separate staff rooms so they really don’t interact,” said Abery, a longtime educator with a museum background. “I felt that this is a massive injustice because our end goal for students should be to live holistically so that they see their Judaism and secular lives as part of a cohesive whole.”

And so LooktoLearn was born.

Abery, 38, who is back in the UK, launched this unique educational platform in 2009 that combines religious and secular studies though the exploration of museum art and objects.

“What we do is find ways that we can bring learning together without being contrived. Historical objects and art are a great platform to do that through,” she said.

What this means is that places like the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Natural History Museum are Abery’s “classrooms,” giving Jewish students a chance to connect with their heritage in a new way.

Take a 9th grade trip that brought 60 students to the Natural History Museum as part of a lesson on creation and evolution that was run jointly by the science and Jewish faculties.

Or what about the 15 different sessions Abery will run over the next three weeks on ancient Egypt in connection with Passover? (“I’m Pesached out by the time I get to Pesach!” she quipped.) Part of this lesson includes standing in front of a case of mummies as a way to better understand our patriarchs Jacob and Joseph.

If you’re scratching your head about now, Abery kindly refers you to Genesis 50, which relays how Joseph had his father, Jacob, embalmed and then transported back to Israel.

“This was the greatest honor one could bestow upon one’s parents at the time,” said Abery of the practice that was not only expensive and therefore for the elite, it was an integral part of Egyptian culture.

“Our patriarchal role models from the Torah were deeply steeped in ancient civilization and culture,” said Abery.

Indeed, after his own death, the Egyptian people embalmed Joseph as befitted his high status in society. They also gave him a state funeral.

“The whole idea of the Pesach story is we are supposed to feel as if we, ourselves, left Egypt. Aside from slavery, part of this is understanding the civilization and lifestyle in which the Jews lived,” said Abery.

In this context, museum art and objects can be an entryway to understanding Judaism in a broader, more expansive way – or as Abery puts it, to “bringing that learning into a cohesive whole.”

Abery herself is a product of Jewish education, having gone to Jewish schools in London before attending Cambridge, where she earned a degree in education with a focus on art and the history of art. Married with two sons, ages 8 and 5, she has worked both as a teacher and at art museums. (“The museum component has been a constant throughout my life,” she said.) In 2010, she was a Global Fellow of PresenTense, an organization that fosters “the next generation of social entrepreneurs by helping innovators and entrepreneurs build new ideas into transformational ventures.”

The fellowship, which involved relocating her family to Israel for the summer, was pivotal for Abery.

“It was there that I transitioned from being a teacher into being a business woman. I was able to vision where I wanted to go.”

Today, LooktoLearn works with 20 Jewish day schools in London and its provinces, from pluralistic to modern Orthodox.

Beyond museum tours that Abery also runs for Sunday schools and family and adult education, her organization’s scope includes teacher training, curriculum development (“I work alongside schools to create more fused opportunities,” she said), and educational consultancy, such as running special projects and enrichment programs for schools.

Recently, Abery hired an associate to work with her as LooktoLearn grows.

“I would like to expand our reach to include more traditional Jewish schools and even to expand outside the Jewish community,” said Abery. “Faith based schools have been given very negative press recently and the quality of religious education needs work in general. Kids are not coming out with a real understanding of each other. This model is not exclusive to the Jewish community. It can transfer very easily to other faith groups.”

She also has her sights set on an international market, hoping to expand to other parts of Europe and to South Africa for starters.

“LooktoLearn’s tagline is ‘Exploring Art, Revealing Torah,” which really sums up this experience. We invite more explorers to join us on this journey,” Abery said.