Placing the Arts at the Center

by Yishai Ashkenazi

I have been very fortunate to be working for the past 12 months for an Israeli NGO called AMI-Neshima. Our organization uses music and the arts to empower, educate and inspire young Jewish teenagers and adults and we have successfully developed a curriculum designed for schools, pre-army institutes and centers for youth-at-risk.

Although one might assume that our teaching approach is only related to extra-curricular programming and not appropriate for inclusion in the core curriculum, I would like to demonstrate the importance of music and arts – and the challenges associated with them – and why they should be an essential part of today’s educational system.

In 1999, the Shenhar Committee tendered a set of recommendations for the Israeli government which later became known as “Tarbut Yisrael” – Israeli Culture. This became a new school subject for all children in Israel between the 5th and 9th grades. Many organizations immediately started developing a curriculum to teach this “new subject”. However, in speaking with many of the school principals and teachers throughout the country who have included “Israeli Culture” into their curriculum, it became increasingly apparent that they all seem to face the same challenges of finding the magical way to instill emotion into the sessions and to personally engage their students with these tools. This is where the AMI-Neshima program stepped in and started providing teachers and students with a teaching tool to engage the students via the medium of music and the arts. Our educators are well-equipped to inspire and educate students to deal with topics such as Shabbat and our myriad of Festivals, sprinkled with the message of our core Jewish values. Schools have been inviting us for five consecutive years, and we are proud to report consistently outstanding reviews from our participants, students and funders alike.

There is the story of Yohav, who grew up in a classic middle-class family in Israel. During his teenage years, Yohav started taking an interest in the lives of rock stars. His new love for music became an integral part of his life. Yohav started losing interest in the topics taught in the classroom and is one of many talented Israeli teenagers who fast become dropouts from the school system. Luckily, Yohav’s principal understood the importance and impact that music and art can have on his students and invited AMI-Neshima’s artist workshop series to his school. The principle noted that AMI’s staff was engaging participants with workshops that revolved around the concepts of order, discipline and respecting one’s friends, while using art and music as a vehicle for them to express themselves. It fast became apparent that the only class which was important to Yohav was his weekly meeting with the artists, but after time, he also slowly learned to re-engage with his other classes.

Yohav’s story exemplifies how a topic like arts and music, which parents often view as marginal or as an after-school, extra-curricular activity to take place at a local Community Council or privately, can and should become a central force for teaching students core values and creativity. We must ask ourselves as educators, social investors, parents and philanthropists whether we are addressing the challenges with which our students are struggling. What are the challenges of tomorrow that we need to address? Our kids of today are more sophisticated and talented. If we don’t challenge them now, we are in danger of losing them to other threats lurking in the shadows of our society which all-too-quickly turns to deviant behavior patterns. Our education system is craving for new and innovative teaching models that combine knowledge with creativity.

AMI-Neshima exemplifies a model of how to step-up to the urgent challenge of engaging our kids, providing them with tools to create a bridge between their world that speaks to them to the world of creativity, knowledge and Jewish culture. It is in this way that AMI-Neshima is establishing itself amongst Israeli philanthropies.

Yishai Ashkenazi is a graduate of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program and CEO of AMI Neshima.