The Arts and Identity Formation: A Critical Tool of Experiential Jewish Education

[This is the second in a series of articles highlighting the scope of best practices in experiential Jewish education.]

by Rabbi Zachary Truboff

During World War I, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, found himself stranded in London. Throughout his time there, he would regularly visit the National Gallery, a highly unusual tourist destination for a traditional, orthodox rabbi. He was the most enamored with the works of Rembrandt. Years later, Rav Kook recalled the profound impact that the artwork had on him, “I really think that Rembrandt was a tzadik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works they reminded of the legend about the creation of light? …now and then there are great men who are privileged to see it. I think Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty (Jewish Chronicle, 1935).” This anecdote reveals how art embodies the best of experiential education. More specifically, the arts stimulate the learner in diverse ways. While traditional education typically emphasizes analytical thought, the arts often trigger our intuitive and imaginative capacities. The arts also create the possibility of an “aha” moment to be embedded within the experience, opening up the learner to broader horizons.

Even more significant for Jewish educators is the ability of the arts to shape and form identity. This reflects a central tenant of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education’s (EJE) definition of experiential education. Experiential learning is not just about learning content in new and exciting ways. Rather, at its core, experiential Jewish education is a vehicle through which educators can strengthen and impact Jewish identity. In order to understand how the arts are uniquely able to accomplish this, one must first understand how identity formation has been transformed in the modern era.

In past generations, identity was often assumed to be static and unchanging. An individual was born into an identity that was inherited from family and community. One of the great innovations of modernity was the ability for individuals to shape their own identity for themselves. Over time, an even more radical notion developed: every individual in the modern era is seen as having his or her own unique way of being. A person is thus charged to live their life their own way and not in imitation of anyone else. Contemporary philosopher, Charles Taylor, explains that this dynamic leads to a new type of identity formation that he describes as “expressivism”. One accesses his or her inner self by expressing it through speech and action. As a result of this, “artistic creation becomes the paradigm mode in which people can come to self-definition (Ethics of Authenticity, p. 62).” With the advent of modernity, art itself shifts from being thought about as imitation to being understood in terms of creation. Artistic expression therefore becomes the quintessential experience in which one can make manifest one’s true unique identity. The arts can be a transformative process for the individual artist that enhances his or her understanding of self. For Jewish educators, generating transformative learning opportunities of this level and depth is fundamental to strengthening and developing Jewish identity.

Reflecting the sentiments above, there has been an increasing awareness in the role of the arts in Jewish identity formation. Programs like LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y in New York and the Milwaukee Jewish Artists Laboratory convene Jewish artists for the purposes of studying Torah together and then using their learning to inspire their artistic creation. Sara Hurand and myself, co-founded the Cleveland Jewish Arts + Culture Lab in Cleveland, OH, a partnership of the Mandel JCC and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. Participants in the program are given the opportunity to explore their Jewish identity through artistic expression while integrating new ideas and values rooted in Jewish texts. In our inaugural year we focused on the topic of Beginnings and this year we are exploring Dreams and Visions. A major goal of the fellowship experience is the creation of a strong collaborative community of artists. As a facilitator, I am intentionally incorporating many of the EJE tools and techniques in order to shape a vibrant and supportive group dynamic. The approach of EJE is not just to be creative in how one teaches, but to be extremely sensitive of the types of communities we are creating through our teaching. A key foundation of EJE is that identity formation does not occur in a vacuum but rather in the context of community. When the participants in the fellowship feel validated by their peers and encouraged to push beyond their comfort zone, they are able to achieve both personal and artistic growth.

While not everyone may feel they have the ability to be an artist, each one of us can experience the transformative effect of art in our lives. After our first exhibition at the Mandel JCC, we received incredibly positive feedback from a variety of stakeholders in the Cleveland Jewish community. Programs such as the Cleveland Jewish Arts + Culture Lab impact not just the participating artists, but all those who experience the fellows’ works. Charles Taylor explains that it is not just artistic creation, but the very experience of art that impacts us so greatly. He writes, (Sources of the Self p. 376) “The awe we feel before artistic originality and creativity places art on the border of the numinous, and reflects the crucial place that creation/expression has in our understanding of human life.” I would like to believe that those who see these types of exhibitions can have an experience not too different from the one Rav Kook had in visiting the National Gallery. The work of artists engaging in serious Jewish study can be used to cultivate a broader communal conversation about how the arts can be a source of Jewish creativity in our lives. As art generates powerful experiences for both the artist and the beholder, it carries great potential in nurturing and sustaining Jewish identity in our modern world.

Rabbi Zachary Truboff is the Senior Rabbi of Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Cleveland, OH. He has served as the Director of Jewish Life and Culture for the Mandel JCC. He is a co-founder of the Cleveland Jewish Arts + Culture Lab, which was recently awarded the Zahav Award for Program Excellence from the JCC Association. He participated in the second cohort of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation. He is also a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.