Capturing What is Jewish Around Us: The Jewish Lens Points at the Midwest, and Beyond
by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz
Milwaukee – The photograph is simple. It’s a mezuzah hanging on a doorframe. But its simplicity is deceiving.
One is lured to gaze at this image, absorb the object’s beauty, and contemplate its place within Jewish tradition and life. And the power of this photograph grows, considering who took it.
“Every time I pass by a door and kiss a mezuzah, I always remember that God is looking after us and our house and that we should follow his commandments,” said Daniela Garzon, a 12th-grader at the Torah Academy of Milwaukee. “These are the values I wanted to capture in this image. Until now, I’d never given much thought to what’s in a picture beyond the obvious. But now I do.”
Her piece is one of 240 images taken by about 100 students across nine Jewish schools in the Milwaukee area this year, and displayed this summer at the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Museum Milwaukee.
The students, from congregational and day schools, were participants in The Jewish Lens, an innovative and groundbreaking interdisciplinary curriculum focusing on Jewish values and community through the perspective of photography.
Recognizing the potential of the curriculum to engage students and immerse them in Jewish education in a new, creative and effective way, The Covenant Foundation supported development with a three-year signature grant in 2007.
Since its inception, the program has involved approximately 3,000 students in about 150 Jewish schools, camps and other educational settings in the United States. The curriculum itself is in its third edition.
“I grew up in a heavy duty Jewish educational environment and it was always a cerebral, intellectual exercise,” said Zion Ozeri, founder and artistic director of The Jewish Lens. “But photography is an emotional and experiential exercise, so why not use it to enhance Jewish education?”
Ozeri, a noted photographer who has traveled the world capturing images of often remote and little noticed Jewish communities, envisioned what would become The Jewish Lens six years ago during an exhibition of his own work in Southern California. Teachers at an area Jewish day school broached the notion of using photography as a tool within a formal educational setting.
“We are seeing nothing short of a revolution in the way our younger generation communicates and uses digital media,” he said. “They are equipped with digital cameras and phones and are constantly posting images through Facebook and text messaging and other mediums.
“Within this dynamic environment, I hope to empower them to reflect on Jewish teachings and values, use photography and images as a language with which to express themselves, and infuse Jewish education with a creativity that goes beyond just memorizing things that were said 2,000 years ago and since.”
By the fall of 2004, he had lined up six schools to be pilots for an emerging curriculum using photography as a catalyst for classroom discussion of Jewish text, teachings and values, and empowering students to reflect their own thinking and interpretation of these through imagery.
“Children and young adults express themselves in interesting ways, and when you see their photographs – what they have captured – it gives you a sense of their perspective,” said Rabbi Levi Emmer of Hillel Academy in Milwaukee, who has adopted the curriculum. “As educators, we are trying to open their minds in a Jewish direction, and see the excitement in capturing a moment and showing pride in being a Jew. The Jewish Lens gives us that channel for interpretation and expression.”
The Jewish Lens continues to grow, both in breadth and in reach. The newest edition of the curriculum reflects the growing environmental movement in the Jewish community. And some institutions offering adult Jewish education classes have embraced it.
In Israel, the curriculum is widely used with the support of the Ministry of Education through the Karev Foundation and its Program for Educational Involvement. The Jewish Lens is planning partnerships between American and Israeli schools to enable students to share imagery and exchange thoughts, reflections and lessons.
This summer’s exhibition in Milwaukee brought together area schools across denominations – all adherents to The Jewish Lens curriculum and educational philosophy. The project was led by The Jewish Lens and the Coalition for Jewish Learning, the education program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
Many considered it a watershed moment for a relatively dispersed, aging and fragmented Jewish community that numbers about 25,000.
“This was not about one class or one school,” said Kipp Friedman, Midwest Coordinator for The Jewish Lens. “Through their images, we see the tremendous diversity and also the similarities that exist within and across the entirety of the community, not just a fragment of it.”
In fact, the Milwaukee exhibition this summer and the cross-denominational collaboration that it brought forth is a model for other communities, and an initiative is in place to make it happen.
“The Jewish Lens is a vehicle for dialogue and sharing, within classrooms and schools and communities,” said Leor Sinai, Executive Director of the program. “We want to create relationships.”
But it is not only conversations between students and among denominations that The Jewish Lens seeks to achieve. It is also conversations that add to the Jewish story in its entirety.
“The thread of Jewish life, representing the totality and unity of Jewish peoplehood, exists in each of these photographs individually and collectively,” Rabbi Sinai said. “This dialogue and this Jewish learning and interpretation is an ongoing exercise and something we must continue to take part in for our Jewish values and way of life to remain relevant. It is all a link in the chain of the Jewish narrative that stretches back to our beginnings.”
For 10-year-old Zach Ginkel, a student at Milwaukee’s Hillel Academy, a black-and-white photograph of a youngster in a park, being pushed in a swing by a woman, added to that very narrative.
“To be Jewish means we help each other out,” he said.