Kol HaOt's Illuminating Experiences
David Moss, Matt Berkowitz, Yair Medina, Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz Email This Article
David Moss considers himself a “mitzvah beautifier.” He works in diverse media including calligraphy, illumination, papercuts, sculpture, wood, prints, artist books, architecture, pottery, drama, education programming and others. He created The Moss Haggadah, and collaborated on the Tree of Life Shtender.
Matthew L. Berkowitz is the Director of Israel Programs for The Jewish Theological Seminary of America and co-founder of Kol HaOt. A Wexner Graduate Fellow alumnus, he was ordained from JTS in 1999. Rabbi Berkowitz is trained in Jewish scribal art, has illuminated ketubbot, and completed a limited edition artist portfolio entitled Passover Landscapes: Illuminations on the Exodus.
Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz is one of the co-founders of Kol HaOt. She draws on all media to create interactive, participatory events and programs of Jewish content, through her “Day Away” programs, weaving together Jewish texts, music, food, art and drama to create all-encompassing experiences that are authentic, educational, inspirational and fun.
Yair Medina studied professional photography at the Hadassah College of Technology from 1992 to 1995, where he graduated with honors. Medina is a producer par excellence having worked on numerous projects with Avner Moriah, David Moss, Eliyahu Sidi, Amalia Nini and Matthew Berkowitz.
Art is my bridge to the world. Had this been part of my experience, Judaism would have played a greater role in my life.
Throughout Jewish history, the conveying of our most profound spiritual truths has been done in different forms. Both divine communication to humanity and the passing on of our tradition through the generations have been through speech, words and texts, through visions, images and symbols.
From the time of the patriarchs and through all the prophets, God sometimes spoke to our ancestors and sometimes communicated through extraordinary visions. But perhaps the most forceful form of communication has been when image, idea and speech have been combined to present a unified, unforgettable message.
In the story of the burning bush, this unity is beautifully exemplified. There God speaks of Kol HaOt. The voice of the symbol. Neither the visual symbol nor the verbal communication stands alone. The experience is one of both seeing a remarkable image and understanding that image explicated. This dynamic synthesis conveys an unforgettable message.
As artists and educators, we have devoted our careers to utilizing this powerful combination. Our long experience in creating works imbued with Jewish significance together with our sharing of these works to inspire and educate others have convinced us of the incredible power, and the vastly underutilized potential of this magical combination. We call it “teachable art.” These are not ritual objects, or beautiful illustrations of Jewish text. Rather, through these pieces of art (both visual and performing), one can experience, engage and learn the text or value it reflects in a deeper way.
One very personal vignette captures the power of such “teachable art.” Four years ago, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, one of the founders of Kol HaOt, was invited to meet Robert H., an elderly Jewish artist in Florida. A rabbinic colleague had encouraged the meeting thinking that Robert would connect with Matt’s haggadah art. When he entered Robert’s home, Matt was struck by an impressive art collection – from floor to ceiling. Most of the art was the work of Robert’s own hands. The two sat at Robert’s kitchen table. Robert began to explain that, far from being a regular in his synagogue, he had maybe set foot in the building a handful of times over the course of his thirty-year affiliation. After Robert’s disclaimer, Matt began teaching on his haggadah portfolio, describing each of twenty-seven illuminations. When they were through the second illumination, Robert’s eyes welled with tears. He explained, “Rabbi Berkowitz, had I seen this twenty or thirty years ago, it would have changed my whole relationship to Judaism! Art is my bridge to the world. Had this been part of my experience, Judaism would have played a greater role in my life.”
Inspired by this among many stories, we have come together with a dedication to bring this vision to a Jewish world so in need of dynamic new ways to share an ancient and precious message. Our goal is to employ the synthesis of creativity and aesthetics, arts and inspiration to convey the meaning and purpose of Jewish texts and ideas, Jewish history and values, Jewish commitment and Jewish passion. In the summer of 2009 we established Kol HaOt – Illuminating Jewish Life Through Art, a cutting edge, imaginative, and powerful venture which actively integrates the arts into Jewish life.
Our first phase has focused on creating, developing and running “Illuminating Experiences,” typically hour and a half long programs for groups of North Americans traveling in Israel. Each of these programs focuses on a Jewish concept, value or text. We share with the participants works of art, and through the form and beauty of the art, we are able to learn and engage with the content it reflects. This is followed by a hands-on experience which allows them to create and engage in the artistic process first hand.
We'd like to share a sample few of these programs, how they have been used, and the reactions we've gotten to them.
1. Mapping the journey
Mapping is the attempt to condense reality into graphic form. But mapping can also be viewed metaphorically as a means of translating non-physical states into images. In this program, we explore the personal meaning of Israel and the significance of the trip, using imaginative maps as a form of expression. This is accomplished by incorporating sources on the Land of Israel and our unique relationship to it through poetry, midrash, art and pilgrimages, showcasing artistic maps of Israel through the ages and showing how physical geography merges with the spiritual. We introduce the idea of imaginative, non-literal mapping and introduce participants to David Moss’ use of maps in his work along with his extraordinary bicycle map of Jerusalem. How can the design of a map reflect one’s vision, dreams or values? What place does Israel have in your life and in what sense can your journey here be considered a pilgrimage?
We then help each participant create his/her own artistic map reflecting their personal connections to the land. These maps take different forms – from elongated scrolls to journals or atlases, depending on the group, and the timing of the program. Sometimes they are ongoing journaling projects, sometimes an invitation to create during the course of the trip and others a culmination and reflection of the entire Israel tour experience.
This program was originally developed and launched for the Wexner Heritage Program during their bi-annual tour to Israel, and has since been used with Federation groups, rabbinical students, synagogue tours, senior groups and gap year students. Though the ages and the contexts differ, the reactions are similar – an appreciation of the opportunity to reflect on what this trip means to me – what were the significant experiences, emotions and reactions during the trip and how does my visit to Israel relate to my inner, spiritual questions and Jewish identity – unlike a trip to anywhere else in the world.
2. Mentschmaker, mentschmaker, make me a mentsch
What does it take to be a mentsch? The Hebrew word middot means measurements. But middot also mean moral virtues. Moral qualities are the measure of a human being. In this interactive program, we enter the realm of human virtues including Compassion, Truth, Humility, Justice, Holiness, Gratitude and more.
Participants are paired for a dynamic havruta learning – each pair receiving one specific middah. Through suggestive poetry and evocative, collage art which attempt to portray these abstract concepts, they address the deepest issues of personality development. Participants are then invited to share their learning experience and discussion with the rest of the group. This is followed by an optional hands-on, in which consists of a writing/poetry exercise and then a collage creation, both focused on a particular middah or abstract Jewish value.
This program has also been run with a variety of groups. What has amazed us is the opportunity that the poetry and collage artwork evoke. Once given the chance, participants from varied backgrounds, knowledge and ages are excited to have the opportunity to discuss these basic moral issues and to reflect on the role they play in their lives. Whether they agree or disagree with the artist's interpretations, it allows them to react, to discuss and to reflect. Though the program stand alone, being used as a trigger for discussion, the hands on activity allows participants to delve even deeper, having to create their own interpretation of a chosen virtue.
Though this program has mostly been used in our tourist group settings, this is one that we see as especially having great potential for educators in a classroom/ Beit Midrash setting. We hope further down the road to create kits, which would include the poetry and artwork, as well as a teacher's guide as to how to use the artwork in a classroom.
3. From text to symbol
In a unique, animated mural, David Moss has translated the narrative of the “Binding of Isaac” (Genesis 22), into emotive colors and symbols. It is a fascinating work that makes for an unforgettable learning experience. After teaching and experiencing the Akeidah scroll and the way it transforms the characters and story line of the text into colors and symbols we use it as an inspiration for the participants to create their own symbolic interpretation of text. We then segue into a hands-on project with the participants, in which we explore a chapter of Biblical text (typically taken from parashat ha-shavua or some other text that connects with the relevant time of year (Esther, Jonah, etc.) and translate it into a visual word-less story. Participants may work individually or in groups. This program has been especially successful with bar/ bat mitzvah groups, where the entire group, led by the child, studies a part of the child's portion, and then translates it into symbols and colors, creating a collage which is then presented to the bat/bar mitzvah as a collective work of art.
Matt Berkowitz shares a remarkable experience he had while on a visit to Baltimore. Just before a Hebrew School class began, teachers approached Matt explaining that one of the children in the class is autistic. They shared with Matt that typically he is not engaged – and not to be surprised if he keeps his head on his desk. Once the Akeidah scroll began to unravel, miraculously, this child became animated. Each of the kids in the class took a turn to narrate a section of the story – related to the shapes and colors. When this special needs child stood up for his turn, he was so connected and engaged that he was reluctant to let anyone else have a turn! The visual arts for this child, was a pathway both into Judaism and into his world. It was a tearful moment for Matt and all the teachers present.
Encouraged by our success with these Illuminating Experiences, we are now excited to move into the next phase of our development. We anticipate opening a home for Kol HaOt in Jerusalem, a central address where exploration of Jewish ideas can take place in beautifully conceived environments. Our home will host our programs, as well as a Visual Beit Midrash, where artists, lay leaders, educators and locals will be able to study not only through text, but also through art. We will host alternating exhibits and a gallery of “teachable art”. In the evening, the venue will be transformed into a Jerusalem Cabaret, where participants will be treated to high quality, Jewish content rich, performance art – be it drama, music, dance, film or comedy.
We look forward to the assembling of a cadre of artists committed to weaving sacred text into their visual and performance work and see our home as a meeting place between the artists and the community they serve, giving the artists exposure and the community an opportunity to share, experience and appreciate this work.
Further down the road, we look forward to creating an interactive website, the creation of dynamic scholar/artist-in-residence programs, developing and certifying a group of artists and educators devoted to this pedagogical approach, and partnerships with formal and informal Jewish educational frameworks.
Kol HaOt enables us to bridge the world of artists and education, by bringing together the work of artists who are teachers and teachers who are artists. We believe it is important to foster the creation of deeply rooted Jewish artistic expression to convey eternal Jewish values. By providing opportunities and venues for the Jewish plastic and performing arts, we hope to unleash the creative and Jewish potential in learning through making, in learning not through the head alone, but with the heart and through the hand.