The Art of Prayer

by: Peter Stein

Peter Stein shares how he integrates art into an alternate tefillah experience.
What do you get when you mix dried leaves, acrylic paint and a smattering of Rav Soloveitchik? In Frankel Jewish Academy’s Art & Tefillah Minyan, you get beautiful works of art about teshuvah.
Students at FJA are required to attend minyan four mornings a week. Since many students struggle with traditional davening, FJA offers a number of alternative spaces to help students connect to Jewish prayer and spirituality through means such as song, meditation and philosophical discussion. Last spring, I created FJA’s Art & Tefillah Minyan as an opportunity to help students form meaningful connections with Jewish prayer through art.
Here’s how it works: For each project, I introduce students to a new medium of art. We spend some time learning about and practicing the art form. Next, we spend a day or two studying a prayer from the siddur and discussing its central theme. Finally, the students are set loose to create original art using their new medium to explore the theme of the prayer. This is where the magic happens.

Over the three semesters I have led this minyan, students have explored numerous prayers and media. Some of these art forms have significant history in traditional Jewish folk art, such as micrography (making art out of very small writing) and paper cutting. Others are more contemporary, such as painting with acrylics and mixed media, and photography. Each form can be paired with almost any prayer, making possible an almost limitless combination of projects.

With each new project, I am amazed and awed at the creative directions my students take and at the spiritual and emotional insights they communicate through their art. During our mixed media teshuvah project this fall, one girl depicted a smoking hand rising from a pile of stones set against a flaming red background. In her write-up, she described her difficulty engaging in teshuvah, explaining that the smoking hand represented the heat of expectations she felt that make the process of teshuvah hard for her. For a project exploring the theme of geulah, another girl drew a bunch of balloons floating up into the air. As she worked, I wondered what this had to do with redemption, until she added the words “Sometimes, you just need to let go,” a touching reminder of the stressful lives our students lead and how for them, redemption can be learning how to cope with their anxieties.

After leading this minyan for three semesters, I have been pleased and even surprised by the different ways this minyan has impacted our students. First and foremost, students are having a positive experience in minyan. Several times this year students have told me that they actually look forward to minyan. And while they may still struggle with the prayers themselves, their artwork demonstrates that they have given meaningful thought to the text during the creative process.

Second, the minyan provides students a chance to grow as artists, both learning new art forms and applying existing skills to a Jewish context. Several students, for example, have discovered that they are actually extremely talented at paper cutting, a medium they had never tried before this minyan. One of them told me she plans to buy her own tools to continue practicing this art form at home.
Finally, spending 40 minutes each morning doing art can have significant therapeutic benefits. Our school social worker noted to me that several students struggling with anxiety stopped coming to see her each morning after signing up for this minyan, reporting that working on their art calmed them enough that they no longer needed her support.

Next year, building on the success of this minyan, I will be launching a semester-long Jewish Text and Art elective for FJA seniors. Like the minyan, the goal will be to provide students another avenue to connect with Jewish texts and ideas using artistic expression. We believe that these efforts can help students form deeper emotional bonds with the Jewish tradition while developing new skills and talents that will broaden our students’ horizons.

Peter Stein is the Bible Department Chair at the Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, MI. In his spare time, Rabbi Stein works in a variety of artistic media including painting, quilting and paper cutting.