Dr. Arnold Eisen has served as Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America since 2006, and has been a Board Member of The Covenant Foundation since 1999. In addition, he is one of the leading scholars in the field of Modern Jewish Thought. Prior to becoming Chancellor of JTS, Dr. Eisen was the Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University.
Dr. Eisen has long had a deep personal and professional interest in the arts and their ability to transform people’s understanding of and relationship to Jewish life and culture. He recently spoke with The Covenant Foundation about the initiatives JTS has launched over the past few years to integrate art and music into all aspects of JTS’s educational programs and leadership training. These initiatives include the following: art galleries in the hallways, poetry in the classrooms, and joint concerts between JTS Cantorial students and Juilliard jazz musicians. Dr. Eisen also shared his personal connections to art, as well as his vision for how arts education can help shift the focus of Jewish institutions from “educating Jews” to “educating Jewish human beings.”
What inspired the new emphasis at JTS on integrating the arts throughout the Seminary’s program?
It’s always been clear to leaders of JTS that Jewish spirituality takes in a lot more territory than “religion” narrowly defined. That’s why Louis Finkelstein launched the Jewish Museum, which still operates under our auspices. He wanted to make the case that Jewish expression is broad. There’s a quote from Franz Rosensweig, which Solomon Schechter also used, that “Nothing Jewish is alien to me.” We know there are many portals through which Jews enter Jewish life and Judaism. JTS is an educational institution at which we train Jewish leaders; we want them to tie both their own Jewish leadership and commitment and their leadership as educators to spirituality, and that is often expressed through art. For the people that they are leading, art is a major feature of their lives and their spiritual expressions, whether through music or painting or dance.
We’ve found that the same is true of our students, so we wanted to recognize that, bring it to the surface, and give them ways to express it. The JTS building has really changed, because now there are art exhibits in the building, paintings and photographs on the walls, and music literally in the hallways. In addition, the Cantorial School has become a more visible presence. I myself have always been drawn to the arts, especially music, which has been an important part of my life since I was a child. I studied piano for many years. For me, playing Bach and listening to a Beethoven String Quartet are spiritual exercises. Of course, we have the arts in our Jewish tradition; look at the fabrics and colors of the Tabernacle and the importance of music in the Temple service. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we as educators don’t tap into this.
What are some other examples of the impact of the arts on the schools and the students at JTS?
There is much more interaction now between the Cantorial School and both the Davidson School and the Rabbinical School. Many rabbis have musical ability, and we want to enhance that ability as part of their work as rabbis. Many cantors have some Jewish learning, and we want to enhance that learning and thereby enable them to better use their musical talents in the service of God and Torah. In other words, if they’re more aware of their own tradition, feel more connected to it, and are more learned in it, and if they have more educational techniques and skills, then they are better able to connect their music to their own spirituality and use their music to connect other people to Judaism.
We have up on the walls this year an amazing exhibit of photographs of trees by Larry Lederman. In my remarks opening the exhibit, I said that I will never forget Martin Buber’s passage in I and Thou about not seeing trees merely as objects, or something beautiful or something you can study scientifically, but that you can really have an “I and Thou relationship” with a tree. That’s true for creating works of art and relating to works of art. So we have been staring at these photographs of trees that seemed to be on fire, to be backlit. None of them are retouched, but you see amazing light and color in them. Every day, we have students in a second floor lounge, sitting and conversing and spending time in front of trees. You can’t specify or predict the impact that will have on their thinking and emotions, but you know it’s got to matter. We had an exhibit of paintings last year that were either created for those spaces or deemed to be perfect for those spaces, and again it gave a new dimension to the educational experience.
I teach a course every other year on the philosophy of Conservative Judaism. During one session of this course, a TA who was in the Rabbinical School suggested the following exercise. We asked every student to put up on Google Docs a work of art, a piece of music, a photograph, or a poem that spoke deeply to him or her spiritually. The students were then asked to write a short paragraph about how that item connects to their Judaism and to Conservative Judaism in particular. We put all of them up on a screen in class and had every person spend 20 minutes talking about his or her piece. By far, it was the best and most meaningful class of the year.
This new focus on the arts came out of a Task Force we had commissioned around these issues. I remember at one meeting Nessa Rappaport said, “You want to teach your rabbis how to see better.” That’s right; when you surround people with visual arts they see better. The same is true of the current place of music in the school. We have a partnership with Juilliard in which their Jazz Quartets and String Ensemble come and not only give concerts for but work with students, and not just cantorial students. That teaches students to hear better.
What do you see as the role of the arts in Jewish education for youth and teens? How could the experiences of JTS students be translated to supplemental schools and day schools?
At JTS, during one of the visits by the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble, we had all of these young people–most of them not Jewish–riffing back and forth with the Cantorial students and the faculty. There is an historical relationship between jazz and Jewish music. And it was wonderful to see our Cantorial students being musical–singing or playing instruments–and the Juilliard students singing or playing something in response. I’m imagining a city-wide Hebrew High School program in which a local musician or group would come and do a jam session with the students in that room, and in which the relationship between contemporary Jewish music and contemporary music as a whole would not just be talked about, but would be played and exhibited. What could that do for the relationship of those students to their Judaism? At the very least they would see that the guitar part of themselves, or the drum part of themselves, or the sax, or the clarinet, or whatever it is, comes together with their Jewishness.
When you’re educating teenagers, you need to understand that, for a lot of them, music is a big part of their lives. They can spend hours and hours every week playing guitar or drums. Why would one not want to connect that part of their own spirituality to their Judaism? One certainly would. By doing this, we’re not only recognizing a feature of what actually goes on in people’s souls, but we’re bringing to the surface some tools that Jewish educators and other leaders can use in teaching Jews about Judaism. So I think the moral, the nafka minah, for all Jewish educators is clear. You have this dimension of the human being, and certainly of children and teenagers, and we must not let it remain unconnected to our students’ emerging Judaism.
This is part of one of my pet educational campaigns. We should not regard our task as educating Jews, but rather that we’re educating Jewish human beings. Because we only have students in a Jewish educational setting for at best half a day in day school, or a small number of hours per week in supplementary school, it’s understandable that for generations we’ve said that we’re going to focus on the Jewish and try to give them as much text or tefillah or Hebrew as we can. But they’re not coming to us as Jews; they’re coming to us as Jewish human beings. The hyphen, the connection between the Jewish and the human, should be an explicit focus of the education. Currently, we give them the Jewish and leave it to them to figure out how it relates to the human, and that’s wrong. Mordecai Kaplan said this 80 years ago. The arts are part of the human in the Jewish part of them; with the Jewish arts you can connect the Jewish and the human in a very powerful way. That’s what we want to do in Jewish education.
We need to reach a lot of Jews out there who never set foot in a synagogue. And we know from the data that they don’t want to call themselves religious. But many of them are touched by the arts, and we want to find a way to reach that part of them. We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach that part of Jewish kids. I know people are going to say, “We only have so many hours in the classroom; how can we spend an hour visiting an art museum?” But if a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to those students’ hearts and souls. That’s what we’re there to do.
“Families that share stories about parents and grandparents, about triumphs and failures, provide powerful models for children. Children understand who they are in the world not only through their individual experience, but through the filters of family stories that provide a sense of identity through historical time...Through sharing the past, families recreate themselves in the present, and project themselves into the future.”
—“Do You Know…” The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being
Read more about Dr. Marshall Duke and his work, here.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project