Jewish World History through Art

Primary Contact: Liora Ostroff

New Synagogue Project

This curriculum will allow Jewish educators to enrich their arts curricula, teach Jewish history in accessible and age appropriate ways, and seamlessly integrate antiracist learning standards with Jewish learning standards. 

The first iteration of this project (which is to be continued and expanded) was a unit on menorahs from around the world, taken from a variety of sources including global Jewish museums, and the Betzalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art. Students reviewed menorah images organized by motif, noting that menorahs from different places share common motifs such as specific animals, architectural elements, shapes, and Islamic or other cultural motifs. They learned the history of these motifs, both in general and in their use in Jewish arts. In doing her research for the menorah project, our Education Director contacted curators and historians, and abbreviated and adapted academic research for a 3rd-5th grade reading level. The students learned that different regions developed different conventions for menorahs; for example, in some regions people did not place the candles on the same level or in a line; and, menorahs from communities that originate in Afghanistan often use separate oil cups that can be moved around; and, most of the menorahs from Yemen are made of stone, as opposed to metal or clay. Students identified the countries that the menorahs were from on a world map, and noted how certain motifs or design elements were either culturally specific or widely proliferated. As a result, they are learning early on in their Jewish journeys that Jews have lived around the world and practiced Jewish ritual in similar and different ways. They understood that Jewish life and culture has been influenced by the places that Jews have lived and the surrounding dominant cultures that Jews have interacted with, and that both then and now, Jews are living in two civilizations. 

Note – we meet on Shabbat, so we don’t take photographs during class. So, we have no photographs of the kids actually working on the projects.

Kollel’s Highlights from 2021-22

  • “Gallery of Motifs” – some of these descriptions could be reworded and simplified if/when I come back to it
  • Lesson 1 (intro to Menorahs from Around the World + Motifs)

This project is Kaplanian in spirit in that it: 

Offers students a rich understanding of how Jews have lived in various places and “host cultures” throughout time. It encourages children to think creatively about how Jewish practice changes across time and place. -It enriches Jewish living through the arts, and a deep understanding of how Jewish arts and culture have developed. -It allows cross-generational engagement by allowing students to present and teach about topics that adults in the community are not already familiar with. Adults AND children are learning together. -It inspires what Kaplan refers to as the “acquisition of Jewish interests,” in that the students are excited to learn, deeply engaged, and demonstrate enthusiasm for Jewish culture. -Informed by both antiracist Jewish education goals and Kaplan’s emphasis on “belonging” as a basis for Jewish identity, this project promotes a sense of belonging to the Jewish people by emphasizing our diversity, and the ongoing evolution of our religious traditions.’

This project will further develop and realize the goals of integrating curricula on Jewish history and world culture with anti-racist frameworks within K-5 Jewish education through Jewish arts, culture, and ritual learning. The questions at the center of that project include: How do Jewish content learning standards map onto antiracist learning standards? How do we teach Jewish history and world culture in hands-on, creative, and student-led ways? An arts-based and justice-centered curriculum for K-5 students will address these questions. This curriculum is intended to realize several of the goals of the antiracist educational initiatives outlined in Part 4 of the Not Free to Desist Letter: a) appreciation for the inherent multiracial identity of the Jewish community; b) inclusion of history of JOC communities around the world. 

During the menorah unit, the students’ finished projects included:

1. Handmade metal menorahs inspired by a metalworking technique, repousse, found in menorahs from around the world, and intended to represent an aspect of their own surrounding culture in Washington, D.C.

 2. Posters of menorahs that they studied, what the menorahs have in common, what symbols, motifs, or structural differences the menorahs had, and where in the world these menorahs were from. 

3. Verbal presentations of their posters and handmade menorahs to the greater synagogue community, and an opportunity to teach adults new things. This project will be developed further by expanding the use of Jewish arts and culture from around the world as a grounding for both curricula on Jewish history and world culture, and antiracist curricula. 

As this project expands, students will learn deeply by doing similar deep-dives into specific rituals, ritual objects, symbols, holidays, prayers, and songs, requiring extensive research and preparation from teachers. One exciting example is the study of songs from around the world; and another, the study of Torah mantels and accouterments. Students will continue to engage the concepts of the curriculum through hands-on, student-led projects, and will continue to share their learning with the community.