Temple Beth-El communal art project bridges learning distance

  • The Spice Bag is represented in the artwork of religious school students in their communal art project, Five Scenes Spilling Over. Rabbi Ari Moffic discussed its meaning at the Selichot program on Saturday evening, Sept. 17, Temple Beth-El, Northbook.

    The Spice Bag is represented in the artwork of religious school students in their communal art project, Five Scenes Spilling Over. Rabbi Ari Moffic discussed its meaning at the Selichot program on Saturday evening, Sept. 17, Temple Beth-El, Northbook. Courtesy of Temple Beth-El, Religious and Hebrew School

Updated 9/22/2022 9:17 AM

A religious school educational art project, started during the pandemic last Spring, was unveiled at the opening of classes recently as a successful experience in "communal" learning at Temple Beth-El, Northbrook.

"I had an idea to write text about five Jewish symbols that show how we are made in God's image. The message is about how each of these symbols involves the item spilling out, and I used this as a metaphor to write about the messy, the spilling over, the fluid, the overflowing parts of us as being the parts like God," said Rabbi Ari Moffic, director of Congregational Learning, Temple Beth-El. "God is indescribable, and God does not fit into our human categories. When we don't fit neatly in a box, it mirrors God in a way."


Five Jewish Scenes of Spilling Over

Rabbi Moffic's idea was to bring the five Jewish symbols to life through student artwork and a companion classroom booklet www.templebeth-el.org/createdingodsimage in color and easily accessible for review and discussion during classes, under the title: Five Jewish Scenes Spilling Over.

"Because it was during Covid last Spring," Rabbi Moffic points out, "the children were sitting distanced from each other in class and were not sharing art materials. I challenged John Gorman, our religious school art teacher, to figure how the children would create individual pieces in art class and he would have to assembly them like a puzzle to fit together to create a giant, collaborative piece."

The families have been emailed the PDF of the text and pictures.

Enduring Jewish Symbols Explained

The symbols highlighted in Five Jewish Scenes of Spilling Over are the Kiddish cup which overflows each Shabbat; the beautiful etrog box that must be opened for the etrog to come out to be smelled and touched; the Havdalah spice bag that holds spices that must waft into the air to be sensed; the tzedakah box which holds money that must come out to make a difference; and the ark.

In Torah God told the people to build a portable ark so that God could dwell among the people. God could not be contained in the box.

"This was an example of how a Sunday School art program can not only teach real artistic techniques, but how students can create something that can be meaningful for years to come. Prints of the five individual scenes will be hung up at our Temple for all to enjoy and learn from," Rabbi Moffic said. "It was hard for the students to totally visualize how their individual piece could be joined to their classmates to make a huge single, collaborative piece. We showed them pictures of their finished work all assembled and on the first day of Sunday School, September 11, at our all-school assembly, we'll share the pieces again."

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Engaging the Students in Art Education: A Teacher's Perspective

John Gorman is starting his fifth year as the art education teacher in the Temple Beth-El religious school.

"Covid forced us to stop in-person learning towards the end of my second year. It was a huge disappointment for me: the students had worked so hard on some amazing projects, and I had planned to have a gallery style showing at the end of the year," Gorman reflects.

Below Gorman addresses several questions about the challenges of religious art education and the hopeful value to his students.

How did you engage the students in the Five Jewish Scenes of Spilling Over book's artwork?

In all honesty, this was a challenging project. I was afraid that they would lose the vision for the finished pieces and feel like they were working in a factory.


And there were times when some did question how their small piece would affect the final image. But we had many discussions throughout about collaboration and used a variety of materials, media, and techniques throughout the year to keep them engaged. And I think this idea of "community collaboration" resonated when they got to see the final images.

What do you think this book means to the students and how does the experience enhance Jewish learning through art?

I think Rabbi Moffic's vision of "spilling over" or God not being able to fit inside of a box is what many will take away from this project. This idea was revisited many times throughout the year, not only in Omanut (Jewish art) but in their other classes as well.

But I also feel that the concept of accepting things that may not fit neatly into certain categories resonated with them personally as well. We constantly stress inclusion and acceptance. These projects may have directly focused on Judaism, but many students noticed parallels in their lives outside of Temple.

And personally, I really hope that they left last year with an understanding that, when combined, many small efforts can create something grand. Covid had made it very difficult to collaborate with their peers.

But that did not stop them from working as a community to create something larger than life. Every contribution, no matter how small, added up to them overcoming a huge challenge.

Can you tell me something about your background?

It has been a life changing experience. I am learning as the kids learn. The strong sense of community, amazing people at Temple Beth-El, has been great exposure to cultural aspects of Judaism (not being raised in a Jewish family).

John graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Savannah College of Art and Design and currently teaches in School District 21 (Buffalo Grove-Wheeling).

During the pandemic, Gorman created 26 educational art videos that led Temple Beth-El religious school students through a project from beginning to end, using materials found at home. Visit: Omanut (Jewish art) with Mister G! www.youtube.com/channel/UCJNDGCOH3x89Uqb5SUh2eOQ

Contact Us

For additional information about membership and the religious school, contact: Temple Beth-El, 3610 Dundee Road, Northbrook. Reach out to: Laurie Orenstein, Executive Director via email: Lorenstein@templebeth-el.org or call 847-205-9982 extension 211 or visit: https://templebeth-el.org/

Rabbi Ari Moffic can be reached directly through her email: AriMoffic@templebeth-el.org

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