The Artist’s Beit Midrash

A look inside an adult-education program whose participants created art based on text study.

by Sandy Starkman

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An artwork by the author entitled “Hoshen Ha’mishpat/Hoshen Hamishpacha – Breastplate of Decision, Breastplate of Family”

As chair of the Lifelong Learning Taskforce at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois, I learned of a program a few years ago, an Artist’s Beit Midrash, which piqued my interest. The idea not only resonated with me personally but also because of the opportunity it would offer those congregants who might not otherwise take our adult education classes or seek to study Jewish texts.

It took a few years of research, but our Artist’s Beit Midrash commenced in June 2014 with educator Jane Shapiro and artist Judith Joseph as our teachers. Our subject was the priestly garments known as the Ephod and Hoshen. We studied texts about the garments in Exodus, related texts in Jeremiah and Isaiah, and some secular texts as well. The format was one hour of text study with Jane, followed by an hour of dialogue on being an artist, creating Judaic works, and opportunities to present past and/or current work, including our project for the Artist’s Beit Midrash with Judith. We had about 13 students working in different media over six sessions. It was a fascinating series of texts and a great group of people, some professional artists and many of us not.

The program culminated with an evening reception a few months later, entitled “Artist as Kohen: Transmitting Holiness.” The artworks were shown in the lobby entrance of the Rissman Family Kol Ami Museum display cases. Jane taught some texts, the program was summarized and the art and the artists’ statements were presented, with most of the artists present. The exhibit was on display for a few months