At the Jewish Studio Project, an educational and spiritual initiative in Berkeley, California, the idea of creativity is unlocked and democratized.
“We are all creative, we are created to create, and our creating creates the world,” says Rabbi Adina Allen, who co-founded JSP with her husband, Jeff Kasowitz, in 2014. Allen emphasizes that creativity helps open people up to “empathy, resilience, learning to be with the unknown and to be with complexity,” all worthy qualities any time, but especially now.
Allen and Kasowitz uphold the idea that the impulse—and capacity—to express oneself creatively and imaginatively is inborn and accessible to all.
“Even those who remember being told by a third-grade teacher that they would do better in math than art can discover their innate creativity,” Kasowitz says.
JSP’s pioneering and innovative program moves from the beit midrash, the house of study, to the studio, from a black-and-white page packed with words to a blank sheet, to be filled with lines, shape, and color. The work of the JSP is fueled by a combination of engagement with Jewish texts and artmaking as a way toward an authentic understanding of the self, others, and God. The process involves hands, heart, and mind, deepening a sense of curiosity, compassion, connection to Judaism and to community and, ultimately, to positive social change.
It’s an ambitious agenda, and Allen and Kasowitz have systematically built a highly-praised national organization. While their studio headquarters in Berkeley has a lovely, colorful messiness about it—with abundant art supplies, traces of glitter and paint that didn’t make it onto paper, and curtains that, as Allen says, look like they were repurposed from Burning Man—there’s a clarity of thought driving the project, from their foundational principles grounded in art therapy and Jewish study in hevruta, or partnership, to their vision of social justice.
Rabbi Allen serves as creative director, Kasowitz as executive director. A Wexner Fellow and the recipient of the Covenant Foundation’s 2018 Pomegranate Prize for emerging Jewish educators, she is a spiritual leader with ordination from Hebrew College, a writer, and an educator. Kasowitz is a social innovator, a musician, and an executive whose background includes nonprofit management and strategic planning, with an MBA and an MPH. Both are visionary community builders and leaders; each sees the others’ skills as complementary.
JSP offers programs of various length and intensity. The structured JSP process involves learning in pairs, and the co-founders emphasize the importance of listening, of learning to truly hear another’s point of view, and, together, teasing out new meanings. Participants then “set an intention” and begin using art materials to create something expressive, whether reactive, interpretative, or meditative in some way. No comments on the work—whether complimentary or not—are allowed in the studio. Participants are urged to find pleasure in the work, to “notice everything,” and to keep going. While the process is prescriptive, there’s endless room for inventiveness.
After making something, participants are guided to “witness the work” and write something about it. The art, or finished project, isn’t the point—although participants are encouraged to take their projects home with them and keep engaging with them—but Rabbi Allen and Kasowitz emphasize the process.
Allen grew up in a world of art and action, as her mother, Dr. Pat Allen is an internationally-recognized art therapist, writer, and teacher. She recalls that if she mentioned a concern or quandary to her mother, Dr. Allen would ask, “Have you made art about it yet?”
“Her question was a way for me to discover the answers that I had in me,” Rabbi Allen says. It is a refrain often quoted at JSP, where Dr. Allen serves as senior advisor.
Rabbi Allen says that she entered Hebrew College as a way “to carve a new pathway into the Jewish world.” During her rabbinical studies, she became enamored with the idea of hevruta study—she loved the creative and spiritual interchange and the opportunities to study classical commentaries and insert new interpretations and personal insights. Inspired to bring together the art process ideology she had learned at home with interactive study, she formed a living laboratory, enlisting faculty and students to participate alongside her.
“I wanted to create a Jewish space where people could be authentically who they are, to drop down into that and explore that in an authentic way, to be real with themselves and real with each other.”
After ordination, she and Kasowitz moved to Berkeley and launched JSP. In the early days, Kasowitz says, they would travel from event to event with a bucket of art supplies in their car. Now, they have a $750,000 budget, five full-time staff members and a distinguished board of directors. To date, about 10,000 people—from a variety of age groups and professional backgrounds, including clergy who have been wrestling with texts for most of their lives and others who hadn’t heard the term beit midrash before—have participated in their programs. Some have described the experience as “life changing.” For the High Holidays, JSP runs prayer services, and this past year, more than 1,000 people participated on Zoom.
“A good part of my work with JSP is in the realm of professional development, mostly for other Jewish educators,” said JSP Senior Educator Rachel Brodie. “I've been doing this kind of work for thirty years, but it wasn't until I began to invite people into the Jewish Studio Process that I got to see people transform the cerebral aspects of study into personal insights that they could use both for their own growth but also to bring directly into their work.”
Rabbi Allen is currently working on a book, Created to Create: A Jewish Approach to Creativity as a Force for Personal Transformation and Social Change, and Kasowitz leads their efforts in development and fundraising, figuring out ways to get more people to experience the process, train others, and build a network.
With the pandemic, JSP has shifted its flagship Studio Immersive, a five-day in-person experience in text learning and spiritual practice, to a one-day online program. Recently, they completed their inaugural 18-month “Creative Facilitator Training” with a cohort of 11 participants, which also moved online, including an online siyyum (a closing celebration). Their “Facilitator Training Manual” along with “The Home Practice Guide” were funded in part by a 2018 Covenant Foundation Ignition Grant.
“The Home Practice Guide: A How-To Guide for Making the Jewish Studio Process an Ongoing Personal Spiritual Practice” is particularly well-designed and is distributed to new alumni of JPS. The publication leads participants through the step-by-step process so that they can continue the work beyond the walls of JSP, whether on their own or with a partner.
These days, they also hold bi-weekly and monthly virtual programs and pre-holiday events, open to all (some are free and others are offered on a sliding scale; no one is turned away for lack of funds). While at home, Rabbi Allen says, participants can gather art supplies at hand, including markers and magazines. Some programs emphasize journaling.
On a recent morning, I joined in the robust conversations in a “Creative Commentary” program on Zoom, with participants from the Bay Area and around the country. After some soulful singing and learning based on the weekly Torah portion led by a local scholar, we embarked on hevruta study (in breakout rooms) that felt both intimate and serious. My partner was Sarah Stone, an accomplished novelist from San Francisco, who later said, “JSP was the first place that helped me to make a personal connection between Jewish texts, traditions, and song with my own writing, artmaking, and work for social change.”
Toward the end of the session, we were asked to journal in response to prompts. Participants turned their screens toward their notebooks, opening their hearts to the page. Later some shared poetry and lines linking the learning to their lives and hopes.
By Sandee Brawarsky, for The Covenant Foundation
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