“What Else Could This Mess Be?”: How the Jewish Studio Project Uses Jewish Texts for Creativity and Healing

Caroline Kessler

This week, we’re delighted to highlight the Jewish Studio Project, a CANVAS Emerging Network Grantee working at the intersection of spirituality and creativity. (You can read about our other grantees here.) As ever, feel free to get in touch with questions and comments. —Ed.

Passover and Purim have something in common aside from permission to drink—both holidays have clear heroes and villains. But Rabbi Adina Allen of the Jewish Studio Project has a way of re-exploring these stories in interesting ways without compromising their Jewishness—and of using Hebrew texts to foster empathy and creativity.

“Rather than settling into cycles of retribution that distract us from what it truly means to be human, let us draw on our creativity, our ingenuity, and, together, dare to imagine another story altogether—one in which mutuality, care and healing of the trauma of both hero and villain can come to pass,” said Rabbi Allen, during a recent Zoom workshop about Purim. 

It was a Wednesday morning, and 75 people had logged on for “Have You Made Art About It Yet? Purim Edition,” one of the Jewish Studio Project’s free programs open to anyone, regardless of whether they consider themselves Jewish or an artist. As Rabbi Allen, co-founder and creative director of the Jewish Studio Project (JSP) welcomed participants, she highlighted how good it was to be with the “Have You” community, who have been showing up for two years to participate in this virtual program that uses Jewish texts as a springboard for creativity. 

And a far-flung community it is, with participants from Ireland, British Columbia, and Berkeley, where JSP’s studio is located. The group was a mix of artists, Jewish educators, creatives, and leaders in the field of Jewish arts and culture, as well as those who would not identify with any of those labels. Anyone is welcome at JSP’s programs, because a core belief of the organization is that we are all creative. 

Newcomers and experienced folks were there to participate in the Jewish Studio Process, the core methodology that Allen created, which blends artmaking, havruta learning, and reflective writing. 

Using Jewish texts to foster a creative mindset is a crucial component of the Process, but the JSP has wider implications. The organization believes that connecting people to creativity allows them to become more resilient, empathetic, and adaptable, and more imaginative in their problem-solving, whether it’s individual or communal. It’s a rare example of an organization that mines the intersection of creativity and Jewish spirituality while welcoming everyone. (See also Rising Song, which fosters spirituality and community through music.)

And there are measurable benefits to making art. Studies have found that engaging in creative activities—such as painting, journaling, and drawing-improves cognition, alleviates depression, and allows people get into what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously called “flow”—a state of happy absorption that creates peace of mind. 

There’s even a business case for creativity—a 2010 IBM survey found that “creativity is now the most important leadership quality for success in business.”

The evolution of the Process

As a rabbinic student at Hebrew College, Allen became interested in creating new interpretations of classical texts. Allen combined havruta learning with the art process she had grown up with in her mother’s studio—she’s the daughter of renowned art therapist Pat B. Allen—which resulted in participants not only experiencing Jewish text in new ways, but also developing creative habits of mind.

When Allen and Jeff Kasowitz—her husband and executive director of JSP—co-founded the organization in 2015, they were traveling around the Bay Area with art supplies in the trunk of their car, offering workshops to local Jewish organizations.

Now, seven years later, they’ve delivered 700 programs for over 15,000 participants, collaborated with over 100 organizations, and reached tens of thousands through Allen’s speaking and writing. They are building a national facilitator network through their Creative Facilitator Training program (which is the focus of CANVAS’s investment). 

Before the pandemic, their signature Immersive program was five days of intensive, in-person artmaking, discussion, spiritual practice, and havruta learning. When the pandemic started, JSP pivoted to Zoom and offered shorter sessions. “Have You Made Art About It Yet?” and “Creative Commentary” are free, 90-minute sessions open to anyone (more about their public programs here).  

Whatever the medium, tapping into the imagination is central to JSP’s programs, as is allowing participants to emerge with a deeper connection to Jewish text and a new sense of their art practice. While participants always make an art piece, the point is not the particular artwork, but uncovering something new about oneself, the text, or a new insight that could transform the way one sees a challenge. 

About a third of each Immersive cohort identify as artists, who enjoy, as Allen says, “a space to play outside the lines, to see what wants to come through, and for that to be possible in a Jewish context.” 

For example, when Ross Berman, a full-time artist, participated in the Immersive, he had a “deep, meta experience of God” that enlivened his main art project, a form of Judaica using the word chai as the motif. He says that the “Jewish Studio Process allowed me to expand the range of all parts of my work” and to explore making art that “talks about the truth of life, Hashem, relationship, and the earth.” 

Kasowitz says, “What we’re doing in the Studio is practicing the technique that people can use in their daily lives, which we call ‘taking it off the page.’” This might include returning to their piece of art for inspiration, or, for the people trained in the methodology, taking it to their communities.

JSP Facilitators feeling the joy at their onsite retreat. Photo: JSP

Engaging with the Jewish Studio Process

The “Have You Made Art About It Yet?” session opened with a brief d’var Torah from Allen about the importance of Purim, going beyond “inverting reality” and drawing on our own creativity to imagine a new world. 

With that grounding, participants were paired off in breakout rooms to interrogate a few lines of text from the Book of Esther, as well as quotations from articles about art therapy and artmaking. After fifteen minutes of discussion, participants returned to the main room to relate what they uncovered in their havruta learning. Then, participants set an intention for their creative process, such as “I trust myself as I make something new.” 

Just as a blessing is always recited before starting Torah study, a volunteer also reads a blessing before starting the creative practice: “Blessed are you God, Source of Life, who creates us in Your image and invites us to renew daily the work of creation. Blessed are You, who created us creative.”

During JSP’s in-person programs, participants choose from a colorful variety of watercolors, pens, crayons, colored pencils, collage materials, and more. Now that all their public programs are virtual, they remind participants that anything on hand will work—even “a pen and some scratch paper from your recycling bin.”

This “use what you have” attitude is central to these sessions. Also central are JSP’s four rules for the artmaking: “no comment, follow pleasure, notice everything, and keep going.” 

Participants were encouraged to tilt their camera down toward their artwork, so an array of Zoom boxes became a joyful spread of scissors cutting out magazine photos, hands tearing paper, and oil paints smeared on notebooks. 

After about twenty minutes of artmaking, everyone was encouraged to “witness” their piece—returning their attention to the work and writing about what they see and what arises based on that looking. Nearly two dozen people shared a small part of their “witness writing,” which included lines of poetry or a call-back to the Hebrew text. Allen wrapped up the session with a short blessing and encouragement to take what they worked on that morning into the rest of the day.

The “use what you have” attitude is central to the JSP’s sessions. Photo: JSP

A network of homes

If each person is, according to Rabbi Allen, a “hospitable home” for ideas about Jewish text, creativity, and problem-solving, then JSP’s Creative Facilitators are creating a “network of homes” across the country.

The Creative Facilitator Training (CFT), an intensive two-year training program in the Jewish Studio Process, graduated its first cohort of eleven people in December 2020. JSP’s goal is that the network will grow to 70 people across the next three years. Sixteen people are currently in Cohort 2; this summer, they’ll be recruiting for Cohort 3. 

When Ross Berman and his wife, Ann Bohrer, a marketing professional, participated in an Immersive, they were so moved by the experience that they both signed up for Creative Facilitator Training. They then opened a physical studio in Los Angeles in which they can share their own workshops using the Jewish Studio Process. 

Rebecca Katz is also a graduate of Cohort 1, and one of only two facilitators on the East Coast. She is a Brooklyn-based artist and educator who works with organizations and individuals to deliver programs that utilize the JSP methodology, from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs to Hillel at Stanford. 

For many years, Katz’s art existed parallel to her social justice work—her cartooning fit alongside community organizing. After attending Jewish day school for twelve years and working as a Jewish educator, Katz had also taught and experienced a lot of text study.

Katz explains: “JSP came at a moment when I was searching to create an intersection between the ways we talk as communities and individuals, wrestling with ideas of power, privilege, and oppression, and wondering, how do we create and imagine a collective vision for a future that is rooted in justice and equity?” 

Through JSP’s work, and their distinct approach to text study, she saw that creativity and artmaking could be a way to create that intersection. 

On a personal level, the pre-pandemic experience of working in the Studio and following the artmaking rules all contributed towards Katz’s sense of possibility, play, and creativity for its own sake that can happen when you make a mark on a page—in other words, focusing more on the process than on the product. 

Looking ahead

In March, Kasowitz and Allen announced the next chapter of the Jewish Studio Project, Immersing to Emerging Anew. It’s their bold new plan for JSP, including growing their “Torah of Creativity” thought leadership (a collection of source sheets and teachings for facilitators and participants); launching a series of “Leader Studios” for educators and community leaders; fostering self-sustaining Communities of Practice; and making more materials open-source to expand the network’s impact.

And as the organization grows, Kasowitz says, “We’re looking at ways to design new immersive and retreat-like experiences for participants that will meet the growing demand for our programs.” 

There is indeed demand—organizations want programs for their teens, fellows, leaders, and networks of their own. So JSP now often refers work to Creative Facilitators like Philadelphia-based Rabbi Bec Richman, who uses the Jewish Studio Process in a twice-weekly Virtual Art Beit Midrash. 

Rabbi Richman explains, “To do something tactile with our hands, and to say ‘Wow, there is a mess here—what else could this mess be?’ To practice this with materials makes it feel more possible to make actual change. It is a powerful reminder that mess can be transformed.”

If people can catalyze their own personal growth through creative practice, then the hope is that will have a ripple effect outward toward societal transformation—according to the JSP, for Jewish justice leaders and activists, the Process provides a way to “access their prophetic imagination and regenerate collective energy.” 

But first we look inward. As Rabbi Allen says, “the JSP work helps people get in touch with their radical authenticity, and with the language of their own soul, which is what art is meant to do.”

“What else could this mess be?” Images from JSP workshops.

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