Sparking Creativity During Covid: Beit HaYotzer/the Creativity Braintrust Uplifts Student Learning


Miriam Heller Stern, Ph.D., Project Director

Beit HaYotzer/the Creativity Braintrust is a circle of artist-scholars convened by HUC’s School of Education, whose practices are now infusing our graduate education curricula. The project draws its name from the Book of Jeremiah 18, in which Jeremiah is having trouble hearing God, and God tells him: “If you want to truly understand My prophecy, go down to the Beit HaYotzer—the artisan’s studio, the potter’s studio—and watch how the artisan plays with, crafts, and recrafts the clay.” Inevitably, the clay will have imperfections; it may even become ruined. But the artisan will continue to perfect it, shaping the material into something new.

“Can I not be like the artisan?” asks God. “With an imperfect world in My hands—can I not reshape it, recreate it anew?”

What is special about the ancient artisan’s studio that we want to reclaim? The idea of making and remaking, with an openness to finding new meanings and forms; the humility and patience required to try again even after failure; and the optimism, even in the face of disruption, that something new can be discovered and created.

Integrating renowned teaching artists into the fabric of the HUC graduate education experience is preparing our students to reflect upon their growth and think beyond this moment to imagine the world anew. In the Fall of 2020, Jon Adam Ross led the Sara Lee Seminar, a virtual gathering for residential students in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and New York. We examined the dynamics of individual and collective responsibility, experimenting with what still felt like a new teaching medium in zoom, and stretching the possibilities of movement, play, group dynamics and surprise.  The games we played immediately found their way into the lives of learners in the field: an interactive counting exercise led to a big idea about “minyan,” an activity which one of our students took right into her internship at Brawerman Day School.

Students in the EMA embodied the relationship between power and powerless in their leadership in a pop-up creative beit midrash, integrating Jewish texts with the Japanese art of Kintsugi. They further explored the intersection of text and creative expression in a two-day intensive with Jewish Studio Project. Students in both programs closed the semester with a deep dive into papercutting with “Paper Midrash,” led by artist Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik and Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik. We created our own “golems,” adapting the ancient folklore around symbols of protection and creating our own unique symbols of protection out of comic books – finding our own inner superheroes. We sent boxes to all of our students with supplies, tools, swag and goodies to set up their own pop-up studios, enjoy tea and cocoa from HUC-branded tumblers, and connect virtually with their cohorts.

Several of the scholars are teaching segments of the new teaching laboratory, “Teaching for Our Times,” in February. Teaching laboratories are a feature of the new Master of Educational Leadership curriculum, providing students with opportunities to gain expertise in the particularities of teaching of different subjects, such as Bible, Rabbinics, Israel, Jewish History and Tefillah. “Teaching for Our Times” explores vanguard pedagogies for our day. Our students will learn “Teaching for Moral Transformation” with Ariel Burger, “Music and Midrash” with Alicia Jo Rabins, and “Teaching to Tell our Stories” with Aaron Henne. These sessions are intended to nourish our students’ souls while they consider new ways to teach, grounded in empathy, holding various points of view, and developing authentic voice.

The Braintrust project aims to infuse more creative thinking into the enterprise of Jewish education, bringing diverse expressions of Jewish wisdom to a fragile world that needs perspective and understanding to address the great dilemmas of our existence. It also debunks the common myth that true creativity is the domain of the lone genius. Many of the greatest compositions, works of art, and ideas have been influenced by other creatives or produced from iterative conversations. They are expressions of their artist’s engagement with the world. Our students and faculty have the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from that collective creative practice.

Watch for the publication, “Revelation is Just the Beginning,” due in late March 2021. In this curated conversation, the Beit HaYotzer artist-scholars discuss their sources of creative inspiration, interpretations of revelation, and lessons of wandering in the desert during Covid, culled during a web series we created in April and May 2020 to guide and hold seekers and learners through the counting of the Omer.

Beit HaYotzer/the Creativity Braintrust is made possible by the generous support of the Covenant Foundation. In the era of COVID-19, we are especially grateful for the Foundation’s unflinching encouragement to rise to the challenges of our time and create programming that reflects the power and potential of creative thinking in Jewish education.