5 December 2014
13 Kislev 5775
“Have you seen the wall?” one of my colleagues asked me this week. “What wall?” I responded. “Come with me,” she said, leading me to our second floor art gallery outside the library. On the walls were students’ paintings from an introductory visual arts course assignment, “paintings of protest,” inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, which Picasso painted in response to events of the Spanish Civil War.
One piece related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a missile in the center of the canvas had the Hebrew and Arabic words for ‘war’ written on it, with two hands, one Israeli and one Palestinian, reaching toward each other but blocked from touching by the missile in between them. There was an artist’s statement next to the painting. The student exhibit is a powerful illustration of art education and student work; however, neither the exhibit nor this particular painting was the reason my colleague was so eager to show me “the wall.”
My colleague pointed out that next to the painting another student had posted a piece of paper with two statistics about the percentage of Palestinians who support Hamas’ terrorism against Israelis. These statistics were a provocative response to the painting, which speaks to the power of art to both express and invite response and ongoing dialogue about artists’ and viewers’ personal beliefs and contemporary issues. If the story stopped here, dayeinu, it would be inspiring enough, but it did not!
Sometime after the student posted those statistics, someone else wrote one word underneath them: “Source?” In the Gann spirit of always urging our students to support claims with evidence and to make intellectually rigorous arguments, the “statistic citer” was challenged. Soon internet addresses for the statistics appeared on the wall along with the two articles themselves.
Then began the “silent conversation.” In classic Talmudic fashion, students have been adding their comments around the statistics, writing reactions, responses, and additional questions. More pieces of papers have appeared around the painting and the original statistics sheet, making room for the conversation to continue. Critical, thoughtful, passionate, respectful dialogue about Israel is unfolding on the walls of Gann Academy.
Inspired as I am by our students, we can learn at least two lessons from this wall, one about teaching and learning in general and one, more specifically, about Israel education.
The first lesson is a humbling reminder that often the deepest, most powerful learning occurs when we get out of the way of our students and let them go. People are naturally curious beings who, when given the opportunities to create and respond and to do so in a community, often will make magical things happen all by themselves. Great kindergarten teachers understand this already, but it is something that high school teachers, college professors, and anyone seeking to “transmit knowledge” need to remember.
The second lesson is about pluralism, diversity, and inspiring and empowering students to love and support Israel and to engage with different viewpoints and opinions about the complex issues facing Israel today. We want our students to love Israel enough to want to struggle with the issues, with each other, and with their Jewish American, Israeli, and non-Jewish peers. Just as we want them to do with Torah, Jewish practice and belief, and so many other essential questions about what it means to be Jewish and to be human, we want our students to live up to the name that our forefather, Yaakov, earned for himself and for our people in this week’s Torah portion, Yisrael (Israel): “. . . for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”
Yaakov “prevailed” because he was willing and able to stay engaged all night with an angel and everything the angel represented. It is not clear who “won” their battle, nor whether this form of wrestling match ever comes to an end. Such is usually the case when we are wrestling with ourselves and each other over matters of consequence. Yaakov prevailed, however, and our students will prevail when they have the courage, conviction, spiritual and moral fortitude, and love—for one another, for the Jewish People, for Israel, and for humanity—to keep striving, keep writing on that wall, and keep earning our name. Yisrael.
Rabbi Marc Baker