Religious school students at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange have just completed an art project based on the Jewish concept of b’tzelem elohim – “in the image of God.” The project was spearheaded by Mindy Schreff, director of the Reform synagogue’s Linda and Rudy Slucker Religious School, and artist-in-residence Julie Wohl, who led students age 5 through 13 on a creative journey that combined art with Jewish text.
Schreff worked with Wohl to envision an art piece that would represent b’tzelem elohim, a concept that is closely aligned with the school’s curriculum as well as that of TSTI’s Iris Family Center for Early Childhood Education, which fosters inclusion and diversity. TSTI is known in the wider community for its barrier-free building and commitment to serving students with special needs.
“We wanted to find a way for the students to express the idea of b’tzelem elohim visually,” said Schreff. “We decided to make a table covered in art they created using the theme ‘We all have a place at the table.’” Creating the table was a communal effort: Its construction was completed by Carol Paster, the director of the Early Childhood Center, and volunteers from Habitat for Humanity.
Wohl is a Jewish educator and professional artist who serves as education director at Congregation Brit Shalom in State College, PA, as well as the creator of Jewish Learning Thru Art, a traveling creative arts education program. She led a conversation with students in grades two through seven on Torah texts that deal with b’tzelem elohim, followed by a lesson on painting self-portraits which yielded an array of artworks that were applied to the table. Children in kindergarten and first grade worked with teachers on their own creations to add to the piece.
Wohl also engaged the seventh graders in a discussion that expanded on the idea of how people should act towards each other, given the idea that all are created in God’s image. She added words and phrases from that discussion to the table so that it reflects the insights and artwork from those valuable life lessons. It is currently on display in the synagogue’s lobby.
The temple’s education directors co-developed a similar project in March for Disabilities Awareness Month. TSTI was an exhibitor in February of one of ten “Chairs of Inclusion,” an art installation commissioned by the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled in West Orange for its 10th anniversary. Schreff and Paster brought the lesson of inclusion to their classrooms by working with the seventh graders to build and decorate cube chairs for preschoolers who use the square, high-sided chairs for additional physical and emotional support.
“We are now the proud owners of an amazing heirloom table that represents the welcoming nature of our community, a testament to the power of art that is created with intent and mindfulness,” said Schreff. “Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel truly makes a place at the table for all of our members and we embrace our diversity. Now we have a visual representation of that for everyone to enjoy for years to come.”
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, located at 432 Scotland Road serves member families from Maplewood, the Oranges, Livingston, Millburn, Short Hills and surrounding areas. The vibrant congregation offers Jewish preschool, Religious school, teen programs, lifelong learning for adults, and a full complement of religious services and cultural programs each month. For more information, visit www.tsti.org.