Melinda Nicholson rolls with a different beat these days. An art therapist in California, she spends a good deal of time on the road. But after attending a Jewish study program two months ago, her driving’s taken on some new turns.
As part of new series called “Torah Through the Arts,” she heard sounds that have stayed with her. As she described, they have brought “a deep connection between Torah and music—so much, in fact, that it changed me. Instead of listening to gibberish on the radio, I now have two beautiful music CDs to inspire me while driving on the L.A. freeways.”
Rabbi Zushi Rivkin was similarly affected; during a 2011 road trip between Pittsburgh, Pa., and Brooklyn, N.Y., he had a creative brainstorm: teach Torah through the medium of various arts. The spark came from listening to contemporary Jewish music by artists such as Chassidic singer Avraham Fried and the popular Chassidic rock band 8th Day.
“What struck me the most,” he explains, “was that the artists had clearly put a great deal of work into researching their songs and infusing deep Torah concepts to create inspiring, emotional and spiritual music. Why not utilize the music and learn Torah at the same time?”
Together with his wife, Gitty, Rivkin brought this idea to their new positions as co-directors of the Pasadena Jewish Academy, a division of Chabad of Pasadena, Calif. They wanted to expand the traditional classroom and lecture-style experiences (which they still provide) to include more visual, hands-on and experiential ways of learning.
Gitty Rivkin, a graphic designer, believes “it’s important to take creative outlets to inspire the mind and heart to learn Torah. I am a kinesthetic learner. I like to be able to see, touch and feel while I learn, so incorporating the arts as a tool is something I can personally relate to.”
The rabbi agrees that “learning doesn’t have to be so formal. We can give access to the same Torah information, but present it through the beauty of photographs, poetry, paintings, film and song.”
‘Make People Feel Alive’
Their idea came to fruition in December with the first of five events for “Torah Through the Arts,” featuring musician and songwriter Rabbi Chaim Fogelman. The theme was “All the World Harmonizes With Hashem.”
The first half of the evening was a time for participants to enjoy food, drink and socialize while having the opportunity to learn more about Fogelman’s music. Ten stations were set up around the room with tablets and headsets, each featuring one of his songs. Listeners experienced the music by watching a video or playing a recording while having the opportunity to read the lyrics. They also had access to material that shed light on Fogelman’s Torah inspirations and why he wrote the music. Each station had guest books for participants to share their perspectives.
The second half of the event was a mini-concert followed by a deeper discussion about Fogelman’s song, “Stones.” It asks, “Do the stones know there is a G‑d?” This led Fogelman and Rivkin to ask the deeper Chassidic concept: “Do you have a purpose your life?” By utilizing seven different sources, including inspiration from Maimonides—coupled with Torah and Tanya— participants explored the idea of finding a deeper understanding of the consciousness of the world.
Mitch Halpern, a longtime Pasadena resident who owns a real estate agency, raved about the event. “This program should be done in every congregation. We need these kinds of beautiful experiences because they make people feel alive.
“Many people relate to the arts,” he continues. “By incorporating it into learning, this groundbreaking program has brought and will continue to bring people closer to Judaism.”
The next event, on Sunday, Feb. 18, will feature the work of professional photographer Avrohom Perl. The topic: Divine providence. The remaining three events will highlight Torah concepts through the forms of illustrations and paintings, film and poetry.