Adding Soul to the Syllabus

One by one, a class of sixth-graders read aloud a passage and title that each has selected to go with one of Zion Ozeri’s striking black-and-white portraits.

Seated with the young critics at Morasha Jewish Day School, the New York photographer seems pleased when students accurately discern the context of his untitled images, which the students have filtered through their study of Jewish values.

Neither does he hesitate to crib from one who summoned a particularly apt metaphor for a photo of candle lighting. “What was that title?” he asked, scrambling for pen and paper during a morning-long session last month.

Ozeri is the third visual artist invited in two years to the 110-student school, the county’s smallest day school, located in Rancho Santa Margarita. The school’s progressive director, Eve Fein, is convinced that art can be an educator’s most powerful resource for giving dimension to abstract concepts from books.

“These are Jewish artists interested in making Judaism relevant by making traditions meaningful,” Fein said about Ozeri and other artists who have visited — a muralist and a ritual object maker.

The photographer’s muse is his Yemeni parents’ first home in Israel, a tented camp near Tel Aviv where a half-dozen languages and cultures mixed. His images capture disappearing traditions of his parents’ generation and evolved to focus on contrasts between generations.

The catalyst behind Fein’s creative approach to education is a high-minded, three-year research initiative whose outcome will defy objective measure. The aim is to add soul to the school syllabus.

Along the way, the surprising result at Morasha and other sites is a change of campus culture that redirects parents and staff every bit as much as students. The outcome is getting attention from national authorities in Jewish education, such as the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.

Morasha is one of eight schools selected nationwide to participate in the research, known as Jewish Day Schools for the 21st Century (JDS-21). It is underwritten by New York’s Avi Chai Foundation and directed by Michael Zeldin, a professor of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s school of education.

While last century’s Jewish immigrants learned American values in day schools, Zeldin contends most teachers are poorly prepared to make the intercurricular connections expected of contemporary instructors. His premise is that day school students, removed from their immersion in American culture, should be absorbing more than secular subjects and Judaica. Parents, staff and the school environment all should support seizing Jewish moments in the academic day.

Zeldin’s proposed solution is deceptively simple. He asks administrators to use Jewish texts to start a campus conversation about identifying the school’s values; to find an imaginative way to express them; and to develop ways to integrate them into the school.

“Other schools have values like honesty and integrity, but they are not Jewish values tied to text,” said Zeldin, noting that a contemporary rabbi suggested a Jewish path exists to universal values. “This helps schools set a Jewish path,” Zeldin said.

It took two years for Morasha to distill its top 10 values: repairing the world, greater Jewry, faith, being a good person, Israel, prayer, education, customs and rituals, respect and community.

Kathleen A. Canter of Aliso Viejo, a parent who chaired Morasha’s CDS-21 task force, discovered that it was an enriching experience to study Jews from antiquity who grapple over values. Values take on deeper meaning when they come from your own history, she said.

Just articulating the values, Fein said, “helps sharpen or deepen their presence in our school.”

She also made the intellectual leap to see values depicted in images by Ozeri, who hopes to use Morasha’s project as a model elsewhere.

The entire sixth-grade class cherry-picked images from Ozeri’s portfolio that captured each of the school’s values. Before the photographer’s visit, students looked for texts to support their assumptions about the photos. The final piece was to give students a disposable camera to capture on film an image showing a Jewish value. Ozeri offered expert advice on composition. “You don’t have to go to India, like I did,” he said. “Use what you have.”

“This is nothing new,” said Lili B. Landman of Aliso Viejo, a mother with two girls at the school, who videotaped Ozeri’s presentation. “This school encourages [students] to go out and explore. It’s a different way of learning, with a camera. But they’ve done it in other ways, too.”

Zeldin applauds Fein for finding an innovative method to evoke the school’s values. “It’s the perfect point of entry because it speaks the language of children,” he said, who are visually oriented.

“Art touches the soul in a way spoken language rarely does,” Zeldin said.

Other schools involved also focused their agenda around Jewish values. Parents at the Rashi School of Newton, Mass., for example, were determined that the value of respect, recognized for teachers and students, also extend to them. Text study at the Pardes School in Arizona deepened surface relationships and provided a common language between parents and educators, who often spew jargon.

Some schools, which Zeldin declined to identify, lose patience with the process. “This process is meant to transform the ways schools do business,” Zeldin said. “To get there takes time. The detractors say, ‘Can’t we come up with a program for Jewish learning without the text?'”

Those engaged in the JDS-21 project are changed by it, he said, describing one task force that for a mutual friend decided to jointly purchase a gift. Their Shabbat-basket wedding gift included candlesticks, candles, wine and Jewish texts on love. “It was so meaningful for them to gather the text,” Zeldin said.

“Every time I hear those stories, I’m astounded,” he said. “The byproduct is more powerful than the product.”

Beyond the Bimah

Photojournalist Shelley Gazin found herself at a crossroads in early 1998. After two decades of illustrating for periodicals such as Newsweek, Forbes and Los Angeles, she yearned to undertake a project that was more meaningful to her artistically, personally and Jewishly.

But she wasn’t sure what that would be.

“I was really asking God for an idea,” Gazin said. “Then I had an epiphany one day while at a service.”

The result of that epiphany culminated three years later: “Looking for a Rabbi,” a series of introspective portraits of local rabbis of all denominations. It opens at the Skirball Cultural Center on July 11.

While the Marina del Rey native has participated in numerous group shows, “Looking for a Rabbi” marks Gazin’s first solo exhibition. Putting the show together became an organic process for the artist, who discovered her 27 subjects through social circles and synagogue services.

In her search to elicit something spiritual and personal from her subjects, Gazin has, for the most part, photographed the rabbis away from their pulpits. Rabbi David Wolpe was caught amid office clutter, while Rabbi Naomi Levy’s earthy portrait was taken at her home library. Rabbi Stan Levy was captured in the bustle of a Malibu tashlich ceremony. Gazin snapped Rabbi Shlomo Cunin during a Chabad telethon, with the intense TV studio lighting casting an electronic-age aura around the Lubavitcher rabbi.

“I have always been pursuing a spiritual past,” said the photographer, who, aside from two trips to Israel, didn’t investigate her Judaism until recently. “I wasn’t necessarily looking in my own backyard. I didn’t know how to take it in, literally and metaphorically.”

Everything came together in early 1998 when Gazin attended two seminal events in her spiritual life — a Metivta meditation class taught by Rabbi Jonathan Omer-man, and a lecture on kabbalah. Gazin began connecting with her Jewish side through the meditation classes, and it was at the latter Ohr HaTorah service, while hearing a sermon by Rabbi Allen Freehling, that Gazin ran into Rabbi William Kramer. Suddenly, everything clicked, and Kramer became the first to pose for Gazin. Her photographs elicited his quieter side, showing the beret-wearing rabbi surrounded by Judaica.

“She’s taken a remarkable approach to this body of work,” said Skirball Curator of Fine Arts Barbara Gilbert, who organized the exhibition. “The portraits are witty and reverential at the same time. Shelley has combined a photojournalist’s distanced objectivity with a fine artist’s more subjective and personal approach.”

Gazin’s Orthodox grandparents hail from an Eastern European and Russian heritage. For many years, her maternal grandfather ran a Kosher meatpacking plant in Los Angeles’ Fairfax district, and her grandparents attended Congregation Shaarei Tefila.

Gazin herself grew up in Beverlywood and attended Hamilton High School, then pursued her master’s at UCLA, where she combined artistic and educational interests.

“The opportunity was there to explore teaching credentials and how media could enhance education between cultures,” Gazin said. “I’m a strong believer in holistic thinking. I was always interested in bringing different departments together and creating a dialogue.” That philosophical thread continues with her exhibit.

Funded by the Skirball, “Looking for a Rabbi” is part of the Center for Jewish Culture & Creativity’s “One People, Many Voices” series, also supported by the Jewish Community Foundation. Several of the portraits have already been selected for an exhibition at the American Jewish Museum titled “Encountering the Second Commandment.” The Pittsburgh museum’s show will travel across the East Coast this fall.

“I found each of the rabbis that I approached to be very receptive to having an opportunity to teach me something,” Gazin said. “The denominational differences were never on the forefront of my mind. Each rabbi brought [his or her] own unique point of view.”

“Looking for a Rabbi: Photographs by Shelley Gazin” runs July 11-Sept. 30, Ruby Gallery, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Free admission. For information, call (310) 440-4500; visit .