Sunday, July 15, 2018

Science, Creation and Paper Midrash at URJ Sci-Tech

When Isaac stood up and ripped a page right out of the comic book, he was met with gasps and expressions of horror. But that was the plan — after all, we were explaining to the campers at URJ Six Points Sci Tech West how they were going to destroy comic books to create their own paper midrash.

We spent several days last week with the campers at at the newest URJ Summer Camp - Sci Tech West, talking about Torah and midrash and creation, and teaching them how to use cut-up comic books to make new works of art.

One of the first things we did with the campers was ask them who their favorite heroes were. We were met with answers ranging from “which universe, Marvel or DC?” to Einstein and Darwin — superheroes of science. We weren’t surprised, because it’s a science camp, after all. That’s one of the reasons we focused on the story of creation for our midrash workshop; it’s often a flashpoint in debates about teaching science in schools, and it was an opportunity to explore how the science of creation and the biblical story of creation can coexist. We were happy to share with these budding scientists the revelation that Jewish thought does not expect them to take the story as written in the Torah literally; even in the middle ages, we taught them, sages like Rashi taught that the story as written in the Torah is not to be taken literally as the order of creation.

We always say a blessing with workshop participants, to give our actions a Jewish context.
(Photo by Rabbi Rick Winer)

After learning how to use the knives safely, the campers began to imagine their own midrash about creation; they explored the separation of darkness from light, the celestial bodies, land and water, animals and our place on earth.

And then we asked them to do what many had thought unthinkable: to tear pages out of comic books and to use the images, thought bubbles and heroes from those books to help share their stories and midrash. Some chose to use their favorite hero, some used a mix of heroes — one camper chose to use all images from female superheroes. While there was some cringing and lots of asking “can we really cut that up?”, the results were some beautiful images and interpretations of Breishit.

In this camper's midrash, the fourth day of creation results in the establishment of time.

The separation of light from darkness: and it was good.

All of the days of creation are found within the continents and waters of this earth.

A butterfly, symbol of change, created on the fifth day.

Separation of the waters above (shamayim – heavens) from the waters below (mayim – seas).

The snake, which "creepeth upon the earth."
With some campers and their finished work.

With some campers and their finished work.

If you're interested in finding out what we can do with YOUR community — for a few hours or a few days — please visit our website at

[Co-written with my wife, Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik]

Friday, July 6, 2018

All Hands on Deck: Fingerprint Mosaics at Camp Newman

You may have already read the whole story – how this summer at URJ Camp Newman my wife (Rabbi Shawna B2) and I led campers in the creation of new tallitot (prayer shawls) for the camp, one session at a time.

Each tallit is a fingerprint mosaic, where each camper had a chance to add their personal mark. The idea was that fingerprints are personal, but combined together they create a mosaic-like pattern, creating a communal work rather than an individual one — and that it would take the fingerprints of the whole eidah (session) to create a finished work. (And a big thank-you to Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, who worked with us on all of these talliot!)

If you haven't read that post, please go check it out on the camp blog: But here's something the post  doesn't have: pictures of all of the finished tallitot, which we're pleased to share here.

Avodah is dedicated to community involvement and social justice,
so their tallit is a rainbow flag they took to the 2018 Pride Festival

Tzofim's tallit is a Jerusalem skyline, complete with turrets and archways.

Rishonim is out "nature" session, so they made a tree – with a branch for each of their twelve "tribes."

Bogrim made the seven species: grapes, dates, wheat, barley, figs, olives, and pomegranates.

The CITs are celebrating "C-CHAI-T" this year so their handprints surround a chai, with advisors' hands blessing them from the sides. (This shot is the ALMOST-done tallit; we were waiting for two late arrivals to complete it.)
Hagigah's tallit is an abstract representation of waves,
in honor of Camp Newman's first summer "by the bay."
Faculty and staff made a tallit as well – "Miriam's Well," with a quote from Amos 5:24:
"Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

And if you want more information on what we can do with your community, check us out on the web at

Social Justice Art at Camp Newman

The week before camp started this summer, Twitter exploded with Bible quotes protesting the treatment of immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. So much of our Torah seems made for protest signs — because so much of our people’s story is about rejecting the status quo and looking toward a better future.

“Justice; justice you shall pursue!”
“Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly before God!”
“Love your neighbor!”
“Do not stand idly by!”

So when asked by the URJ Camp Newman director to come up with an activity for the Avodah campers — a session dedicated to community service and social action — Rabbi Shawna and I decided to try something new: social justice art.

We already had a bunch of knives, and plenty of cardboard ready to be upcycled, so we just needed a few more things: breathing masks, gloves, and LOTS OF SPRAY PAINT.

Day one was learning how to use the tools: getting comfortable cutting cardboard stencils and building spray booths to safely (and cleanly) practice stenciling — and then doing some test stencils.

As with every art workshop we lead, this one relied heavily on Jewish text and context. We introduced the idea of Judaism as a religion that encourages questions, and questioning authority — of never accepting things as they are, but advocating for a better world, loudly and clearly. We emphasized that protest does not have to be limited to complaining and criticizing, but can be about inspiring action and change. We combined that with the traditional role of stencil graffiti as a way to quickly and clearly communicate messages to a wide audience, and soon the campers were turning their ideas about the world around them into stencils.

We shared with them Banksy’s quote: “If graffiti changed anything, it would be illegal.” Because yes, art can be powerful and dangerous. But we weren’t planning to turn these campers into vandals — we encouraged them to consider how their art could be shared legally: on signs pasted up around camp with removable painter’s tape, as images to be shared digitally, and as signs and posters to amplify their voices at rallies. For instance, every summer Avodah marches in the San Francisco Pride Parade and attends the AIDS Walk San Francisco — and they created art to share those messages. We struggled with how to share Jewish text, and we were surprised with the teens’ discomfort at listing book, chapter and verse; they felt that this was Christian way to share text and instead chose to center their work around the concept of tzedek — “justice” — with the other messages placed around it.

The messages they chose to make into stencils were powerful and familiar:

“Nevertheless She Persisted”
“Never Again”
“She Grabs Back”
“Our Time”

It was fascinating to see how they created their personal messages, but also how they combined those messages together to make a plywood “wall” to share with camp — integrating their messages and imagery into one big collaboration. They chose to overlay their messages with people raising their hands to step up, their hearts united in love.

We also had the opportunity to create protest art with campers from the Hagigah session, which is focused on the arts; I was joined at these sessions by Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, the session rabbi, who taught about Judaism being a protest religion and how even our monotheism was countercultural. These campers had more time to experiment with the tools, and to explore more messages — and they wowed us as well.

“Love is Love”
“Dance Out of the Closet”
“We Are All Equal”
“We Fight”

They, too, had individual pieces that were even more powerful when combined with the work of their friends and peers — creating a plywood triptych for display in the annual Hagigah Peachy Levy Arts Festival at the end of their session. I am so inspired by these campers, who are finding their voices and learning to make themselves heard.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Something Surprising at Camp Newman

I’ve been cutting paper with campers at URJ Camp Newman for twelve years, and every year it’s roughly the same. I’ve got a lesson plan, and we do the same sorts of projects; I’ve got a pretty solid system in place. Which is why I was so surprised to be surprised this summer, as a couple of campers did something I’ve never seen before.

But let me back up a bit first, in case you’re new to this blog.

Same camp, new location!

My wife and I volunteer as faculty at Camp Newman every summer for two weeks — me as an artist, and she as a rabbi. This year we were at new (temporary) location — Cal Maritime University — but camp is camp no matter where we find ourselves. I spend two hours a day, nearly every day, for two weeks, cutting paper with about 20 campers and making "paper midrash.” The work that these campers produce always sends me back to my studio full of inspiration and ready to get back to cutting paper. (My wife and I had a couple of other exciting projects this summer as well, including protest art and tallit-making; stay tuned to this blog for posts about all that stuff.)

The campers I work with are part of Hagigah, the arts track for 10th and 11th graders; these campers spend four weeks in total at Camp Newman, where they're exposed to many different forms of art, and encouraged to try them all out and learn new ways to express themselves. Among the other offerings this summer were mosaics, performance art, dance, songleading, screenprinting and Hebrew lettering.

So, back to the surprise. Once the campers get familiar with their knives and what they can do (including some basic safety lessons because KNIVES), our first project is a mizrach: an ornamental wall plaque used to indicate the direction of prayer (east) in Jewish homes. We brainstormed as a group to get some ideas going, but each student designed their own mizrach and then backed it with comics.

Even though all of the campers start with the same project and the same batch of ideas, each of the pieces is incredible and unique. But this summer I was surprised that a couple of campers chose to go in a completely new direction: they went political. It was wonderful to see these teenagers working to find their voices and express themselves, especially in pursuit of a better world; see for yourself.

Jerusalem skyline

"East" in four languages

Sunrise over the Western Wall

The Old City of Jerusalem

The Wall, filled with notes of praise and prayer

The words in the figure at the bottom read, "To Be Continued."

The artist of the mizrach above wrote, "This piece depicts a sun rising over a mountain. The theme of the piece is 'east,' or the direction you face when you pray. There is a story that states if you look directly at the sun, you are looking at God; it’s up to us whether we believe it. That is why there is an eye in the center of the sun. The meaning of 'To Be Continued' is up for you to decide, but to me it means that no matter what happens, we will continue through fighting, war, anger, and fire."

Conflict and connection

The artist of the mizrach above wrote, "This piece is about conflict between Israel and America. This is shown by putting a split between both of the flags — but both sides have their heroes. Israel has Ragman, a Jewish superhero from the DC universe. America quite obviously has Captain America. The Nazi flag is to represent neo-Nazis, and the other conflicts are just to represent war."

A typographical approach

Star, mountain, earth

A compass pointing east

Sun and water

Jewish heroes make up the wall; American symbols make up the visiting figure

The state of Israel

The second project is our BIG project: paper midrash. Each camper had to find a Jewish story or character or theme from our tradition which they wanted to explore and develop with the aid of knife and paper. Some found midrash or stories to explore in Sefer HaAggadah, others made up their own commentaries, and all of them created stunning work; there are some incredible pieces of comics in the backgrounds, often driving a lot of additional meaning.

Here they are, along with the descriptions written by the artists themselves.

"This is Moses parting the Red Sea. I made his face blank because I want people to focus on the waves and not about the way Moses looks."

"My piece is about Abraham and Sarah being visited by an angel to bless them with a baby."

"For my midrash, I decided to show Joseph’s dream of him ruling over his father, mother, and 11 siblings. This is shown by a crown overlooking a sun, moon, and 11 stars. I made the stars different colors to show different siblings. The crown is starry to show how majestic and powerful Joseph is. This all together shows Joseph’s dream told in midrash."

"This piece depicts the crossing of the Red Sea. Egypt and Israel are shown on either side of the sea; the words 'Mi chamocha ba’eilim Adonai' ('Who is like You among the gods, Adonai?') are written across the middle."

"This piece of art tells the story of Jacob and Asaav in the womb when Asaav steals the role of the first-born by pulling Jacob’s ankle down and pushing himself out to be born. He does this to earn the birthright of the first-born."

The Sacrifice of Isaac

"This is my alternative to the midrash project that I used to help show my Jewish identity. When I had trouble finding midrash to make a piece on, I decided to make an ode to our history that is our suffering. The biggest part of our Jewish identity is that we keep coming back from devastating events and every time, survive further. The fact that I can make a piece of art 2000 years later about a devastating event to us shows that our resilience is nothing to be ignored."

"This piece shows Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, crushing a swastika buried in the ground."

"My piece is about Ephraim’s sons. The midrash says that his children will be archers, which is with there is a bow and arrows."

A cairn

"From the Torah, and the writings of many rabbis, anger and evil are seen as two separate things. Evil is a punishable impurity. Anger is different; anger is not bad – it is an emotion. Anger takes away the good and wisdom within a man. I made a figure with a mask to represent this. The mask is filled with images of angry heroes. I chose a mask with these images because it gives the idea that even a pure man can do wrong while misled in anger."

An hourglass

All of this work will be on display as part of the annual Hagigah Peachy Levy Arts Festival at the end of their session.

The best part of this is that I don’t just do this for two weeks every summer — my wife (Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik) and I get to bring this to different communities across the country all year, leading art workshops and talking about art and comics and Judaism; we call it Paper Midrash. If you're interested in finding out what we can do with YOUR community — for a few hours or a few days — please visit our website at