The story of the Revelation at Mount Sinai has been dissected, discussed, and written about by Jewish scholars for centuries. Mount Sinai has also been the subject of paintings and poetry as far back as one can go, from its depiction in the Sistine Chapel, to John Milton’s poetic masterpiece, Paradise Lost. Carrying on in the footsteps of great scholars and artists before them, students at the Jewish Middle School have been diving deep into an exploration of Mount Sinai as part of their Jewish Studies Class.
Starting with the Hebrew text in Exodus, students studied the narrative of Har Sinai and analyzed the depth and complexity of the story. For example, when the text says that “God spoke,” they explored what those words really might have meant. Some students contend it meant God actually produced the sound of language, while others interpreted this to mean that people experienced some emanation of God that they experienced as speech. In a more traditional classroom, the study of Mount Sinai would likely end here, perhaps with an essay or exam written and quickly forgotten. But at JMS, educating students does not end with the basic transmission of information, or even with a deeper conversation of the subject. Rather, students are encouraged to process, understand, and connect with the texts they are learning in creative and inspiring ways.
Students began to think about what a depiction of Mount Sinai might look like. Using various art forms, they are bringing those representations to life. Rabbi Daniel Hoffman, Co-Head of Judaic Studies at JMS, believes strongly in integrating the arts into Jewish Studies. Hoffman says “The concept is twofold. It gives those students who express themselves better in art an opportunity to share their ideas in the best way they can, while pushing those students for whom art is not a choice medium to explore new avenues of communication.”
At JMS, there is a constant and thoughtful incorporation of the arts across curricula, giving students the opportunity to process, understand, and personally connect to subjects they are learning. As Hoffman notes, “The more kinds of connections we create in a child’s brain, the stronger the concepts they are learning become. If a student reads a verse and answers a question, it will likely blend in with the many other verses and questions they have read. But, if they produce a piece of art, or music, that knowledge will stick around for a lot longer and have a lot more meaning.”
Rabbi Saul Strosberg, founder of JMS, believes that the ability to value art and the capacity to appreciate Jewish wisdom are closely connected. Rabbi Strosberg says, “Challenging our kids to depict the Revelation at Mount Sinai gives them the opportunity to put themselves into the experience and bring their own vision to the table.” He says that by fusing the arts and Torah study, students have the opportunity to become active participants in the experiences they learn about. Giving students this autonomy and ownership is one of the many ways in which the Jewish Middle School continues to advance pedagogical practices and raise the bar for middle school education.