Rabbi Mixes Art and Spirituality

A typical morning class at Rabbi Rebecca Richman’s house, pre-pandemic | Courtesy of Rabbi Rebecca Richman

Some of Rabbi Rebecca Richman’s West Philadelphia Art Beit Midrash students call her Rabbi Richman. Some go with Rabbi Bec. Others, just Bec.

Differences aside, the one thing her students agree on is that Richman’s class, which began with in-person instruction a year ago and has since been adapted for Zoom, has become an important part of their daily spiritual practice. The combination of a weekly class with singing, textual study, art-making and open discussion has become a balm in troubling times.

“It’s a really lovely experience,” Yona Diamond Dansky of Elkins Park said.

Prior to the pandemic, classes were held weekly at Richman’s house and at Germantown Jewish Centre, where she is a part-time rabbi. Classes at the latter were under the aegis of GJC, and called Communal Creative Practice; the classes at her home were her own project, sponsored by Reconstructing Judaism. Now, her Zoom classes have drawn almost 80 students from across the country.

“It was beshert,” says Phyllis Kritz, a yoga instructor in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Richman, who is also a soferet, has long sought ways to gather her interests in art, Jewish study and communal practice. When she was still at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she received a grant from Reconstructing Judaism that allowed her to explore creative ways to interest more Jewish people in learning. She looked into programming and, in the fall of 2018, a friend suggested she check out a group called the Jewish Studio Project.

Based in Berkeley, California, the Jewish Studio Project promotes a method text study it calls the Jewish Studio Process. The process: spiritual grounding, learning, intention setting, art-making and witnessing. It’s not just intellectual discussion, Richman said, but something different, incorporating creative expression and a reverence for process.

She visited the Jewish Studio Project headquarters while eight months pregnant, alongside her mother, for an immersive program on the theme of “Lech Lecha,” a parsha that deals with Abraham’s venture into the unknown. The Jewish Studio Process “sounded like exactly what I wanted for myself, and also sounded like a really compelling idea to bring forward into the world,” Richman said.

Back in Mt. Airy, Richman got work, founding the West Philadelphia Art Beit Midrash, again with assistance from Reconstructing Judaism. Classes were held at 7:30 a.m. on weekdays — Mondays at GJC, Thursdays in her home — and one Sunday a month at GJC.

The classes typically begin with singing or poetry, followed by a short meditation. Then comes group text study, sometimes of the weekly parsha, sometimes liturgy and sometimes quotes Richman finds about current affairs. After discussion, everyone quietly sets their intention for the morning then selects their art-making materials.

For 20 or 30 minutes, the students use the materials that Richman provides to say something, even if they’re not exactly sure what.

The point is not to end up with a finished product, Richman noted — “It’s not an art class” — but to focus on the process. Finally, at the conclusion of the art-making, it’s time for witnessing, wherein everyone takes a look at what they’ve done and free-writes.

“It’s really different,” Richman said. And though it’s changed a bit via Zoom — you can’t take in your partner’s process as you embark on your own, and class discussion can be halting — what is essential about it remains.

Sheila Erlbaum, a member of GJC, retired last year after working as a speech pathologist for more than 40 years. She had never been particularly drawn to art; “I thought I was probably the worst person to use a brush,” she said. She already felt that she maintained a strong sense of spirituality, too.

And yet, since beginning the class, Erlbaum feels that art and, more surprisingly to her, text study, have become important parts of her life. A quote from Isaiah last week was “really, truly like a gift.” As she goes through chemotherapy, too, she’s come to rely on the class in ways she never anticipated.

Richman isn’t quite sure what comes next. Eventually, there will come a time when Zoom is not the only option. Will she continue with the Zoom classes? It’s too soon to say. Regardless, it’s been an enlightening experience.

“I have been profoundly amazed,” she said, “not just with how people have been able to jump in and pick it up, but I was not expecting that this was going to be something that became like a solid community for people, that they really relied on.”

jbernstein@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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