A line-drawn rabbi in the wild wild West
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A line-drawn rabbi in the wild wild West

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Steven Sheinkin’s Rabbi Harvey brings Yiddishkeit to the wild West.

Rabbi Harvey is a long drink of water, a stretched out black-and white line drawing whose single eyebrow curls across the top of his head like a literal hairband – a band of hair – and whose beard entirely obscures his mouth and almost all of his nose. (We do get to see an occasional flash of nostril.)

How he breathes is anyone’s guess – but because he’s the creation of graphic novelist and children’s book author Steven Sheinkin, we don’t really have to worry about that.

The length of Rabbi Harvey’s gestation could put an elephant to shame. He was conceived when Sheinkin, now 44, was 10 years old, and first appeared when Sheinkin was almost 40.

Rabbi Harvey first began to form when Sheinkin was a Hebrew school student at Ramat Shalom in Nanuet, New York. His father could see that “I was doing just fine in terms of memorizing, but I wasn’t getting the gist of it,” Sheinkin said. He wasn’t getting the joy and profundity and wisdom of the Jewish tradition.

“So my father gave me a book of Jewish folktales, called ‘101 Jewish Stories,'” he continued. “I read them and loved them, but I didn’t realize that I was learning Judaism from them. I thought they were clever and wise, but much later I realized that I was so moved by the stories that I’d like to do something of my own with them.”

Those stories – midrashim, folk tales, stories from Chelm, Sholom Aleichem’s work – form the base of the Rabbi Harvey stories, but they have been moved from the Middle East and eastern Europe to the timelessly wild West, and their star is a cross between a rebbe and a sheriff, both as reimagined in the twenty-first century.

Rabbi Harvey and Steven Sheinkin are going to be the headliners at the second Kehillah Partnership sixth-grade program, set for Sunday, January 27, at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge.

The partnership, funded by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, primarily focuses on students in nine after school Hebrew schools in the federation’s catchment area, although it is open to sixth-graders from other schools as well. This year, it offers four Sunday programs; this one is the second.

The first program, on December 2, was with Julie Wohl, an artist and Jewish Theological Seminary-trained Jewish educator whose work includes both Conservative and Reform versions of a children’s siddur called “Mah Tov.”

At that workshop, held at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, “the children learned about prayer and expressed prayer in art,” Juliet Barr said. Barr, a Bergen County Jewish educator, develops, coordinates, and runs the program.

The art workshop was created in response to Hebrew school principals’ worries about how to “show them that prayer is not memorizing,” Barr said. “How can we make it vibrant?”

When 159 kids showed up that Sunday morning they first did icebreaker exercises and then were broken into six groups. Each group was assigned a prayer, and each student was given a worksheet about the prayer. “Ninety-nine percent of the kids had at least some familiarity with the prayer, but we wanted them to hear it as if they’d never heard it before,” Barr said. The sheets included the prayer in Hebrew, in transliteration, and in English, as well as some basic information on it. Barr’s background is Reform but Wohl’s husband, Josh Wohl, is a Conservative rabbi, so he checked them to make sure that all perspectives, including the Orthodox, were represented. Beneath that, Wohl asked some questions about the art.

After a discussion about the prayers, Wohl gave the students paper, wax pastels, and watercolors, and she taught them an art technique called wax resist. Finally, each student was asked to paint his or her feeling about the prayer, approaching it as if it were brand new. “Even if you’d heard it all your life, paint it as if you hadn’t,” she told the kids.

Once that was done, the students were regrouped by their home shuls. Finally, they were asked to cut up their art (“I was nervous about that part,” Barr said. “They knew it was coming, and I knew that Julie had done it before, but I’m a mom too, and I worried.”) Then they put the pieces together, and were given acrylic paint to make it all cohesive.

“I brought them home to my house to dry, before I returned them to the shuls,” Barr said. “I got a little emotional looking at them. They are that good.”

This Sunday, the program will be similar, in that students will be exposed both to a creative art – in this case, cartooning – and to its Jewish content, and to allow their own hands and hearts to try it for themselves.

There are now three Rabbi Harvey books, and each of the 150 children registered for the workshop will have been given one of them to read. (The program is not free, although it is heavily subsidized by the federation and the schools. It costs $75 for children who belong to one of the participating Hebrew schools; other children pay $100. The fees go toward materials and snacks.)

The kids will start with a snack, and while they’re having it Steve will do a PowerPoint presentation,” Barr said. Then they’ll be divided into three groups, depending on which book they read, and Steve will come to each group and do a step-by-step lesson on how to cartoon. If they want to, they can draw their own cartoons panels, and another group will do dramatic readings and skits based on their book. Then Steve will put together questions and do a giant synagogue-versus-synagogue trivia game. One of the rabbis will be there as a timekeeper. We’ll divide the kids up so they’ll meet new kids, and it’s important to come back to their temple groups.”

Barr is passionate about her work, which she sees as having more than one objective. One is to connect Hebrew school students to Judaism through art, which often has a more direct line to the heart and soul than prosaic words can offer. Another is to break down some of the barriers between members of different Jewish streams. The Kehillah Partnership works almost entirely with students whose families belong to Reform or Conservative shuls, but she would love to welcome students from other parts of the Jewish world as well.

“I think it’s profound,” she said of the effects of the program. “The barriers between Reform and Conservative often are too high to chip away, but there are no barriers here.” The effort is helped along in practical ways because all the boys wear kippot and all the snacks are kosher.

The next Sunday program, set for March 10, is Tzedakah Day.

“It will be powerful in a different way,” Barr said. “Every kid will have a dollar put in their hand. They’ll walk around the room, with people telling them about different programs, and they’ll have to decide. They’ll hear people from Hurricane Sandy cleanup organizations, people representing programs that help handicapped children, that help disabled kids, that train seeing eye dogs.

“So where does their dollar go? Obviously they can’t tear it up and give it to more than one place. So how do you make that decision? We tell the kids that they’re about to become bar or bat mitzvah?

“How are you going to decide?”

The last program, scheduled for April 14, is going to be about Israel.

“Our dream is to grow this program,” Barr said. “It’s not really about the synagogues It’s about the kids. It’s fantastic experiential programming. The minute you get kids out of the classroom and show them Jewish programming that is exciting, that speaks to them, they will hold onto it for a long time.”

For more information, go to kehillahpartnershipgrade6.weebly.com.

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