Photojournalist Zion Ozeri understands that kids are often bored and uninspired in class. Growing up in Israel during the 1950s and ’60s, he sometimes failed to see the relevance of what his religious teachers tried to get across.
Micaela Chelemer of Tenafly took this photo of the Book of Samuel "because the pages were still in motion. It showed the continuity and constancy of learning. The map reflects the Jewish theme and the Hebrew on the top right corner shows that Jews never finish learning and there’s always something beyond just the text on the page. It expresses Jewish learning and the will to learn. Jews are always willing and eager to learn."
"We Jews have excelled in textual study; we’re very intellectual," said Ozeri, now a New York resident. "But why not also use a medium that has emotional as well as intellectual impact? Students are constantly bombarded with imagery. Why not use this powerful tool in education?"
Thus was born The Jewish Lens, Ozeri’s photography-based Jewish values curriculum that started in six New York-area schools three years ago and now is used in 80 middle- and high schools in America and in Israel.
Photographer Zion Ozeri developed a curriculum that uses photography to teach Jewish values. photo by Michael Priest
About 15 10th- through 1’th-graders at the Bergen County High School for Jewish Studies, an independent supplemental program for public-school students, recently completed their first Jewish Lens class.
"We always look for courses that will engage our students," said Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, BCHSJS assistant principal. "This allowed for an exploration of Jewish values and rituals through the lens of Jewish diversity around the world. It had a hands-on piece that was crucial."
Using Ozeri’s photographs of Jewish communities in places including Yemen, Russia, North Africa, and India, the students were guided by their teacher, Rabbi Gary Carlin, to look for links between the images and key Jewish values and texts. They researched the depicted communities and then took their own photos to document local communal values such as ritual, tzedakah, and Jewish identity.
Ozeri’s hope is that the exercise of analyzing "embedded" values in photographs will give better resonance to those same values when studied in written form.
Carlin said he felt the course "really reached out to the students. We focused on captioning the photographs and their connection with the texts, and that helped them to contexualize art as a vehicle for Jewish expression. ‘Jewish values’ is a nebulous concept and you need to have a clearer direction."
The professionally developed curriculum includes everything from suggested texts to basic lessons in photography. "We’re not here to make them professional photographers, but to say, ‘Here’s an image with which you come in contact every day. There are a few basic things to think about before you click the shutter," said Ozeri.
"Even the simplest cameras we have today are technically better than the best cameras people had 50 years ago, and yet great photographs were taken then. It’s not about the equipment."
Avoda Arts, a non-profit educational organization that uses arts and culture as entry points into Jewish learning, provides teacher orientation for the curriculum. Ozeri partnered with Avoda when he saw that the program was growing. "It made sense for us to be under their umbrella and work together," he said.
Ozeri sometimes visits schools that use the curriculum, and he’s happy with the results. "Because a lot of it is about observation, unlike with frontal teaching where the same students always participate, no answer is wrong and all of a sudden you see everyone and his mother participating," said Ozeri. "It’s beautiful. Kids can express themselves."