Earlier this month, after 17 years of uniting Torah and creative expression for post-high school Jewish women, Jerusalem’s Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut, affectionately known as EVO, permanently closed its doors.
Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut started as the brainchild of Marcia Genuth and Sylvia Schoenfeld from Emunah Women in America. They were referred to Rabbi David Debow, who “was freshly back from shlichut [serving as an emissary] in Cleveland, Ohio” where he was the principal of the high school at Fuchs Mizrachi, a local Orthodox day school.
At that time, Emunah College on Derech Beit Lehem in Jerusalem was offering programs in graphic design, theater and fine arts. Genuth and Schoenfeld wanted to extend that blend of religious Jewish women’s education and the arts to a gap-year program.
“They were the catalysts that brought it together,” Debow shared, adding that the idea had the full support of Amos Safrai, the then-dean of Emunah College.
Today, things have changed, but to illustrate why such institutions were necessary 17 years ago, Debow recounted the experience of Leah Raab, one of Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut’s art teachers. “She is a gifted artist, a wonderful educator and a tremendously caring woman. She went to Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design] and was really on the defensive. The idea that a religious woman would be a serious artist was ridiculed.”
There were questions around modesty and the common practice of fine arts students painting nudes. “These were overt conflicts,” Debow articulated. “Freedom of expression was a big question. Can a religious person express themselves fully and artistically within Halacha?”
According to Debow, this was the dilemma that Emunah College, and later Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut, originally opened to address.
Today, the situation for religious artists is much different. Dr. Yocheved Debow, Rabbi Debow’s wife and Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut’s co-director said, “It has become easier to be religious [in the art world]. Today, there is a haredi branch of Bezalel where people learn to take these gifts that Hashem gave them and use them with their nefesh [soul].”
Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut has certainly played an important role in assisting in that cultural transition.
“We got better at it,” Rabbi Debow noted. Speaking of Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut’s faculty, he said, “We got people who helped us help the students access it themselves, [discovering that] the highest level of artistic expression can be accomplished while exploring Torah themes.”
Dr. Debow added that it was “a real zechut [privilege] to work with them. People loved teaching in our school because the students were so interesting.”
Rabbi Debow added that Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut was “alive intellectually. People were really exploring. Enrollment was not ideologically driven. Our students came as artists.”
Asked what he thinks was his greatest accomplishment in the 17 years Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut was open, Rabbi Debow said, “I am the most proud of my students. Many of them said that this was a life-changing experience. Many alumnae are art teachers. Some are working in the artistic world. Torah is still central in their lives. That’s a good sense of nachas [pride].
“I’m [also] very proud of our performance-based education. It’s a really needed piece of education. Some students never shined in an academic environment. We always felt that calling upon students to perform was a way to bring them out.”
Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut did shows twice a year where students would exhibit their art and perform. Providing a performance space for women was a critical element of their success, according to Dr. Debow. In these biannual performances, men were welcome to view the art exhibits and listen to instrumental music. In accordance with their understanding of Jewish law, singing and dancing were performed for an exclusively female audience.
Rabbi Debow said that on Shavuot, when there is a custom to stay up all night and study Torah, “Every student taught on Shavuot night. Teaching is also a kind of performance,” he related.
The decision to close Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut was not an easy one. “It’s been a long process, thinking about sustainability,” Rabbi Debow commented.
“We had 17 really wonderful years of education and institution building. [The decision to close was] a combination of environmental factors and internal factors. We really tried to be inclusive, but had the stigma of being a second-chance school.” This reputation came, he theorized, from “being a place that is broad and not so clearly defined.”
Additionally, the once-novel idea of teaching and integrating Torah and arts became more common in high schools in the Jewish world, and some other midrashot started offering art programs. Although no other school was completely centered on arts and music like Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut, attracting artistically-inclined students had definitely become more competitive through the years.
Even still, the Debows mourn that no other school is performance-based the way Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut was. Even today, art is still considered peripheral in the Jewish world and the need for a place like Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut remains. “There is still a need. Something is missing in the Jewish world without it,” Rabbi Debow said with a sigh.
Dr. Debow added, “It wasn’t the time for it to die. We created a space for young women who felt misunderstood. They came to a space where they met others who were out of the box. [They were] thirsty for a place like that. It’s really sad for Am Yisrael [the Jewish people] that a place like this doesn’t exist.
“It was such a healthy, expressive place. All the teachers loved teaching here. They were challenged to go deep. It’s fun for teachers to have students who are thoughtful about what they are teaching. It was a very exciting space and it’s sad that it’s closed. It was what we had to do, but it wasn’t because it was time to say, ‘Okay, everyone else is doing this. They don’t need us anymore.’”
NEVERTHELESS, THE world for creative Jewish women in Israel has matured since Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut first opened its doors in 2006. Today, the Jewish community commonly offers performance spaces for women and there are well-known artists in the Jewish world whose art has a Torah-focused central message.
“Religious art is not stereotypical,” Rabbi Debow elaborated. “It’s not a brand that is recognizable. That idea of an artist being avant-garde and prust [crass] has become cliché. The idea that you have to be shocking to be an artist, that delicate Torah themes can’t be expressed and can’t be considered beautiful, that’s real change in the world.
“There’s an appreciation that modesty and kedusha [holiness] even are not inexpressible, are not anathema, are not obfuscation. They are not retreats from the boundary of creative expression, but they are really legitimate expressions in and of themselves. And that’s a real accomplishment,” he added proudly.
Dr. Debow explained that there are a number of students who have started art careers in the world of Judaica. “They’d learn a skill. They learned how to do papercutting, to create art out of stained glass, Hebrew calligraphy. As a result of that, there are women who took that to be their career and are making art in all sorts of ways. It opened our eyes to the possibilities of how you can use art professionally and make that Jewish art part of your life.
“We really want to celebrate the teachers that taught here. We were blessed to have thoughtful educators, thoughtful artists and musicians who really lived and breathed performance and Judaism and just inspired by being who they were.
“Part of what was so powerful in our school was that there was just so much authenticity. That’s what touched our students – to come into a world where people lived what they believed in, lived Torah and the arts. That was so refreshing for students who really came from worlds where that hardly existed. That was very powerful. We’re very proud that was the world we created here,” she described.
Rabbi Debow emphasized that, despite its emphasis on art, Torah education at Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut was central to the school’s purpose. “We didn’t try to stick all our Torah into some kind of creative project and we didn’t say that every artistic painting had to have a pasuk [biblical verse] in it.” He estimated that the curriculum was 65% Torah study and 35% art.
Rabbi Debow commented that, “We’ve also made some beautiful publications over the years.” Each year, the students created illustrated Haggadot, Megillot Esther and birkonim [booklets with Grace After Meals]. In fact, one of Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut’s closing crowdfunding campaign goals is to publish its closing art project – an illustrated Book of Psalms they call the EVO Tehillim.
What’s next for the Debows? Dr. Debow is joining the administrative leadership of Midreshet HaRova, which she said, “has a well-established art program. I hope to nurture a space for creativity.” Rabbi Debow is moving in a very different direction. He will be editing Torah commentary for Koren Publishers.
“Our last year was one of our best years ever. We ended with 27 students who had a great year. We gave them everything to the end. We ended proudly.
“This is a celebration. We’re sad, but not bitter or upset. It was a fantastic run,” Debow concluded. ❖
“Our last year was one of our best years ever. We ended with 27 students who had a great year. We gave them everything to the end. We ended proudly.”Rabbi David Debow
Alumnae and faculty reflect: What EVO meant to them
At EVO’s closing event earlier this month, the Debows were gifted with dozens of testimonials from alumnae and staff, attesting to the power of Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut. Here are some quotes, taken from those reflections and shared with permission of those who are quoted.
Hanna Tova Glicksman (Class of 2014): I went to Rabbi Debow towards the beginning of the year, after Rosh Hashanah. I told him that that year I didn’t feel God during Rosh Hashanah; I just couldn’t connect to Him the way I had in years before. Rabbi Debow suggested we use the Ten Days of Repentance to learn the Rambam’s [Maimonides] writings on teshuva [repentance], a chavruta [study group], just of the two of us. I was astounded that he would offer me that. Wasn’t he busy? But we did, and that Yom Kippur was one of the most spiritual ones I ever had, before or after.
Orli Hartstein (Class of 2019): A piece of Torah that I remember from EVO wasn’t a specific midrash, it was that Judaism is a personal journey and you must live and love Hashem as you. EVO was such a unique place, such an amalgamation of people and opinions, which I feel reflects the beauty of Torah, and how art can be a personal tool to connect your hand to your heart.
Leah Herzog: You created a place where both the elements of soulfulness – the heart, the mind, the spirit – are embraced and nurtured. You created a space for growth in Torah and for finding one’s space in the Jewish community. You created a haven of caring and compassion within a context of respectful limits and rules that are founded on and guided by Torah laws and values. In short, a gan eden katan [small paradise]. What a gift to all – students and faculty – who entered and spent time in it.
Dina Horowitz (Class of 2007): Even though EVO was 17 (!!!) years ago for our year, it still sits fresh in my mind. If it weren’t for EVO I would not have spent a year in seminary. One of the best experiences I had at EVO was hiking to a site where we’d learn about what took place there in the Torah and then painting or drawing the scene. That truly connected Torah and art and made the Torah come alive for me in a way it never had before.
Devora Sarah Ruderman (Class of 2023): EVO has had a bigger impact on my life than I ever thought it would. It’s not a secret for me that if it weren’t for EVO, I would probably not be religious, and not feel this immense love for Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] and Judaism that I have now. Because of EVO, I love being Jewish and Israeli and connect strongly with that identity. Because of EVO, I don’t feel like my Jewish values hold me back from expressing my music.
Rav Ari Schwartz: Another special part of EVO were the types of students you attracted. The diversity of students never ceased to amaze me – Modern Orthodox, haredi, Chabad, ba’alei teshuva [Jews from a secular background who became religiously observant], hippies, and much more. There were students who were liberal-minded as well as conservative-minded; passionate Zionists as well as anti-Zionists; and every color in between. In this sense, teaching at EVO felt like teaching to all of Am Yisrael and not just to one specific group.
Franny Waisman: I remember the first phone call I received asking me to join the EVO team. I remember my hesitation to commit to something so different and unknown. It took no time for me to realize what a special place, a holy place, Emunah V’Omanut is. Something different and real. A place not only for learning Torah, but for creating with Torah. I realized within the first month what a magnificent hidden gem EVO was and I wanted to be fully a part of it. I knew that there was shechinah [the divine presence] in Emunah V’Omanut and that it was radiating from you. You have expanded your personal home and created something magical. A home for the yearning creative soul in the land of Israel. A place of true freedom and openness. A place of growth. ❖
Out of the box: Rabbi David Debow reflects on 17 years of running Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut
Sitting at the close of a glorious 17-year run, I am trying to process the lessons from this grand educational experiment. Surrounded by packing boxes here at the last location of what proved to be a five-stop tour around Jerusalem, I come across various pieces of students past: a sculpture of a hand thrusting forth out of a smooth box, a colorful stained-glass hanukkiah with hands clasped. Where am I supposed to put such precious objects? How to store the creative outpourings of a searching soul?
To dispose of such things seems sacrilege, and yet, there isn’t enough room, not in these cartons and not in my home. These pieces recall faces and discussions, and struggles. Where is she now? Did she ever have that conversation with her parents, those parents she lovingly depicted with hands clasped?
I am blessed, truly blessed, to have been present at a particular junction in these women’s lives, here in Jerusalem, where real questions were asked and answers sought, canvases filled, and songs sung.
Lasting impact? I have no question. All it takes is to nudge these fast-moving lives a little bit this way or that way and entire trajectories can be altered. But what then happened to the project, the experiment that I am now packing up? I don’t think the answer will ever be definitive, but having tried to direct this ship past shoals and icebergs for nearly two decades, certain trends suggest themselves.
First, it is clear to me that an arts-based, performance-centered Torah education will continue. The vibrancy of a class that integrates Torah and the arts, the excitement around café nights and gallery openings will continue to be captured by creative educators elsewhere. There is so much gained when a student is required to perform. I remember the cheers, the tears, the sense of potential released when one particular student finally broke through and finished a song, after two false starts on stage.
I wasn’t there. Performances were always women for women. But the reverberations of her triumph were felt by everyone. Finding your voice, developing your style, delivering that well-researched Shavuot-night shiur with a clever hook to wake people up at 3 a.m., are such valuable experiences that I am confident that these educational methods, already present in some form or another at various Torani-programs, will continue to develop and expand. In fact, many North American day schools have well developed arts-based programs.
In some ways, the success of this method, its proliferation, made an arts-based seminary less of a necessity. Still, the magic of drawing together creative students and creative educators to form a community that would learn Torah together, mount shows together, host concerts together made a performance-based Seminary a unique experience on the gap-year landscape.
In building my community, I looked to recruit students who wanted opportunities to create as opposed to a school for creatives. I wanted to gather a cohort of students who would catalyze each other’s creativity. The entire school would take responsibility, with excited anticipation of our various events: mid-year shows, art-explosions, open-mic nights.
We were joined more by what we did together, and less by some perceived common identity. I sensed that that identity-based definition was dangerous and would limit our appeal to all kinds of students who wanted to learn Torah and loved to paint, dance, write, make music and movies.
People often characterized EVO as out-of-the-box, and I generally took that as a compliment. We were doing something different, something exciting. Our teachers celebrated the probing explorations, the difficult conversations, the demand to answer for elements of our tradition that might elsewhere be taken as given. I was blessed to work with a staff of superb educators, open and exploring people who thrived on getting down to the essence of things.
But sometimes being out-of-the-box became a box itself. A “creative” became a profile for a certain student that had difficulty in traditional classrooms. It became shorthand for students that had a constellation of challenges that we didn’t want to name for fear of hurting the student so we called it something else – a creative. Such obfuscations rarely help in the end.
My success in gathering students who create, not creatives, generated a classroom that spanned the gamut of academic ability, religious backgrounds, geographic locales and socioeconomic strata. Here students genuinely contended with the blessings and challenges of a heterogeneous classroom.
Some of my greatest educational triumphs came with a student who had real language processing difficulties. Students who would fail miserably if asked to read and translate a parasha [weekly Torah portion] but instead produced fascinatingly insightful graphic novel renditions of those same biblical passages. Time and again, a Chumash [Bible] teacher would leave the mid-year show with a renewed appreciation of that quiet student in the corner who barely contributes and yet produced a massive depiction of a future Jerusalem descending in flames. Inclusion wasn’t a slogan but a lived reality.
The problem is when out-of-the-box becomes an alternative box and responsibility shifts from the person to the school to manage the difficulties inherent in being outside certain important boxes. Where certain students bravely developed alternative methods for overcoming difficulties, other students sheltered themselves inside those boxes claiming – “Sorry, I don’t do that, and you are wrong for expecting it of me.”
I think living outside of boxes became increasingly difficult over the years I ran Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut. As a school that attracted students who chafed against certain cookie-cutter societal expectations, I celebrated their expansion of certain conventional Jewish roles. These students balked at midrasha as a kind of finishing school, where the successful product looked and behaved in a very identifiable manner. My students proved that Orthodox Jewish women could be many things including janitors, journalists, champion fencers, hi-tech executives, and window designers for Macy’s holiday displays.
But I have become increasingly concerned where expanding definitions begin to erode the centrality of a traditional Jewish family. I sense that expanding roles has become less a function of a certain irrepressible curiosity and more a function of a value shift about what is really worthwhile.
I understand that family and children may not be everyone’s lot and recognize the many important alternate ways people contribute to the Jewish future. I worry that the aspiration has diminished.
And while I recognize how we have all benefited from democratic values like autonomy, equality and inclusion, I am more sensitive to how their unquestioned embrace by modern students can stand in tension to building strong Jewish homes.
To my mind, boxes, identities, definitions have become more entrenched on both sides of the political divide such that being outside the box becomes increasingly difficult. A tolerance for challenging convention diminished in certain traditional circles and a more outright rejection of traditional boxes developed on the other side.
It is critical to acknowledge the importance of the box, which to me is family and children, in order to claim the expanding space outside it. That dance with modernity became more difficult for me over time, until my fiddling on a rooftop came to an end.
Perhaps a Kabbalistic read makes most sense. The vessel that contained something big and powerful like an arts-based Torani education filled, strained and eventually broke. But in its dissolution, I pray that the sparks from this experiment range far and wide. ❖