What happens when words fall away

Idelle Hammond-Sass interviews Rabbi Adina Allen of the Jewish Studio Project

In response to the unfathomable events of October 7 I was struggling to digest the daily news, meetings, podcasts, articles, Zooms, emails, and conversation. The exhausting flood of information left me grasping for ways to cope so I could engage with the ongoing conflict.

by Idelle Hammond-Sass in response to the prompt, “My soul is consumed by longing”
Psalm 119:20, Dec. 12, 2023

While I found a few spaces to go to relieve the stress, anguish, and uncertainty of what would happen next, one stood out for its ability to navigate the moment. I attended several drop-ins offered by the Jewish Studio Project that were revealing and helpful. JSP combines practices from the field of art therapy with Jewish learning and spirituality. As a practitioner of the Open Studio Process, a related creative process, the Washtenaw Jewish News encouraged me to reach out to JSP to learn more about their programs and methodology.

Rabbi Adina Allen and her staff at the Jewish Studio Project began offering free “Community Spaces,” using a shortened version of the Jewish Studio Process. These 30-minute drop-in sessions offered to “draw on the power of art during this time of crisis.” As I did the process, writing an intention, reflecting on the Psalms and suggested questions, drawing, and writing, I had several new insights into the Psalm, myself, the crisis. Each session begins with Rabbi Adina’s prayer for creativity:

“Blessed are you God, Source of Life, who created us in your image and invites us to renew daily the works of creation. Blessed are you, God, who created us creative.”

Idelle Hammond-Sass: Is there anything special you would like our readers to know about how JSP evolved and how it has manifested and grown into the organization it is today?

Rabbi Adina Allen: The Jewish Studio Process emerged from the Open Studio Process (OSP), which was developed by my mother, artist and art therapist Pat B. Allen, and two of her colleagues. I took the OSP practice that I learned growing up from my mother and wove it together with a reimagined approach to Jewish text learning, or what we call “Beit midrash” (lit. “house of inquiry”). Together, these two practices fused into a new methodology: what we call the Jewish Studio Process. This Process is a way to elongate and deepen our relationship with text; it is a way to explore the unexamined, perhaps less-traversed parts of ourselves; it is a way to hone our capacity for being with ambiguity, complexity, and the unknown and opening to synergy, serendipity, and emergence; it is a way of developing our capacity for being together in community by oscillating between multiple modes of interaction, including chavruta (the Jewish practice of learning in dyads), full group discussion, parallel processing, and witnessing. This Process is the core methodology of Jewish Studio Project, the organization that I co-founded with Jeff Kasowitz (my spouse) 10 years ago. We have now grown to a staff of 10 and are supporting a growing network of JSP Facilitators who have gone through our intensive two-year training program and are now bringing the Process out into their home communities in so many new and inspiring ways.

Rabbi Adina Allen

IHS: The pandemic was a confusing and challenging time for people as we had to stay apart but were looking for community. Did it shape some of how you created the “Community Space” for processing the Israel/Palestine crisis?

RAA: The pandemic necessitated that we make a huge pivot as an organization. JSP has always been a national organization, serving cohorts and leaders across the country. Pre-pandemic, our ongoing community offerings were rooted at our physical studio space in West Berkeley, California. Knowing that Process can serve as a powerful practice for helping support people through times of challenge, we immediately moved to offer weekly programs online. Initially, these offerings were to support those who had been through a JSP Studio Immersive (5-day intensive) and our local Berkeley community. We honestly didn’t know how the Process would translate to a virtual format and so were surprised and delighted to see that the deep, connective, grounding experience the Process provides in-person indeed did come through on Zoom.

Over the weeks, we adapted and honed the virtual version of the Process, developing unique ritual practices to help foster connection through the screen. Soon after we began to open programming to a broader audience and found that not only was there was a huge appetite for doing the Process, but also we were able to serve so many folks who wouldn’t have been able to participate in JSP programming otherwise. Now, all our public programs are offered virtually, and we are so grateful for the incredible community of folks who join online to be together in creative community in an ongoing way from all around the world.

After October 7, we knew we wanted to offer a space for folks to come to process the unfolding situation, to regulate their nervous system, and, most importantly, to not have to do so alone. We began by offering daily sessions during the initial weeks post 10/7 and then, after a brief break to recalibrate as a team, we have been offering weekly community spaces. These sessions have become a way to join in sacred community, to draw on artmaking as offering, as petition, as prayer, as a way of reaching beyond the intractability, through the grief, the fear, and the anger, the heartbreak, and the terror of this time towards the possibility of a new reality.

Idelle Hammond-Sass is a Jewelry and Judaica artist, and Open Studio Process Facilitator in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Photo by Melissa Meiller.

IHS: I have read that doing art — no matter your skill level — even doodling for about 45 minutes a day, reduces the stress hormone cortisol. “Making art is physiologically calming” according to the dean of creative therapies at Drexel University. Can you share a bit about how these sessions have been useful to people? Especially now when we are processing so much news, articles, Zooms, etc.

RAA: There is a growing body of research about the benefits of art-making — regardless of perceived skill or experience — which is so exciting to see. Doctors are starting to prescribe art as a remedy and some insurance companies are beginning to reimburse for this “treatment.” In these painful, grief-filled, anxiety-ridden, divisive times when so many of us can become easily overwhelmed by the news, folks have shared that the sessions have been a lifeline. Engaging in an abbreviated version of the Jewish Studio Process, grounded in lines from Psalms, we create a space within us separate from stances and stands to see what might arise — what feelings come to the fore, what questions swirl in our depths, what yearnings cry out from our hearts, what seemingly irreconcilable, irrational, impossible visions begin to emerge. The Process helps us to hold that space open long enough to let emerge something beyond cognitive or intellectual understanding, something more tender and truer. People have shared that these sessions have helped them move through stuck feelings, connect with Judaism in ways that have not been possible in other spaces, connect to and move with inherited trauma, and find solace and connection.

To continue the work of the Community Spaces, the booklet “Artmaking as a Form of Prayer and Nervous System Regulation” contact the Jewish Studio Project. Included is Psalm 19:4:

My colleague Laura Earle, who is in the current training cohort at JSP, says: “Through the Jewish Studio Process, the power of art making makes space for the verbal mind to relax, so other ways of knowing can come to the fore. Held in supportive community sessions, the Process connects us to Torah in new ways, while allowing our spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical selves to calm and recalibrate — so essential in these deeply troubling times.”

Rabbi Adina Allen has a new book coming out from Ayin Press, The Place of all Possibility.

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