The Torah Aura Productions Bulletin Board (TAPBB) is the bi-monthly newsletter of Torah Aura Productions. In each issue you’ll find tips for teachers and educators, thoughtful analysis on topics in Jewish education, and news from the gang at Torah Aura.
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“Torah Aura Productions has been founded by a group of Jewish educators, artists, and technicians as a vehicle to enhance the creation of unique and experimental Jewish products and to provide support for those involved in the creative process. We therefore seek to operate with Jewish values committing ourselves to both the prophets and to profit.” (from the 1981 T.A.P. Catalog)
Torah Aura Productions is a cooperative Jewish communications group that specializes in the creation of high-quality educational materials for Jewish classrooms. It is owned and operated by Jane Golub, Joel Grishaver, and Alan Rowe.
In many ways we are a family business. Alan’s sister, Marcia Fogel, is the bookkeeper. Her husband, Ken, runs the presses and keeps our warehouse in order. Josh Barkin is the Director of School Services, and he thinks of Jane, Joel, and Alan as extra aunt and uncles. Alberto Lopez runs our shipping department. (None of us are related to him, but we like him a lot.)
Jane, Joel and Alan were brought together when they were on the staff of a Jewish educational camp. All of them are successful products of individually diverse Jewish educations, yet all of them felt ambivalent about their Jewish educational experiences. That ambivalence motivated them to further their Jewish learning, to work in Jewish education, and to ultimately come to produce Jewish educational materials.
The actual “creation myth” of Torah Aura Productions goes like this:
In 1981 Alan was running the family business during the week and the P.A. system at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute onweekends. Jane was thinking about a new graduate school, and Joel was free-lancing and tending bar to pay the rent. All of them had worked together at Camp Alonim. Then, everything changed.
Joel had a contract to design a slide show for the Los Angeles Hebrew High School. His car was broken into, the art work stolen, and the deadline was rushing up. Meanwhile, Jane was house-sitting. Joel, Alan, and some other camp friends moved into Jane’s borrowed house and turned it into an animation factory. The end product (finished less than an hour before show time) was The True Story of Hanukkah. Within a few weeks, they were sitting around Alan’s dining room table, creating a new kind of Jewish educational company.
Torah Aura was founded with a basic vision. We knew what we wanted to do. We had an idea of what constituted “a good Jewish education,” and we knew the role we believed a publisher should play. Over the next several months we will be sharing those conceptions with you, not to so much for the purpose of selling books, but to facilitate a national dialogue on core issues. We want to hear from you. We want you to demand that other purveyors of educational Judaica make their assumptions and design philosophies equally clear. And, as we work week by week, topic by topic, we want you to think about the way you articulate your school curriculum.
The first thing we need to state is that the purpose of our curricular materials is to save the Jewish people.
That may sound like a truism. But, for us it is not. It means we believe that students need enough Judaica—and the right Judaica—to build a Jewish future. We know from experience and from research that many to most Jews are not taught enough Judaism and to survive as Jews. For a supplemental school to succeed, it needs to offer a real Jewish foundation. Facts are not a foundation—concepts are. Feelings are important—they are necessary but not sufficient. Being able to name the objects used on Sukkot doesn’t lead to the building of a personal Sukkah. The ability to perform prayers from the Siddur is an enabling skill, but not one that alone will lead students as they grow to use services as moments of personal connection with the divine. We spend a lot of time on Bible stories, but no where near enough on developing the skills of extracting meaning from the biblical text. To survive as a Jew, to care to survive as a Jew, one needs a web of understandings and conceptual tools. Torah Aura was created to produce tools that make the “meanings” of Judaism accessible.
The second thing that leads to Jewish survival is connection to community. The simple truth is that Jews who need other Jews are more likely to seek out Jewish connections than those who have just enjoyed some Jewish activities. This is why anyone in the Jewish schooling business pushes camps and youth groups as companion experiences. And, it is why anyone who understands the simplest secret looks to make their classrooms into communities with interdependent learning as a major modality. Equally true, the relationship between teacher and student is critical. It has redemptive possibilities. Because of our belief in community, most of our material (and all of our teacher’s guides) recommend work in hevrutot (or other small groups) and set up situations where students and teachers share in significant conversations.
Most of all, we believe that no matter what kind of instruction we envision, its reality will be in the hands of teacher and class as they interact. Real curriculum isn’t planned, it is actualized. No good lesson should ever happen exactly the same way twice. It is an amalgam of teacher, students, and the moment. For that reason, we see ourselves as creating educational tools, resources out of which good teaching moments and good teaching sequences can be built. We strive to empower the teacher with challenging resources that lead them towards creating good Jewish educational experiences.
This is the way we work. First we map out “the structure of the discipline.” This is a list or chart of the things that we believe an adult Jew needs in order to “choose Jewish life.” For example, when we teach values, we look at the resources needed to encourage adults to turn to Jewish resources when then face a real life ethical dilemma. We then take this map of the discipline and look at the scope and range of instructional opportunities in the course of a Jewish education. Will this fit into pre-school? Can we expect it to be included in high school or as part of adult education? Does it fit into a family context? Etc. We then match up the instructional opportunities with the developmental realities. We look to see which part of our map of the discipline can be introduced at each age opportunity.
We consider our work experimental and always define it as “work-in-progress.” We have been known to redo a work two or three times, using the laboratory of the market place as a source of feedback. We have always believed that we create tools for Jewish education, that teachers are the ones who turn them into educational experiences. Our work has always been a dialogue between experimental designs and practical applications. We are constantly envisioning new techniques and models and then testing them by the reaction of classroom masters.