One by one, a class of sixth-graders read aloud a passage and title that each has selected to go with one of Zion Ozeri's striking black-and-white portraits.
Seated with the young critics at Morasha Jewish Day School, the New York photographer seems pleased when students accurately discern the context of his untitled images, which the students have filtered through their study of Jewish values.
Neither does he hesitate to crib from one who summoned a particularly apt metaphor for a photo of candle lighting. "What was that title?" he asked, scrambling for pen and paper during a morning-long session last month.
Ozeri is the third visual artist invited in two years to the 110-student school, the county's smallest day school, located in Rancho Santa Margarita. The school's progressive director, Eve Fein, is convinced that art can be an educator's most powerful resource for giving dimension to abstract concepts from books.
"These are Jewish artists interested in making Judaism relevant by making traditions meaningful," Fein said about Ozeri and other artists who have visited -- a muralist and a ritual object maker.
The photographer's muse is his Yemeni parents' first home in Israel, a tented camp near Tel Aviv where a half-dozen languages and cultures mixed. His images capture disappearing traditions of his parents' generation and evolved to focus on contrasts between generations.
The catalyst behind Fein's creative approach to education is a high-minded, three-year research initiative whose outcome will defy objective measure. The aim is to add soul to the school syllabus.
Along the way, the surprising result at Morasha and other sites is a change of campus culture that redirects parents and staff every bit as much as students. The outcome is getting attention from national authorities in Jewish education, such as the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.
Morasha is one of eight schools selected nationwide to participate in the research, known as Jewish Day Schools for the 21st Century (JDS-21). It is underwritten by New York's Avi Chai Foundation and directed by Michael Zeldin, a professor of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's school of education.
While last century's Jewish immigrants learned American values in day schools, Zeldin contends most teachers are poorly prepared to make the intercurricular connections expected of contemporary instructors. His premise is that day school students, removed from their immersion in American culture, should be absorbing more than secular subjects and Judaica. Parents, staff and the school environment all should support seizing Jewish moments in the academic day.
Zeldin's proposed solution is deceptively simple. He asks administrators to use Jewish texts to start a campus conversation about identifying the school's values; to find an imaginative way to express them; and to develop ways to integrate them into the school.
"Other schools have values like honesty and integrity, but they are not Jewish values tied to text," said Zeldin, noting that a contemporary rabbi suggested a Jewish path exists to universal values. "This helps schools set a Jewish path," Zeldin said.
It took two years for Morasha to distill its top 10 values: repairing the world, greater Jewry, faith, being a good person, Israel, prayer, education, customs and rituals, respect and community.
Kathleen A. Canter of Aliso Viejo, a parent who chaired Morasha's CDS-21 task force, discovered that it was an enriching experience to study Jews from antiquity who grapple over values. Values take on deeper meaning when they come from your own history, she said.
Just articulating the values, Fein said, "helps sharpen or deepen their presence in our school."
She also made the intellectual leap to see values depicted in images by Ozeri, who hopes to use Morasha's project as a model elsewhere.
The entire sixth-grade class cherry-picked images from Ozeri's portfolio that captured each of the school's values. Before the photographer's visit, students looked for texts to support their assumptions about the photos. The final piece was to give students a disposable camera to capture on film an image showing a Jewish value. Ozeri offered expert advice on composition. "You don't have to go to India, like I did," he said. "Use what you have."
"This is nothing new," said Lili B. Landman of Aliso Viejo, a mother with two girls at the school, who videotaped Ozeri's presentation. "This school encourages [students] to go out and explore. It's a different way of learning, with a camera. But they've done it in other ways, too."
Zeldin applauds Fein for finding an innovative method to evoke the school's values. "It's the perfect point of entry because it speaks the language of children," he said, who are visually oriented.
"Art touches the soul in a way spoken language rarely does," Zeldin said.
Other schools involved also focused their agenda around Jewish values. Parents at the Rashi School of Newton, Mass., for example, were determined that the value of respect, recognized for teachers and students, also extend to them. Text study at the Pardes School in Arizona deepened surface relationships and provided a common language between parents and educators, who often spew jargon.
Some schools, which Zeldin declined to identify, lose patience with the process. "This process is meant to transform the ways schools do business," Zeldin said. "To get there takes time. The detractors say, 'Can't we come up with a program for Jewish learning without the text?'"
Those engaged in the JDS-21 project are changed by it, he said, describing one task force that for a mutual friend decided to jointly purchase a gift. Their Shabbat-basket wedding gift included candlesticks, candles, wine and Jewish texts on love. "It was so meaningful for them to gather the text," Zeldin said.
"Every time I hear those stories, I'm astounded," he said. "The byproduct is more powerful than the product."