Alternative Shabbat service uses art to connect USC students to Judaism



April 5, 2018

Painting with watercolors before blessing the wine Friday night is a new normal for Shabbat goers at Hillel at University of Southern California.

Leila Kashfi ‘20 started an alternative Shabbat service when she became a campus engagement intern this year. The 19-year-old said she “loves the communal aspect of Judaism but felt a disconnect from traditional services” at Hillel at USC.

Kashfi combined her passions for art and Judaism to create Opinion Minyan, which allows students to explore Judaism while crafting.

Opinion Minyan is supported by a grant from Mosaic United.

“It has connected art and Judaism for me in a new way,” said participant Eden Burkow ‘21.

Burkow had never used art as an outlet to learn about Judaism until participating in Opinion Minyan, which began in October 2017. She said it allowed her to use her creative side to explore religion for the first time because she could discuss Torah while illustrating the conversations with art.

Each Friday, students participate in discussions about the weekly Torah portion while painting with watercolors. The discussions provide a casual setting to learn and discuss Jewish values and stories, allowing each student to voice their opinion and apply their knowledge and experiences to Jewish history.

Kashfi leads the discussions and uses poems, texts and ideas to engage her peers. She said the program, which attracts roughly 15 students each week, is welcoming of all views and showcases the diverse opinions of Jewish students at USC.

One Friday night, students discussed the significance of names in the story of Jacob and Esau. During the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, Opinion Minyan goers participated in a seder and painted Earth inspired art, such as trees or flowers.

For Robby Feffer ’20, learning and discussing the Torah portion was never a part of his Shabbat experience. He said Opinion Minyan has helped “enhance my connection to the culture.”

“It provides an alternative that allows me to still connect with the community,” Feffer said.

Feffer, 19, is reminded of how far away from home he is when he attends traditional Shabbat services. Instead of feeling nostalgic at Opinion Minyan, he said he feels empowered to use his voice and excited to celebrate Shabbat with his friends in a new way.

The artwork created at Opinion Minyan will be displayed at the end of the year as part of a student art show at Hillel at USC.

Kashfi said Opinion Minyan has motivated students to take more ownership over their Shabbat experience, encouraging them to lead services, give D’vrei Torah and help plan themed Shabbatot.

“I hope that Opinion Minyan will outlive my days as a campus engagement intern and continue to provide people a place to have constructive conversations and be exposed to new perspectives,” Kashfi said, alluding to a conversation she led about rape, revenge and ethics surrounding the rape of the biblical character Dinah.

— Ellie Schneider