The Sketchnoting Rabbi: Heidi Hoover
Rabbi Heidi Hoover is rabbi at B'ShERT: Beth Shalom v'Emeth Reform Temple (bshert.org) in Brooklyn, New York. Rabbi Heidi is a budding sketchnoter who sketches concepts from the Torah. Here’s her story in her own words.
— Mike Rohde
Rabbi Heidi writes...
I first encountered sketchnoting at a rabbis’ retreat hosted by Your Bayit (YourBayit.org) in early February of 2019. Steve Silbert (@SteveSilbert) did a session to introduce it to us. I was intrigued, though I don’t think of myself as someone who is particularly visual or able to draw. I started trying it because I loved the ones that Steve was doing and wanted to try it too. He also insisted that anyone can do it, and his instruction was helpful because he showed simple, accessible ways to draw people and objects. That made it a little less daunting.
It wasn’t as difficult as I expected. It is true that when I was a kid I drew pictures, even little cartoons, so I remembered that. So far I’m trying to keep to one idea in each sketchnote, and it’s challenging to choose something simple enough that I can draw it. Steve said the best way to learn was just to start doing it, so I did. I find that I enjoy doing it. I also bought a couple of books about sketchnoting by Mike Rohde and Sylvia Duckworth, which I’ve used to help me come up with ways to draw different ideas.
I have sketchnoted ideas from Torah portions and posted them on Facebook to share them. The process of doing the sketchnotes has helped me organize my thoughts and they have then informed the divrei Torah [a talk or writing centered around a very specific section of Torah] on those portions. I have a sensation of sinking into the process of sketchnoting while I’m doing it, and it’s peaceful and meditative. It really is a nice process of thinking and focusing—I don’t notice time passing and I don’t get distracted while I’m doing it. Once, I printed copies of a sketchnote and handed them out to people as a discussion aid. I’ve also been inspired to invite people to draw what they thought the priestly garments looked like during Torah study, which I had not thought of doing before.
I’ve been doing rabbinic work now for about 17 years, as a student and as a full-fledged rabbi, and I’m always looking for fresh ideas and new ways of looking at sacred texts. I find that sketchnoting brings me to a distinctly different way of looking at and thinking about texts and teaching that is fresh and very valuable to me. I’m enjoying the challenge of trying to transition away from word-based thinking, which is the main way I think, to more image-based thinking.
I’ve been happy to find that the reception of my Torah sketchnotes has been overwhelmingly positive. People have found them interesting and moving and really cool. I had kind of figured that drawing something yourself and writing the text in handprint (instead of typing it) is something that you do when you’re not good enough with technology to not do things by hand. I thought people would think it looked amateurish. Instead, they seem to think my sketchnotes are well done. I’ve received a lot of encouragement from Steve and from rabbinic colleagues, which helps me to keep going.
I started sketchnoting with pen and paper, but soon switched to Notepad 2 on an iPad at Steve’s suggestion. I like doing it digitally because I like being able to move elements around and resize them, and convert handprinting to typed text if I choose too. I have also copied elements from one sketchnote to another, and I like being able to do that. (If I have a drawing of a fire on an altar that I’m happy with, I’m glad to be able to copy and paste it rather than trying to draw it again.)
What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in sketchnoting?
First, the advice that I got: Just start doing it. Learn a few simple ways to sketch people and a few objects—from a sketchnoting book or an experienced sketchnoter. Start with portraying one idea per sketchnote.