Throughout his life and career, Eli N. Evans has made a habit of tackling challenges with a trademark blend of confidence and grace. His effectual method is three-fold and direct: First, identify excellent change-makers with an intimate knowledge of the problems that need tackling. Second, ask them to identify the aspects of those challenges that need attention and invite them to develop innovative solutions for doing so. Third, give them the resources and confidence to “go forth, and go for it,” as Evans put it recently when he sat down for a conversation reflecting back on his proudest career accomplishments.
“I really learned early to take it big,” Evans noted, as he contemplated pivotal career moments. “Whenever I faced a situation where I was unsure of what we were supposed to do next, taking it big was always my answer.”
"Eli’s lifelong dedication to Jewish education and Jewish continuity is legend. The Covenant Foundation today reflects his insights, creativity, gift for relationships and vision.”
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Born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, Evans’ roots in the south run deep. His father, Emanuel J. Evans, was Durham’s first Jewish mayor. His mother, Sara Nachamson Evans, was a prominent local, regional and national leader of Hadassah. Together, Evans’s parents helped create, support and raise funds for the Judaic Studies Department at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where Evans would eventually become the first Jewish student body president.
Following his graduation from UNC, Evans joined the United States Navy and completed a tour of duty in the Far East. He then attended Yale Law School and served in The White House as a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1968, Evans joined the Carnegie Corporation of New York as a Senior Program Officer. One of the country’s premier education foundations, Carnegie took a vested interest in the inequitable circumstances that existed at the time for black law students in the south. When Foundation president John W. Gardner asked Evans to travel to the region and investigate, Evans had his first opportunity to put the approach of “taking it big” into action by ultimately developing what remains one of his most treasured professional achievements: the Earl Warren Legal Training Program, an unprecedented collaboration among foundations and law schools aimed at expanding the pool of black southern lawyers.
“We understood that if one could increase the number of black lawyers, one could make a significant contribution to the future of the country,” Evans said, recalling the Corporation’s investment. Sure enough, five years after the Training Program’s launch, nearly 300 black students had graduated from law schools in the South, with hundreds more in the pipeline.
Evans remained at Carnegie for ten years and then moved on to become the founding president of The Charles H. Revson Foundation. Over the course of his 25 remarkable years at Revson, he helped launch numerous creative ventures including the PBS Series Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, and Bill Moyers’s Genesis: A Living Conversation.
“Talking muppets that could speak directly to children through their television sets…another big idea,” recalls Evans, with a smile.
During this time, Evans was also extraordinarily prolific, and developed a niche chronicling Jewish American southern history. The author of three books, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South; The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner, and Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate, Evans's literary accomplishments were so impressive that he inspired the Israeli diplomat and scholar Abba Eban to declare, "The Jews of the South have found their poet laureate."
With big-picture thinking and a noted ability to inspire confidence in others, Eli N. Evans assumed the role of Board Chair of The Covenant Foundation in 1994, succeeding Robert Adler, the Foundation’s first Board Chairman.
The Covenant Foundation, the brainchild of Susan Crown, daughter of Lester Crown, and Barbara Goodman Manilow, daughter of Charles (Corky) Goodman, was borne of the cousins’ mutual desire to create and sustain engaging Jewish education.
“They conceived a national strategy of trying to do something positive to reward great Jewish teachers and improve Jewish education in America,” Evans said, reflecting back on the early days. “They concluded that even though the field of Jewish education was suffering from financial constraints and institutional limitations [at the time], the Jewish community was bursting with exciting ideas that could bring about dramatic change.”
In its earliest days, Covenant functioned mainly via a ground-up approach, soliciting nominations and proposals from the field of Jewish education instead of ordering up plans from the offices in New York.
“We wanted to hear what people are interested in, what was keeping them up at night,” Evans noted, reflecting on the unusual process of prospecting for talent. “We were not saying, ‘Here’s what you should do.’ Rather, we were saying, ‘What’s going on out there? We wanted to know.”
During his 22-year tenure as Chairman of the Board of The Covenant Foundation, Evans helped envision a program of grants and awards that became the backbone of the Foundation and one that is fundamental to its success and the esteem it has garnered.
Board members credit Evans for helping steer the foundation amid shifting seas, as the world of philanthropy, the priorities of Jewish philanthropists, and the nature of education itself have evolved.
Considering the impact that the cohort of Covenant Award recipients had on Jewish education in 2009, Evans wrote, “Over the past eighteen years, 54 educators have received a gift that can be measured in more than dollars-the gift of recognition of their achievements and their aspirations. In turn, these educators have given back enormously to Jewish education.”
“The institutions they have enriched, the programs they have initiated, and the influence they have had on others have each been enhanced by being brought into the orbit of the Covenant Foundation. In ways small and large each has helped to make a Jewish renaissance imaginable,” he wrote.
In many ways, the same may be said of Evans’s own contributions both to The Covenant Foundation and to the project of Jewish education, writ large.
At the 2016 Covenant Awards Dinner and 25th Anniversary Celebration, Lester Crown, Chairman of Henry Crown and Company, honored Evans for his chairmanship and dedication to The Covenant Foundation.
“Early on, our aspirations were to elevate talented educators, transform their ideas into practice, honor institutions, and support nascent and promising programming,” Mr. Crown said.
“Eli’s lifelong dedication to Jewish education and Jewish continuity is legend,” he continued. “The Foundation today reflects his insights, creativity, gift for relationships and vision. He gently but effectively pursued a vision of pluralism, ensuring that the best of Jewish education can be celebrated and supported regardless of denomination, location, or scale.”
Evans will remain a member of The Covenant Foundation Board of Directors when Cheryl Finkel, a 1999 Covenant Award recipient, assumes the role of Board Chair this month. He will serve as Chair Emeritus.
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