At the start of Tu B’Shvat last month, staff members at Jewish Family Service of Seattle (JFS) got an email that was meant to give them some pause, and generate a bigger conversation.
“In Judaism, a righteous person is often compared to a tree. The deep roots, life-giving fruit, oxygen, shade … are metaphors for the power of a good person in this world,” it said.
The email was a slight but illuminating slice of JFS’s Project Kavod(Dignity), a Covenant Foundation-supported program that is purposefully recharging – if not igniting - connections to the organization’s Jewish-values driven mission all the way from the boardroom to the mailroom, and from volunteers to clients.
Broadly, Project Kavod is creating an alternative educational and organizational space for JFS officers, employees, volunteers and other stakeholders to discuss religious, philosophical and cultural concepts and texts with each other, within and across all levels of the JFS structure, and to create a shared language and consciousness.
Photo: Esther Magasis
The initiative, JFS officials said, is born of modern day realities in which Jewish organizations encounter an increasingly diverse community, and levels of Jewish affiliation and observance in flux.
“The biggest challenge that I faced when I was hired was explaining the ‘J’ in JFS,” said Rabbi Will Berkovitz, CEO of JFS Seattle, “and determining what it looks like to run this organization in a secular world. One piece of how we address that is education, particularly of Jewish values.”
The initiative launched last year under the direction of Beth Huppin, a nationally known Jewish educator and 2010 Covenant Award recipient for excellence in the field.
Flashback to Hanukkah last year. Several hours before the holiday began, dozens of Seattle-area families gathered to pack bags of food to deliver to elderly, homebound and indigent neighbors.
But it was much more than a chesed moment. Among the crates of canned goods and packaged grains, Huppin led a discussion among children and adults about the “why” of it all and how to incorporate the spirit of light and giving throughout the year - and not just during the holiday itself.
“Hanukkah isn’t the only time to think about giving to other people,” she said. “What would happen if every night or every week you put a can of food in a bag? Then it turns into a habit and the miracle of light can last throughout the year. It’s the drip, drip, drip that can make a big difference to ourselves and to others that we help and support.”
Parents said it was beyond useful to them and their children to hear and absorb the Jewish take on preparing food packages.
“We try to make volunteering a regular part of our family life,” said Lisa Lotus of Seattle, who was designing and personalizing holiday cards along with her five-year-old daughter, Maeve. “As Beth is teaching us, this is a Jewish value that can and should guide us in life as Jews.”
“It is important that this be infused into the DNA of this agency, for people to process what they are doing within a Jewish framework, and to shift and reshape the culture of the organization in such a way,” Rabbi Berkovitz said. “In Project Kavod, we have a structure to have this critical conversation.”
Photo: Lana Blinderman
While the initiative by necessity includes such moments as brown-bag lunch events and holiday-themed discussions, it is also playing out in more unique, widespread and generative ways both internally and externally as this more purposeful Jewish-values framework expands and takes hold.
The imprint of Project Kavod is present, for example, on the agency’s work on domestic violence and hunger, and is informing its efforts on substance abuse and refugee resettlement in the Seattle area.
And this month, board members, staff and volunteers are participating in a series of seminars examining the theme of Jewish obligation, most specifically to the sick, the needy and newly arriving refugees.
At its core, Huppin said, Project Kavod is making Jewish mindfulness central as it plays out in expected and unexpected ways.
“For any organization to stay true to its values, it’s important to talk about and explore them,” she said. “Project Kavod is a formal recognition of the importance of this. From a funding perspective, the choice shouldn’t be this or the food bank. But there has to be more thinking about what we do and why we do it. We have to rise above the weeds sometimes before we go back into them with more purpose and clarity.”
As one of the most predominant and longstanding social service agencies in northwest Washington State, JFS is positioned well to be an example to other Jewish organizations of reconnection to values through purposeful education, and officials said as much.
“This is a highly replicable model, ” Rabbi Berkovitz said. “It would be wise for others to start thinking about what Jewish education can look like and embed it into the wiring of their agencies. We are not just talking about classes here. We are moving Jewish education from the margins and into the soul of this place. We are swimming in Talmud here.”
“Education holds the key to changing the world and making it better. For education to achieve all that it can, we must have teachers who believe in the moral, ethical, Jewish ideas we teach and who are committed to inspiring their students”
—Rabbi David Eliach, A Covenant of Dreams: Realizing the Promise of Jewish Education, 2009
“There are children, grownups, everywhere
That would love to hear your voices
Singing for our health to be bright
So that we can join together...and paint our world with healing and hope”
-From the original song, Painting Our World with Healing Hope, by Karina and Debora Zilberman
“Families that share stories about parents and grandparents, about triumphs and failures, provide powerful models for children. Children understand who they are in the world not only through their individual experience, but through the filters of family stories that provide a sense of identity through historical time...Through sharing the past, families recreate themselves in the present, and project themselves into the future.”
—“Do You Know…” The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being
Read more about Dr. Marshall Duke and his work, here.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project