A trio of Jewish educators huddled around a computer one morning this past summer, Googling images of Star Wars characters and pasting them into iMovie, Apple’s user-friendly filmmaking program.
“Do we want Young Luke?” Dayna Gershon asked her fellow filmmakers, all of them students in the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education, who were spending the day learning at the foot of Jewish educator-artist, animator, filmmaker and New York City public school teacher Hanan Harchol.
Within a couple of hours, Gershon and her colleagues were ready to debut their effort: a 2-minute film starring Han Solo, Rey, Princess Leia and Luke, and exploring the ideas behind Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah.
“This makes everything so much more alive,” said Gershon, who directs formal and informal education at a religious school, as she marveled at her foray into text-based cinematography. “If it’s not relevant and doesn’t speak to [our students] individually, it’s not going to leave the room. What we want to figure out is, ‘How do we leave the room with them?’”
Harchol’s workshop was one of the first fruits of an effort by Dr. Miriam Heller Stern, the National Director of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in Los Angeles, to incorporate the arts — and creativity, more broadly — into HUC’s collection of graduate programs.
“The goal is for the arts to cease to be a side show in Jewish education,” Stern said. “We want them to be more integrated into the whole world of teaching and learning, and have a more central presence in the enterprise of Jewish education.”
“Often arts are brought in as entertainment, or they’re brought in as an experimental component, but they’re on the sidelines of the curriculum, they’re on the sidelines of the conferences. They’re perceived as something lighter, when in fact what they offer is much deeper, because of the variety of meaning that they unlock.”
Particularly in the world of traditional Hebrew schools, Stern said, there is “a real thirst for new pedagogy, for new models of engagement, for new methods of learning.”
“We are utilizing the arts to stretch people, to give them opportunities for deeper reflection, to learn to take risks," Stern continued. "I want the graduates of all of our programs to be able to introduce their learners to a multi-vocal, multi-lingual Jewish experience, where they can learn to navigate their values not just with books and words.”
Stern’s effort began last year with the executive M.A. program, a two and a half-year course designed for mid-career educators who have at least five years of experience in Jewish educational leadership, and who want to take their work and communities to the next level.
Dr. Lesley Litman, who directs the executive M.A. program, said the infusion of meaningful arts programming made perfect sense.
“You don’t study a text and then go ‘do some art;’ it’s through the actual creative process that you come to understand the text more deeply,” Litman said. “What we really want to do is open up important life questions, and use Jewish texts and Jewish perspectives to show that Judaism is a way that we can walk through our world.”
Harchol, who is also a professional classical guitarist and currently at work on a live-action feature film about his experiences teaching high school, is well-known among Jewish educators for creating an animated series, “Jewish Food For Thought”(supported by The Covenant Foundation). The series explores themes such as envy, faith and chesed (kindness), through fictionalized conversations between sketched-out versions of himself (Harchol was born in Israel and moved to the United States when he was two) and his parents, who raised Hanan as a non-observant Jew but retained the religious values and worldview with which they had been raised.
Harchol watched eagerly as the executive M.A. students pored through Sefaria deciding which texts to base their films on, debated plot lines and muddled through the new technology.
“You don’t want to have a story that has one right answer,” he reminded them. “It should be something where at the end, the viewer is left feeling torn. When people are continuing to think about that argument, that’s Torah study.”
“When the final videos were shown, even the newly minted filmmakers seemed surprised by what they had created.
“I never expected there would be something this well-produced,” Harchol exclaimed of a film in which expertly sketched stick figures (one of the educators, it turned out, was a talented artist) debated the significance of having, and violating, boundaries.
“This could lead to a wonderful discussion,” Harchol enthused. “This leaves me wanting to engage in a Talmudic discussion.”
The educators left the workshop intrigued by the prospect of bringing iMovie back home. “When we teach, we’re always trying to think about ways to bring the text into today,” said Stacy Shapiro, who coordinates youth programming at a Westchester County temple. “This makes it so relatable on so many levels.”
There was also some hesitation; one educator acknowledged the “anxiety producing” nature of navigating new technology, and the implementation challenges she expected to face. “My concern is, ‘Who’s going to do it?’” she wondered.
Stern said she fully understands that there will be a certain amount of trepidation as graduate students tread into territory that may feel uncomfortable now, even if it was second nature earlier in their lives. She saw this first-hand in September, when School of Education faculty and administrators gathered for a workshop with the paper-cutting artist Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik, as part of a two-day national faculty retreat.
“For some it’s a stretch outside their comfort zone, but we are practicing what we preach,” Stern said. “Even our veteran faculty are rolling up their sleeves and being creative together, as a way to change the culture of what graduate school looks and feels like.”
As part of the workshop with Brynjegard-Bialik, leading faculty members and administrators sat around folding tables strewn with Exacto knives, watercolor paper and comic book pages, producing papercuts exploring Jewish themes of change and new beginnings.
It was a powerful way to prepare for two days of visioning the future of Jewish education, and how creativity might play a role.
“It was a way for everyone to connect where they were in that moment to where we want to go with the institution,” Stern said. “The range of metaphors was really interesting… The arts can provide additional languages when words fail us.”
“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