Mayim, the elementary learning program at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA, welcomes the majority of its students once a week for two or three hours. But despite the limited contact time, Mayim programming empowers students to build deep relationships, engage in deep learning, and foster Jewish communal connectedness.
“We really see Mayim as part of the congregational community,” said Rachel Happel, Senior Director of Learning and Engagement. “Rather than thinking of it as a separate school or a program, Mayim is the way children learn within the context of their broader community.”
The significance of community is infused at every level in Mayim, including educators’ practices of greeting each student by name when they arrive; establishing a sense of belonging through a family photo wall and dedicated places for personal items; and engaging in kibbud (communal snack), mifgash (a Jewish twist on the Responsive Classroom learning approach popular in local public schools), hafsakah (unstructured, self-directed play), and t’filah (prayer—which parents are always welcome to join).
Guiding Mayim’s learners to become contributors to their community includes centering the congregation as the “audience” for student projects. One year, students created outdoor murals to transform their playground into a wisdom garden, engaging with Jewish themes from Pirkei Avot—“being for myself,” “being for others,” and “acting now”—to express the ways in which they take care of each other and share ideas with the larger community.
Another culminating project asked students to contemplate what it would mean to help their community engage with Torah. In what ways could the students become Torah experts, and how could they share their insights with their congregation?
“Our two core values are depth of relationship and depth of learning, and these are inextricable,” Happel explained. “In order to go deep, the kids have to be ready and interested. The goal is to tie into their own growth and development.”
Mayim takes into account students’ ages and developmental stages, and considers how to build on the particular skills that students are developing in their public-school classrooms. Third graders in the Mayim program, for example, take on “The Wisdom of Our Ancestors,” a theme that is grounded in Pirkei Avot. They start the year by considering the very definition of wisdom and the ways in which it is passed from generation to generation. The students are prompted to realize that they themselves are the ones who will now receive the wisdom of our shared Jewish ancestors. It is up to them to decide how to hold and uphold these teachings. Among the goals of “The Wisdom of Our Ancestors” is to speak to third-grade-appropriate challenges.
“Around the age of eight is when kids get really interested in the concept of fairness. It’s when friends start to get exclusive, or when kids might feel uncomfortable about who they are in a group. The Jewish wisdom ties into social-emotional skills that the kids need and develop. At the same time, it really hits home for them that they are Jewish wherever they go,” said Happel.
Rather than being an isolated after-school experience, Mayim becomes an integral and uniquely Jewish part of students’ lives. The Mayim Tamid spin-off—a multi-day program that offers not only after-school care, but also Jewish learning and community-building—and other initiatives are designed to meet the real needs of families. When these needs changed with the onset of COVID-19, Mayim adapted. It introduced an online and subscription box program for remote learning; expanded Mayim Tamid to provide a rich learning center for children (and help with childcare); and created Mayim Outdoors, which continues to evolve. With space rented from a local summer camp, Mayim was able to bring its Jewish curriculum outdoors for September, October, May, and June—with animal habitats as shelters of peace, outdoor play as community-building, and t’filah in an outdoor amphitheater.
Mayim regularly flexes its creativity and adaptability to meaningfully welcome diverse learners as well. Mayim’s Director of K-12 Learning and Inclusion, Sara Berk, strives to help all students in the program successfully access Jewish learning. This entails forming relationships with families to determine particular learning needs and goals. It also includes coordinating with Mayim’s educators, whose status as full-time educators allows them to undertake important planning and professional development activities.
In the Mayim program, educators strive not only to welcome all learners, but also to represent the diversity of Jewish experience and community. Books and materials used in this program represent a range of family configurations, including interfaith or multiracial families, and families with LGBTQ parents or children. Mayim educators have also opted to use nonbinary Hebrew words to practice inclusion: The group of high school students who assist the young learners are madrichimot.
“Listen to what families really need and find ways to connect to that, Jewishly. The world of Jewish learning and tradition is so vast; there’s no way you could cover it all. You have to make choices, and you can do that in ways that are responsive to the community’s needs and relevant to families’ lives,” Happel said.
By Miriam R. Haier, for The Covenant Foundation
“Together we will create Jewish experiences where preteens and their families can learn, explore, and feel more connected to each other, and to Jewish life” - Deborah S. Meyer, Founder and CEO, Moving Traditions
“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