With so many options of places to bring kids for a little entertainment, how does one choose?
Checking priorities is one way—are you looking for something educational? Something inclusive? Creatively engaging? An experience in diversity that also encourages play?
If the answer is yes to any of those questions, and you happen to find yourself in southern California, then you need look no further than the Zimmer Children’s Museum.
As Esther Netter, CEO of the Zimmer explains, “in this space we’re conscious of how people interact with one another, and we’re aware that our audience is everybody. We’re focused on programming that teaches mitzvot bein adam l’chavero, and we see these behavioral obligations as really aspirational.”
How can one be a mensch? That’s a guideline for all Zimmer programs.
The Zimmer, now in existence 24 years, started as a tiny 600 square foot space with model sukkot fashioned out of PVC, foam core and canvas. Now, it’s the only children’s museum in LA and has expanded to 10,000 square feet. Over 82,000 visitors come to the Zimmer each year.
“We started with limited hours and our mission was originally 100% focused on Jewish families,” Netter said. “But I realized quickly that this space was going to have to offer something to everyone.” Netter described how during that first week of operation, she watched as a couple without a child walked through the museum doors. After speaking with them, she understood they were an interfaith couple and she listened as the Jewish partner turned to the non-Jewish partner, while looking at a cork wall painted to look like the kotel, and said, “See? This is the wall in Jerusalem that I was telling you about. This is why I want to go on our honeymoon to Israel.”
Netter explained that as she observed this moment during the Zimmer’s early days, she realized that every educational decision the Museum made needed to consider inclusivity, and not make assumptions about who the visitor would be—or how much knowledge he or she had.
“How do we fashion a space that’s intergenerational, that allows the ultra orthodox and the non-Jewish visitor alike, to visit and feel comfortable?” she mused.
As the Museum evolved, so did this consideration of environment, a central aspect of the education that happens there. As Netter sees it, what matters is not just the topic of any particular Museum program, but also, the space in which that program occurs.
And while it hasn’t been a straight path toward creating just the type of space that would accommodate the myriad of visitors who come through The Zimmer’s doors each day, it’s certainly been a thoughtful one.
“In this evolution,” Netter said, “We have seen visitors coming to us from every community, of every skin color, in every family cohort combination. We do not look homogeneous, which I think is reflective of the Jewish community and the community at large. The Zimmer is like Abraham’s tent, but with the flaps turned up.”
Through those flaps walk families who are registered for bilingual Spanish-English sing-along classes called “Pequenos Rocqueros,” Toddler Town classes taught in Farsi, Japanese, French and Spanish, and so many other kinds of offerings that the Zimmer calendar offers a veritable rainbow of cultural options for every type of visitor.
Netter’s ideas about the kind of open space that the Zimmer serves to provide in its Los Angeles community are certainly reflective of the inclusivity so many Jewish educators are focused on in their professional spaces as well.
“We’re part of an amazing tradition that has so much in common with other traditions,” she said, “and it’s through finding those places and spaces of commonality that we can support all different kinds of families.”
To this end, and because of their deep commitment to notions of tikkun olam, Netter and her colleagues decided to take their educational approach and create similar experiences for older youth, in places that weren’t location-bound.
The result is youTHink, an innovative education program that offers a community of diverse upper elementary through high school students throughout the Los Angeles area the opportunity to engage with art and nurture their critical thinking and literacy skills, while also working within the larger community to bring about social change. youTHink programs range from lessons brought into Title 1 LA public schools, professional development opportunities for teachers, leadership and community projects beyond the classroom walls, and much more.
“The youTHink programs and community follow from the kind of space we create in the museum,” Netter explained. “In the Zimmer, young kids pretend to be rescuers, fire fighters and super heroes, in our youth development programming, older youth practice being advocates, builders, and leaders and rescuers. Little kids pretend, big kids, practice.”
youTHink programming also focuses on helping young people develop their “voice,” on teaching how we listen respectfully to others, on modeling how to civilly share opinions, and listening to someone with whom one might disagree. They do this by bringing youTHink educators and facilitators into the classroom during the school day, and by providing community service and civic engagement programming after school and on weekends.
“Students learn that there’s a relationship dance and a community dance, and when you learn the steps of the dance, your interactions with others become seamless, and influence how you think about yourself, your place within your family, your school community, your broader community, and the world,” Netter added.
There are different levels of youTHink engagement, too. There’s what happens at the school level, when youTHink educators and facilitators are brought in as special guests, but then there’s also community service and civic engagement programming on weekends and during school vacations.
“Helping us lead, facilitate and model all of our core values off-campus is a cohort of 40 middle and high school student leaders,” Netter explained. “They are our youTHink ambassadors.” This number will increase to 75 next year.
One might wonder how the work of a children’s museum founded in the Jewish community intersects with the needs of an average Southern California public school. But as Netter explains it, the notion of paying attention to how we interact with one another, and standards of civil and dignified behavior, knows no racial or ethnic boundaries.
“Most of us spend our time surrounded by people who are just like us. But it’s so important to bring ourselves, our students and our own kids into situations—central and public spaces—where we can bump shoulders with and interact with people who are different, who have different experiences.
“This is about being open and not being stuck, about accepting challenges that exist within our own philosophies and community, about rejecting the idea that there’s someone who’s in and someone who’s out, and instead, recognizing that society is constantly changing, and we need to figure out how to make our institutions relevant, and adjust to the times. This will fortify and strengthen us all.”
“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