Rabbi Tully Harcsztark is Principal of SAR High School and a 2017 Covenant Award recipient. Dr. Susie Tanchel is Head of School at JCDS-Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, and a 2018 Covenant Award Recipient. While their schools are in different states, cater to different religious populations and different student age groups, both educators are committed to instilling within their school communities a culture of empathy and respectful dialogue.
Here, Susie and Tully engage in a conversation about how character education takes shape at their schools and why it’s such a critical piece of any learning environment in 2018.
TULLY: Susie, can you share with me how the goal of character education became a part of the JCDS curriculum?
SUSIE: Sure. Thanks, Tully. Our commitment to character education and development began with our founding in 1995. At the time, a group of deeply committed parents created JCDS with the explicit goal of building an intentionally pluralistic Jewish community day school that offered a rigorous, intensive Hebrew language program. A key component of this founding vision was an emphasis on the development of the whole child. Our founders believed that academic excellence is essential, but insufficient; our children need to be mensches as they walk through the world, capable of contributing to the common good in meaningful ways.
Over the last 23 years, we have continued to look at the changing world around us and to think critically about who and how we want our children to be in it. As our world becomes increasingly fractured and polarized, our founding vision remains a beacon: we aspire for our children to be able to navigate complexity, participate in difficult conversations, and be agents of change in their communities. In order to accomplish this, they need countless opportunities to develop the skills, capacities, and inclinations necessary to live lives of meaning and purpose — and we need to create the training ground for them to create this practice here at JCDS.
SUSIE: Tully, I have heard about SAR for many years and I am inspired by all you are working to accomplish. What was the impetus for your character education curriculum at the high school?
TULLY: Susie, just as it has been at JCDS, respectful discourse and the capacity to learn from peers have been foundational principles at SAR since its inception. We value honest dialogue, and our teachers work hard to create an environment that encourages our students to raise challenging questions while learning to listen to each other in earnest.
A few years ago, we found ourselves struggling to maintain the respectful environment of which we were so proud. The increasingly contentious political climate surrounding the 2016 election, as well as some of the debates taking place within the Jewish Orthodox community, had begun to generate notable tension within the school walls. We realized that we needed to take a closer look at our habits of mind and to raise our collective awareness to ensure purposeful engagement and discussion when approaching issues of membership and citizenship.
As an administration, and then as a faculty, we set out to unpack some of the underlying core issues. We noted that as Zionist American Jews, there are many ways to tell our story. And the way we tell that story can shape the kind of citizen we become. For some, Jews are a minority in the United States. For others, Jews are a remarkable success story in the United States. While not a contradiction, the starting point matters. From a cultural perspective, we are a minority; economically, we have integrated remarkably well. Considering that, we realize that our core narrative can determine our political alignment as Americans - and students need to understand and reflect on that idea.
How I understand my Jewish story can shape how I understand my story as an American citizen. And that is not all. Our support for the State of Israel makes the situation even more complex. What does it mean to be a proud American with a Zionist dream? Do we vote as Zionists or Americans? What do we do when those affiliations do not align?
Being Jewish in America is a wonderfully rich, multifaceted experience. Having the capacity to understand and navigate the various parts of our identity is crucial to becoming an engaged citizen and a productive community member. This has become a significant conversation in our school community and has provided a forum for rich learning discussion for our students.
Susie, I know that JCDS recently took its’ commitment to character education to an even deeper place with something called the Seven Habits of Mind and Heart (I read about it in your Covenant Award materials!) I’d love to understand that more.
SUSIE: At JCDS, we believe that character education is not something that can or should be taught for 45 minutes on a Tuesday morning; rather, we that it should find expression in every part of our educational program and community, whether it is in the Tanakh or math classrooms, or during a school-wide celebration of Rosh Hashanah.
To that end, a few years ago I led the JCDS faculty through a process of defining the seven Habits of Mind and Heart that animate our educational vision. As a group, we engaged in deep dialogue about what our goals and aspirations were for our graduates as we narrowed down the list of skills and capacities necessary to function in pluralistic communities. These include: integrity and ethical living, multiple perspectives and empathy, curiosity, perseverance and resiliency, capacity for reflection, desire to solve problems, and rigorous appreciation for evidence.
The goal is that these Habits of Mind and Heart will become just that: a natural way of being for our children as they walk through a world that will require them to remain in conversation with people who think and believe differently. Our abiding hope is that our students understand that remaining in community does not demand agreement and that disagreement, the sharing of different opinions, strengthens us all. We hope they develop the courage to embrace productive disequilibrium — some amount of tolerable discomfort, as they continue to search for new answers — in the midst of important and challenging conversations.
Our teachers explicitly teach these Habits in developmentally appropriate ways and offer students opportunities to practice them repeatedly in a myriad of circumstances. For example, our Kindergarteners explicitly practice the habits of curiosity and multiple perspectives when they explore one another’s Shabbat customs. By second grade, they are utilizing these same skills and capacities when they share different possible strategies for arriving at the solution to a multiple digit addition problem. As our students grow older, we scaffold their learning as they practice the capacity of holding multiple — even contradictory — perspectives or interpretations, whether when interpreting a piece of art, a Biblical or Shakespearean text or an argument on the playground.
We are building a scope and sequence for the Habits of Mind and Heart that allows our teachers to meet students where they are in their development, and to challenge them in their continued growth. Our children are developing into human beings who are capable of contributing to, and effecting change in, the ever-changing world they inhabit.
Tully, I’m curious if your implementation differs because you are working with older (high school-aged) students?
TULLY: This year, we have begun a number of new initiatives to encourage meaningful learning around citizenship and communal membership. SAR High School has adopted צדק as our theme, and it will shape our informal programming and is reflected in a number of curricular units as well. Our focus on justice from a communal and institutional perspective has given students the opportunity to explore the ideas of rights and obligations - as citizens of the United States and as members of their local and Jewish communities, and as Zionists supporting the State of Israel. Students consider public vs. private education, learn about the origin of the Hebrew Free Burial Association and other institutions and explore ways to balance Jews’ commitments to their own community with their obligations to the broader society.
Our new citizenship course, The Values of Citizenship developed by Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz, takes a different approach than most of our other general studies courses, which equip students to know, understand, and think. This course seeks to do something more akin, in fact, to what we do in our Judaic studies courses—to also have our students act and feel as American citizens. An essential part of the course is to ask students to engage, as Jews and Zionists, in deliberation about the meaning, obligations, and commitments of their American citizenship.
Finally, SAR High School is a founding partner in the Civic Spirit initiative, an undertaking to develop curricula and approaches for teaching American citizenship and civics in faith-based schools. Educators from the twelve participating schools, six Catholic parochial schools and six Jewish day schools, spent a week on a retreat in July working on developing curriculum, considering foundational texts, and designing action civics projects to engage their students in the practice of citizenship. The vast differences in demographics and religious approaches among the schools, and the deep shared commitments to values that derive from religious commitments, spurred profoundly meaningful reflection and conversation among the participants.
Susie, how does this political moment inform how and why you teach character education at JCDS and how do you convey even to your youngest students, the importance of empathy and kindness?
SUSIE: In the tumultuous times in which we live, we are more likely to hear stories of isolation than inclusion, of alienation than acceptance, and of greed than gratitude. Our society is marked by polarization and an increasing lack of kindness. In stark contrast, stands our shared Jewish tradition and values. Today the intentional nurturing of community might be viewed by some as counter-cultural, but it is the lifeblood of the Jewish people. Our ancestors knew the timeless truth that our destinies are intertwined. The Torah teaches that we are all connected and our individual actions have far reaching implications for the collective.
This very same belief animates our community at JCDS. We know it is our sacred responsibility to raise our children in a school that teaches Hebrew, STEM, Tanakh, literacy, and just as importantly, cultivates our students’ empathy, resilience, and growth mindset. As our name, Jewish Community Day School, suggests, we are first and foremost a community. A community characterized by acceptance, warmth, kindness, and joy. In short, we teach our children we are in this together. The K-8 years are the most formative for character development. We take that weighty responsibility seriously and it informs everything we do here at JCDS.
“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
“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
“Who owns Jewish life?” asks Karina Zilberman, Director of 92Y Shababa Network, Founder of the Shababa Approach and a 2012 Covenant Award Recipient.
Zilberman answers her own question. “Nobody and everybody,” she says. “No one person is the owner of the success of a program. Rather, if something resonates, we should share it, and share it in a way that inspires people to go and make it their own.”
Zilberman is referring to the success of Shababa, a brand of intergenerational Jewish family experiences she created for 92Y community, within the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life. What began in 2007 as a few children and their caregivers sitting on the floor with Zilberman in 92Y lobby on Friday mornings has evolved into multiple programs drawing hundreds of participants each week. With puppets Coco the Sloth, Bubby Bracha and Todah at the helm, and with music that’s catchy not just to toddler ears but adult ears as well, Zilberman and now along with her colleague Rebecca Schoffer, the newly-appointed Director of Jewish Family Engagement, have sustained an openhearted joyous atmosphere of Jewish celebration, each and every week.
Reflecting back on the success of Shababa and the newly-formed Shababa Network, which trains educators, clergy and lay leaders across the country to bring Shababa-like experiences to their institutions, Zilberman considers the alternatives.
“You know,” she shares, “we could have franchised it. We could have said, here are the songs, the CDs, the puppets, and it’s all in a box, follow these instructions.” But she explains that her team at 92Y decided to go another way, because they don’t believe that handing the program over in a box would have been sustainable.
“I don’t want to be a leader who only motivates others. If you want to help communities build a habit, then you need to inspire, motivate, and transform leaders.”
“I think that 92Y understood that we needed to make a shift,” she continues, thinking back on the early days of Shababa. “Instead of just listing a course in our beautiful catalogue, we needed to also meet people where they were at. When I started, I just wanted to make myself available. I had nothing to lose. So I sat in the hallway, and I tried to draw people in. If you make yourself available, you open yourself up to hearing what people want. But if you have an agenda in your head for what “should” happen, that will come across clearly and stymie the natural process.” she adds.
From sitting in the lobby to co-leading programs including Shababa Fridays and Saturdays, Shaboomers singing groups with seniors, Shababa Sparks clubs with older kids, Shababa Pajama Havdalah, High Holiday Family services, Shabbat picnics, dinners, and so much more, Zilberman has come to understand that the secret to success is knowing why you do what you do.
“There’s a Ted talk by Simon Sinek,” she shares. “He wrote a book called Start with Why in which he explains that the most important thing is to understand why you, yourself, are engaged in the work you’re doing. Not to focus only on the programmatic aspect of things, but to be very present in the actual doing of the work.”
So what is the “why” for Karina Zilberman? “I believe that if a professional is connected to why they do what they do, they will be connected to their beliefs,” she explains. “And it is in those beliefs where magic resides. And when an educator or a rabbi or a cantor is connected with that magic, they become enchanters.”
“I was enchanted by 92Y when I came here,” she continues. “I was enchanted by the spirit of this place and I really wanted to contribute.”
Contribute she has, and then some. All of the Shababa groups are vibrant, living, breathing communities, which avail so much more to their participants than solely the programmatic aspects of Shabbat celebrations. For the Shababa Mamas, a vocal ensemble of 24 women who sing together at venues including hospitals and shelters, the gathering has provided emotional support in times of sickness, new friendships and shared interests.
“There is a Shababa Mama who joined our group ‘just to sing,’” Zilberman shares. “She told me she didn’t want any new friends, just a place where she could sing. I told her of course, she was welcome. And then, at some point, she became very ill. And this group was her primary support. We laugh about it now—she says, ‘I never understood the power of community until now. I have a lot of friends, but the way the Mamas took care of me was a true communal embrace.’” This same Mama has now found herself at the center of the Shababa Mama activities, co-writing with some other Mamas all the lyrics for their original songs.
“You know, in a way, the experience of singing together, looking into each other’s eyes, breaking down the walls that exist between people, is reminiscent of the Martin Buber idea of the I-Thou,” Zilberman reflects. “There’s the ‘You’ and there’s the ‘Me,’ but if we look at the space in between us as fertile ground, and it’s cared for by us both, then we can build a bridge across it.”
Sometimes, those crossing the bridge toward community might never have expected to find themselves on the other side at all, like the 80-100 nannies who show up with the kids for Shababa Fridays. “The nannies are a huge part of our family,” Zilberman says. “We wouldn’t be able to reach the heights and energy of Shababa without them, without their sense of spirituality.”
Zilberman and Schoffer think of the nannies as shlichot mishpachot, or family emissaries, to the Shababa mission of family experience. “Parents have told us that they come home on a Friday afternoon, and there’s a challah baking in the oven, and the kids and the nannies are singing Shababa songs together. And then the nannies tell us that they bring the Shababa songs with them to church on Sunday.”
Beverly Greenfield, Director of Media and Public Relations, adds that this kind of acceptance is built into the gestalt of 92Y. “This is a place where people may encounter Jewish culture in a way that’s very unusual, very joyous and open,” she says.
Open is a key term here. In fact, Zilberman is fond of saying that through Shababa, they are no longer just a Y that is open ON Shabbat, but rather, they are open FOR Shabbat. And they are accessible to everyone, as the Shababa experiences are free —an executive decision made several years back which has lowered the barrier of entry and allowed Shababa to attract and maintain such a large and devoted presence.
Interestingly, however, retention isn’t a concern for Zilberman and her team. “92Y doesn’t have agenda of forced retention,” Zilberman asserts. “And this is what’s so completely freeing about what we do. Rather than focusing on how we would keep people coming week after week, we focus on what happens in each individual session…and retention becomes organic.”
“Shababa inspires within people the urge to figure out what their individual journey is, whatever that might look like,” adds Schoffer. “There’s no prescribed next step…and the recipe is that there isn’t a pre-determined recipe.” Rather, she adds, Shababa is a live organism, always shifting and changing. “You never know what a group might need on a given day,” she says, but we try to listen to people, and improvise, and meet them wherever they are.”
Improvisation and being comfortable with the creative chaos and messiness of running a large event with lots of kids is something Zilberman spends time talking about in the Shababa network, a community development platform created with the assistance of a Covenant Foundation Signature Grant in 2014.
With an annual summit, one-on-one consultations, webinars, a personalized toolkit (including puppets, tutorial videos, educational toys, a guidebook and more) members of the network provides educators and their organizations with an opportunity to share ideas, best practices and strategies for community engagement, all informed by the Shababa approach.
While the network is still new—they launched the pilot in 2014—its success may already be counted by the outcomes thusfar.
“One of our partners in the network is a cantor at a synagogue in Florida,” Zilberman shares. “She chose to incorporate her puppet into a conversation she had with a family who were in the process of converting their children. She reframed her approach to the conversion process through what she’s learned by being part of the Shababa network. Did I tell her to do that?” Zilberman asks rhetorically, “No, but through the network she found the tools she needed, as well as the freedom to use those tools as she saw fit.”
From synagogue boards that are reconfiguring the way they approach board meetings, to Upper West Side day schools that are revamping their morning t’fillot, members of the Shababa network are taking the raw materials of this philosophy and making it their own, which is exactly as Shababa intends. (The Shababa Network is now accepting applications for its next cohort; the forms are online and the deadline is August 10th.)
“I trust them before they trust me,” Zilberman says, paraphrasing the idea of another big-name thinker, the Silicon Valley marketing executive Guy Kawasaki. “Trust your community, give them the approach, and see what happens…default to ‘yes.’”
And don’t forget the follow up. “Part of the approach,” Zilberman is quick to add, “is the follow up. This might happen at a coffee shop, after the program, or it might happen when you’re having breakfast with someone the next day. Shababa doesn’t start or end when the program starts and ends. Shababa involves knowing people’s names, and maintaining relationships with them. If we were limiting our work to the moment when we are scheduled to be with the group, and not considering all of the time outside of that moment, we would be creating a programmatic mind that is wearing the costume of a community, but isn’t really fostering a true community.”
In an original song called “Hineni,” Zilberman sings, “There is nothing more important to do. There is nothing more important than being here with you.” When boiling down all of the rich ingredients that go into the Shababa Approach, being present is perhaps its most relevant. To this end, Zilberman talks about how, thanks to the intergenerational nature of all Shababa events, she’s careful to mitigate the language she uses so that it’s very clear for the little ones, but also resonates with grownups.
“We announce at every Shababa event, ‘if you’re new here, and you think you’re here for a kids’ program, you’re in the wrong place. This program isn’t just for kids. It’s for everyone.” This way, Zilberman says, the grownups know that when it’s time to jump up and down, they should jump up and down too. And when the kids are singing, they should be able to turn around, and see the adults singing along as well.
“We expect everyone to be present and in the moment,” she says, smiling. “That’s the Shababa way.”
"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