We asked two prominent voices in Jewish social media—Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg and Jordana Horn—to think about those issues most pressing to young Jewish families today and share their thoughts with us. Below is a condensed version of their conversation.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg: We’re going through a difficult chapter of American history right now. Whether we’re talking about gun violence or immigration or the treatment of Muslim Americans or something else, there are a lot of things that our kids are picking up on and we need to develop better language for talking to them about these things in ways that are truthful, age-appropriate, and leave them not feeling terrified or despairing. To me, this is one of the most urgent and timely issues facing young Jewish families today.
I recently wrote about Mr. Rogers, and was struck by his unflinching willingness to engage with kids around things they might be overhearing on the TV or radio, or from their parents. For example, after Robert Kennedy was shot in 1968, he did a segment explaining what the word “assassination” meant, for very young children. He told them the truth—that it was hard and sad, and that it was OK to feel scared and mad about it.
I think this is where Jewish values, traditions, and principles might be able to help—particularly around our own obligations to work for a more just and whole world and to preserve lives and human dignity above all else.
Jordana Horn: Agreed, 100%. From day one of nursery school, we should be driving home the essential Jewish message that all human beings are created in the image of God—that we are all imbued with a spark of the divine, the ineffable, the magnificent. Because once we know and appreciate that, everything else is commentary.
And I believe that’s just as important as learning our classmate’s names (maybe even more so?) —learning that there is something holy in every human being, and that is at the root of WHY, as Jews, we have the imperative to repair the world.
I think there are also important discussions to be had about WHEN to talk to children about world events. I’m not convinced, for example, that kids of every age who go to shul on Shabbat need to know about what happened in Pittsburgh. And yet, my nursery-school-age child who goes to a Jewish nursery school has active shooter drills because it’s a Jewish school. I deeply resent the uglier parts of this world’s intrusion into my kids’ childhood—but I think there is a nuanced discussion to be had about not only what you say and how, but when you say it and why. I’ve not yet talked to my little girls ages 8 and under about the Holocaust, for example, but I have had very involved, no-holds-barred discussions about everything with my teens since they were 10 and up.
DR: Right. And different parents are going to have different attitudes about how to handle the difficult, painful things, and of course approaches need to be tailored also to the kid, and their personality, but it’s impossible to ignore this issue now.
Another pressing issue is inclusion, or celebration—making a Jewish community that is truly both welcoming to everyone, and also honors and celebrates what a range of perspectives and experiences can offer our tradition and community. It’s not enough to create a Jewish community that welcomes Jews of Color, disabled Jews, Jews from interfaith families, Jews of every gender, sexuality, and family configuration. Rather, we should also be open to growing and evolving based on the insights and leadership of folks from all walks of life and ways of being. It might take some work for us to get there, but I think it’s important work.
JH: Yes. We should make an active effort to open up these ideas and discussions, even when the room in which we sit doesn’t immediately present as diverse. We have to make an active effort to read books to kids about people who aren’t neurotypical, or families that present differently, or Jewish people who aren’t Jewish from birth or don’t trace their genes back to the shtetl. We also have to remind ourselves that some differences aren’t immediately visible, and it’s imperative to always communicate the idea from the outset that we are understanding and our arms are open. I think that ties back to this idea of why we are all doing what we are doing in the first place.
I would love to encourage Jewish communities to create programming that addresses differences—or at least doesn’t assume that everyone is coming from the same place.
DR: I’d love to see the Jewish community offering frazzled, busy parents more tools to help be more present with their kids more of the time. There are a lot of ways that our tradition can help--to find the holy sparks waiting to be raised from mundane (dare I say--boring) tasks like folding laundry or sweeping up Cheerios, find the blessings that can be recited after an unpleasant encounter with poop, or find the I-Thou encounter, as philosopher Martin Buber would put it, the true communion with the other, during the moments when empathy might seem elusive.
I have a lot of thoughts and opinions on helping parents see how parenting—in the hard, tricky, agonizing moments as well as the sweet ones--can be a legitimate spiritual practice in its own right. Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting is predicated on the assumption that parenting can be not only a spiritual practice when you’re blowing bubbles at the park or feeling mystically connected in a sleepy snuggle—the warm, feel-good moments—but that it can also be a spiritual practice when you find the sparks of light in the hardest, most crazymaking moments. Pulling up just the tiniest droplets of compassion from underneath the frustration. Tapping into that well of love at 3 A.M. when really all you want to do is Go. Back. To. Sleep. It’s about finding gratitude for the body that works well enough to poop, even if it means extra laundry. It’s about allowing yourself to get present, fully present, in whatever’s happening: present in the mundane moments of cleaning up, present in the hard moments when your frustration levels are high, present in the uncomfortable moments when you realize how little of their lives and fates you really control.
When we find compassion for our kids, we become kinder and softer. When we learn how to trust our instincts as parents, we become more in tune with ourselves. And, when we allow ourselves to enter fully into the breathtaking love we have for our kids, it can bring us to the doorway of the sacred.
I’d love to see the Jewish world talking more about these questions, offering frazzled, busy parents more tools to help be more present with their kids more of the time. There are enough ways that our tradition can help them with this project.
JH: I’d like the Jewish community to make more active efforts to enfranchise the disenfranchised. So many of our life problems are dealt with behind closed doors—and yet, we know intellectually that we can all be a source of comfort and solace to one another. I belong to many Jewish communities, and in one, there was a wonderful program where the rabbi ‘interviewed’ a friend of mine, Rebecca Soffer. Rebecca is one of the creators of the website ModernLoss.com, a clearinghouse of feelings about grief and loss of all shapes and permutations. On a busy weeknight, over 100 people showed up for this talk—people who had lost spouses, parents, friends, and children. They came to sit and listen and learn—and the conversations afterwards were just as valuable as the conversation on the bima had been, and maybe even more so, because they fostered a sense of connection and community.
So many of the problems that keep us up at night—whether depression and anxiety, eating disorders, fertility struggles, or what have you—are ones that we deal with alone, out of a misbegotten sense of shame or fear. I would like the Jewish community to take more aggressive strides to meet people where they are and to extend a hand of love and compassion to all those who are struggling. In today’s world, we have the mechanisms for connectivity in our literal pockets with smart phones and social media, and yet each of us finds ourselves more alone. I believe our Judaism can help us out of the lonely darkness and into the warmth of physical connection and community.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
“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