Ten years ago, Lisa Levy was sitting on the bus in Israel with her eighth-grade class, wondering why so many of her students weren’t connecting to the vibrant, complex Jewish homeland they had been studying for years.
“When I looked around, I saw that most of them were staring down at their laps, instead of out the window,” said Levy, who has taught art and Jewish Studies at Brandeis Marin day school, just north of San Francisco, for 15 years. The following year, digging deeper into her art and culture toolkit, Levy introduced her students to the flourishing street art scene in Israel. And on the next trip to Israel they saw the art for themselves.
“I almost cried when I saw their level of excitement,” she said, describing the change as “phenomenal.” Apart from recognizing and responding to the art itself in visceral and positive ways, the students began to connect with the energy and complexity of Israeli life, asking questions and making observations far beyond the content of murals in the Tel Aviv bus station, or the graffiti in Jerusalem’s hip Nachlaot neighborhood.
This moment of educational insight was followed soon after by the arrival of Dr. Peg Sandel as Head of School, and Merav Steinberger as Dean of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. This trio, along with their colleagues, saw the potential for braiding art more completely into the study of Israel at the school. Graffiti on the walls of Israeli cities became a doorway into the soul of a country.
In 2018, The Covenant Foundation awarded Brandeis Marin a Signature Grant to solidify and expand this work, called the Tiferet Project (“tiferet” means beauty or adornment in Hebrew).
The heart of this program is a year-long class for eighth graders, called Israel Art and Culture. The first semester focuses on learning the language of analyzing art, followed by an exploration of Israeli culture and society, with an eye to finding points of connection with students’ lives. In the second semester, and prior to their annual journey to Israel, the students do a deep dive into the country’s street art. This work—colorful, energetic, and unafraid to tackle current events head on—gives students a chance to more deeply grapple with the complexities of Israeli society. Most importantly, perhaps, they come to their own conclusions about the country, with a baseline of excitement and knowledge about contemporary Israeli life.
“Israel is a young country, and the artists we studied saw Israel as a canvas to make political statements and effect change. They must feel very confident to express themselves so freely,” observed Elia Janes, a recent graduate of Brandeis Marin. “At Brandeis, we are encouraged in our Jewish Studies classes to ask questions, but also we are given the responsibility to find our answers.”
Olivia Felson, also a recent graduate, noted that the Israel Art and Culture class deepened her faith in Judaism while at the same time opening a window to an Israel she never knew. The study of art allowed her to see more clearly that “Israel is a second home to many different groups of people… and although there is a history of conflict in the region, there is also a strong community that transcends individual differences and instead focuses on innovation and the future.”
For Sandel, this shift in teaching about Israel couldn’t come a moment too soon. Like many educators, she worried that Jewish schools were failing to adequately engage students with a love of Israel, or create a teaching environment that included the political, religious, and other complexities of the country. Without these two pillars of engagement and nuance, she feared Jewish educators were setting students up for apathy and disappointment later on.
“With the Tiferet Project, we wanted to re-think Israel education,” Sandel said. “We wanted to meet kids in subjects areas [like art and culture] where they had a natural curiosity, and enter into Israel studies from that space.”
Discussing recent academic findings about the views of Jewish youth toward Israel, Sandel, who has a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies, noted that “some of the loudest anti-Zionist voices come from day school kids, kids who, davka, were supposed to be inoculated from these ideas. They had the feeling they had been lied to about the complexity of Israel.”
The response, pedagogically, is boldness and innovation. “To what extent can we dare to let our students know that there is complexity, and give them the tools to deal with it? We are good at that as Americans. We can love this country, and recognize it has a lot of problems, and live with that tension. But with Israel, we haven’t yet developed that same robust toolkit. The arts make that possible.”
For Merav Steinberger, the yoking together of art and Israel has had benefits throughout the Jewish Studies curriculum.
“Our approach to teaching art parallels the way we teach texts, by asking questions and interpreting, and being able to agree or disagree with what is said,” said Steinberger. When students see how “streets artists use graffiti in Israel—by crossing out what one person did, and adding their own ‘text’—they understand from a different angle the process of Talmudic commentary.”
As with every school program over the last 12 months, Tiferet underwent major adjustments because of COVID. Most importantly, the 2021 spring trip to Israel had to be cancelled, as was the arrival last year of an Israeli artist the school had studied, and who was set to work intensely with the Brandeis Marin community over a week-long educational residency.
Lisa Levy acknowledged this disappointment while looking forward to a future that will require her students to ask even better questions about Israel and Jewish life. More than anything, “we want students to push back against what they see. To look, and then look again.”
By Dan Schifrin, for The Covenant Foundation
A former columnist for both New York Jewish Week and the j: Jewish Newsweekly of Northern California, Dan Schifrin has taught creative writing at UC Berkeley, San Francisco State, and Stanford University Continuing Studies, and served as writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. He recently founded StoryForward, which offers creative writing courses to Jewish teens, intergenerational Jewish book club support, and public conversations connecting art, literature, and community. He is the author, among other things, of the play “Sweet and Sour;” the one-man show “String Theory”; and a forthcoming memoir about fatherhood and science fiction. As part of a LABA Fellowship at the JCC of the East Bay, Dan is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain and its influence on twenty-first-century America.
“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