2004 Covenant Award Recipient

Ruth Pinkenson Feldman

2004 Covenant Award Recipient

Ruth Pinkenson Feldman

Dr. Ruth Pinkenson Feldman was born in Philadelphia to two loving parents who instilled in her a lifelong appreciation of learning and of teaching. They taught her that “You don’t teach subjects, you teach people.” They also taught her to believe in herself. Her Jewish learning taught her how and why.

Ruth earned her cum laude BA in Philosophy and Child Study in 1971 at Tufts University in Medford, MA. She continued her studies at the Bank Street College of Education, where she received an MS in Early Childhood Education in 1974.

In 1980, she became the founding director of the Learning and Development Program, an infant-toddler program, at the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. By incorporating parent education, it helped to form the basis for a strong Jewish community. In her five years there, Ruth firmly established a Bank Street-inspired program that was play-oriented, exploratory, and, perhaps most unusual at the time, incorporated parent education and family holiday programming. Twenty-four years later, “The Mishpachah Program” still exists. While creating this program, Ruth worked on her doctorate at Temple University. Her dissertation, “The Impact of Jewish Day Care on Parental Jewish Identity,” brought a strong theoretical background to her work. She received her EdD in 1986.

From 1995 to 1996, Ruth was a Jerusalem fellow. In addition to focusing her energy on re-envisioning early childhood education, Ruth studied with Nechama Leibowitz, from whom she learned, among other things, the process of close-reading a text and the active construction of Jewish knowledge. Ruth became part of the interpretive community.

Following her year in Israel, Ruth spent three years as a consultant for Early Childhood Education at the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education in Philadelphia, PA, where she established a network of early childhood professionals and a salary scale for early childhood educators. She also developed workshops and modules to enhance Jewish education in afternoon religious schools.

In her current role as Director of Early Childhood Services at the JCCA, she has been a dedicated innovator and teacher, creating the Brill Fellows Seminar in Israel, the web-based curriculum “This New Month,” which introduced the concept of Jewish time to over 100 nursery schools across the country, and “An Ethical Start,” a Jewish values curriculum based on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers).

Ruth has taught at Gratz College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Beaver College, among others. She has received grants from numerous foundations and her writing can be found in various publications, including The Jewish Family Book, What We Know About Jewish Education, and Sh’ma.

In all that she does, she is supported by her loving husband, Gary, and her children, Uri, Leona, and Noam.

From Ruth Pinkenson Feldman’s Statements of Motivation and Purpose:

“I have lived my life with the image of my parents at the forefront of my consciousness. Emulating their lives, I learned an attitude of gratitude, to be happy, and to love life. They taught me the importance of teaching.

“As a mother as well as an educator, I wanted my children not only to ‘think’ Jewish, I wanted them to feel Jewish. At one point in my personal life, when I experienced what many people experience with the death of a beloved parent, I looked to my Judaism for solace and comfort. I had always thought of my emotional life in secular psychological terms. I began to discover the power of feelings inspired by Jewish ideas. I started to give myself permission to believe, to take leaps of faith where I had once been obsessed with defining terms. What I experienced was the power of Jewish ideas and ideals to transform my self-awareness.

“My career path took me to Israel as a Jerusalem Fellow. I studied the exemplary work of my colleagues in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The success of their approach to early childhood education is based on the centrality of their ‘image of the child’ as a creative problem solver. I came to the realization that if we posit the profound Jewish ideal that we are all created in the image of God, we could create an environment built on self-respect, dignity, and kindness toward others. Quite apart from religious practice, building an educational plan based on Jewish moral and ethical ideas derived from authentic Jewish discourse with our texts became my goal.

“With Nechama Leibowitz as an extraordinary teacher, I became part of that ongoing, historical Jewish community which has been studying our texts together throughout the generations. The Torah is called the living Torah because it lives in us. I believe every Jewish child can become part of that interpretive community. I believe that the birthright of every Jewish child is to learn Torah, and I believe it is our responsibility to teach them.

“While many people are currently focusing on the graying of our profession, I am looking to the future. Today there are thousands of graduates of day schools and yeshivot. Today, women as well as men are studying Jewish texts and are teaching them in record numbers. I believe that if we open our field to reflect the renaissance of learning in the adult Jewish world, we will shift curriculum to focus on the sacred texts that unite us, rather than the religious practices which may divide us. To do this I believe that we need to redesign our profession to include Jewish text consultants, to learn with parents and teachers, and to ensure that children have access to our sacred texts. I believe that focusing on our common texts is what unites all of us as Jews.

“My goals for the professional development of the field are to ensure that all of our voices can be heard in interpreting our Jewish texts, and that our Jewish texts continue to speak directly to all of us!”

From her Letters of Nomination and Support:

“Ruth is a great educator because she is constantly learning. She shares her own Jewish journey freely to inspire others. She has a wonderful talent for finding the right people to enlist in her efforts—wherever they come from. If they have the spark, the understanding, the skills, she will teach them whatever else they need to know. Ruth is a builder. Ruth thinks big, and she is not discouraged by the dimensions of the challenges facing her. What she sees are the opportunities. She believes that the field of Jewish early childhood education can be transformed. She believes that resources can be found, that supporters can be mobilized, that teachers can grow and change, that parents can become partners in the Jewish education of their children. She will not compromise on her vision. Ruth lives the expression, ‘If something is worth doing, it is worth doing right.’”

Leonard Rubin

Executive Vice President, JCCA

“Ruth educates just by being herself. She makes everyone with whom she works a part of her family and community. She shares her knowledge of Judaism in a way that makes everyone around her part of a learning process. A typical Ruth opening is, ‘Guess what I just learned!’ Ruth is a visionary. Ruth believes that you can’t have an educated child without an educated adult. So she began to educate the educators. She is courageous. She is not afraid to buck the system. She is not discouraged when people tell her that something has never been done or cannot be done. Ruth is also tenacious. If you tell her something won’t work, she listens, and she might make some adjustment, but she won’t give up her idea. She will keep going. She is truly the consummate energizer bunny.”

Lisa Brill

Chairperson, Early Childhood Education, JCCA Funder, The Brill Seminar in Israel

“Her warmth, genuine concern for others, incisive educational insight, and willingness to think outside the box inspire colleagues to learn from one another and push the envelope to develop innovative, substantial programs that actually work. Ruth invited me to serve as a consultant to ‘This New Month’ and I refused to believe that technology had anything to offer Jewish educators. When I saw what Ruth was able to accomplish educationally with video conferencing and intelligent Internet use, I had to admit my mistrust of technology was misplaced. Ruth has brought me into the twenty-first century, just as she has given so many others access to timeless Jewish tradition.”

Simi Peters

Senior Faculty, Nishmat, The Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Studies for Women

“Dr. Ruth Pinkenson Feldman has been my professional colleague and mentor for the past ten years. Through her progressive and aggressive vision, she has created an ecosystem within the Jewish Community Centers across North America that consist of the child, family, community, and, at its nucleus, the early childhood director. Although her accomplishments within the JCC ecosystem are numerous and progressive, they pale for me in comparison to what she has done for me professionally. By trusting, assisting, and encouraging me, I am now consulting for the JCCA under Dr. Feldman’s supervision. Through her example of being an educated and involved administrator, I have returned to school and am pursuing a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Administration and Leadership so that I may stay within the ecosystem, continue to lead, and encourage others by my example.”

Terry Ferentz

Early Childhood Consultant, JCCA

Barbara Ellison Rosenblit