Alison Kur, Executive Director of Jewish Living at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA; Dr. Rebecca Schorsch, Director of Jewish Studies at Chicagoland Jewish High School in Deerfield, IL; and Rabbi Yisroel Boruch Sufrin, Head of School at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, CA, are the recipients of the Award, among the most coveted of honors in the field of Jewish education.
Eli N. Evans, Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Covenant Foundation, cited them as catalysts of innovation and educators with a drive, commitment and creativity that is strengthening students, institutions, communities, and the Jewish future.
“These three individuals illuminate the field of Jewish education through a combination of devotion, approach, strong leadership for the present and sacred obligation to the future,” he said. “Each of them, each day, is proving that Jewish education – across the broad spectrum of ages, venues and denominations – fuels individual and community enrichment, cohesion and growth. They are models of what we all can be.”
The three recipients join 69 other Jewish educators honored with a Covenant Award since the Foundation established it in 1991. Along with the honor, each will receive $36,000, and each of their institutions will receive $5,000.
The Foundation and the Jewish community will honor them at an awards dinner in Washington, DC on Nov. 9, during the General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America.
Alison Kur, Executive Director of Jewish Living at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, is an attorney-turned-Jewish educator, who in just a dozen years in the field has altered the educational landscape in myriad settings and for a cross section of students and colleagues.
At Temple Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue with 1,100 families where she has spent the bulk of her career as a Jewish educator, Kur engaged the membership in collaborative fashion to reimagine a congregation where Jewish learning and living suffuses the institution itself and the entire synagogue community.
Guided by that collective vision, she successfully replaced a silo approach to Jewish education with one more integrated, creating a holistic and vastly more vital model admired nationally as a prototype of 21st century congregational learning, engagement and community strength.
Along the way, she guided the reorganization and reorientation of all levels of education, many of them stagnant, from the synagogue nursery school to the adult learning program, and everything in between.
Curriculum and program innovations have pushed a doubling in student enrollment, a tripling in post-b’nai mitzvah retention to over 70 percent, and a dramatic increase in adult education participation.
“Alison is that rare combination of visionary leader and teacher, a passionate, tireless force for transforming cultures into communities of learning, caring and action,” said Amy Gorin, a Temple Beth Elohim board member who nominated Kur for The Covenant Award.
“Her vision is moored in a profound understanding of the power of deeply developed relationships that connect us to one another and to a robust meaningful Jewish life. At her heart she is a Jew in love with Judaism and the Jewish people; a teacher who lives all that she loves … kids and adults engaged, connected to Judaism and empowered; this is our new normal.”
Among the most visible representations of this vision is a newly designed synagogue building, a project that Kur has said is among the most meaningful. This too, became an educational endeavor, as an architect joined staff members and congregants to study Torah, Jewish ideas about holiness, immanence, transcendence and nature as the new building was conceived and constructed over the past several years.
Before joining Temple Beth Elohim, first as Director of Congregational Learning and then in her current position, Kur served as Program Director of the Leadership Development Institute at Combined Jewish Philanthropies. There, she launched an innovative leadership development program combining case studies and Jewish texts for synagogue professionals and lay leaders. The program continues to this day.
“I am humbled and deeply honored to be recognized as an educator dedicated to fostering a love of Judaism and Jewish learning across generations within a congregation,” Kur said. “For me, this work has been incredibly fulfilling because of the community in which I work. I am so grateful to my colleagues and to the members of the Temple Beth Elohim community who ensure that our shared learning is collaborative, sacred, meaningful, and filled with joy.”
Dr. Rebecca Schorsch, Director of Jewish Studies at Chicagoland Jewish High School (CJHS) in Deerfield, IL, has made an impact on students, fellow educators and the greater community in the Chicago area and beyond with singular dedication and leadership.
At CJHS since 2003, she oversaw the merger of the school’s Bible, Talmud and Jewish Thought departments under a greater Jewish Studies department and has led it for the past three years.
More broadly, she has created a culture of Torah Lismah – learning for its own sake – and has developed a voluntary learning program to engage various levels of students, her colleagues included, in Jewish study. For example, a series of lunch-and-learns by faculty and for faculty has created a new learning space for educators in which the categories of teacher and learner are fluid.
“What is compelling and even stirring both in Rebecca’s teaching and in her more personal interactions is how she pushes people to challenge their beliefs and engage in difficult reflection about the things that matter most,” said Tony Frank, CJHS Head of School, who nominated her for The Covenant Award. “Ultimately, this is the way in which Rebecca’s influence is so often experienced not merely as profound, but as transformative.”
Although based at CJHS – which enrolls 166 students in grades 9 to 12 – her reputation and influence as a Jewish educator has traveled far beyond the school’s walls. Dr. Schorsch has served as Scholar-in-Residence at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin since 2001, teaching campers, staff, visitors and families, and working with counselors and unit heads to craft educational programming.
“Reaching kids of any age can be a challenge for an educator,” said Benjy Forester, a 2012 graduate of CJHS who studied with Dr. Schorsch and continues to do so as a counselor at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. “Empowering the next generation of Jews and helping them cultivate Jewish identities that make them proud, however, is an imperative on which Jewish continuity depends. The skills Rebecca teaches and the conversations she begins leave students with important challenges and lessons that resurface as they continue their lives as independent young Jewish adults.”
She frequently teaches in private study groups, university and academic settings, local and regional synagogues, and Jewish institutions and organizations nationally, describing herself as an “educator at large” and a “community educator” with the stated purpose of helping each student individually on his or her Jewish journey.
“Every day I feel blessed to do what I love, something at once meaningful and critical to building the world that we wish to inhabit,” Dr. Schorsch said. “I am grateful to Covenant for honoring my work and, more importantly, for valuing the significance of Jewish education.
“This award depends upon the deep support of family and friends, students, colleagues and community, who nourish me, encourage me, challenge me, and work devotedly to teach and embody Torah. I am excited to join a national cohort of committed and excellent Jewish educators who will further stimulate my thinking and support my work in the field.”
Rabbi Yisroel Boruch Sufrin, Head of School at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy (HHHA) in Beverly Hills, CA for the past 11 years, has injected a powerful and expansive vision of Jewish education into the school, and in the process has transformed it, empowered students and teachers, and strengthened Jewish community nearby and beyond.
His philosophy, which places the student at the center, surrounded and buttressed by talented teachers, engaged parents, caring community, and immersive tools, fuels HHHA’s success and has made it one of the nation’s preeminent Jewish day schools and Rabbi Sufrin himself a leading advocate and practitioner of Jewish education.
“My personal life goal is to help any child become a leader and innovator,” he said. “When we educate each student according to his or her unique way in a child-centered environment, then we ensure he or she will be successful in the future. To do this, each child has to feel and know that he or she is the center of the learning process. This approach also understands that it is critical for an educator or parent to focus on each child’s achievements and accomplishments. We must provide a learning environment and culture that supports innovation and spiritual exploration.
“Our children deserve to know we value their part in the creation story. They are the continuation of creation. To create takes leadership, self-confidence, passion and knowledge. Imbuing these qualities in each child helps him or her to become an innovator and partner in the world’s future.”
Rabbi Sufrin has exercised and activated this philosophy in innumerable ways, and in the process has created a learning environment with an energy and vitality that defines the school and the larger community.
“(He) is one of the most influential and charismatic Jewish educational leaders ever,” said Dawn Kreisberg, Early Childhood Education Director at HHHA, who nominated Rabbi Sufrin for The Covenant Award. “He has made it a goal to teach, empower and inspire every student at every level plus all staff and to instill in them, in addition to strong Judaic values, the qualities of leadership and creativity.
“He knows that leadership is not about status but about creating a purpose and vision. I have never met a Jewish educator who embraces education from all directions.”
At the school, which enrolls 580 students from early childhood age to 8th grade, Rabbi Sufrin has moved to promote the use of technology in the classroom, elevate STEM and Hebrew language education, implement a Parashat Hashavua curriculum that involves parents, embrace community service initiatives, and fortify ties between the school and Israel.
But it is his devotion to students and community that is most often noted by those who are within his orbit and influence.
“Hillel has become a place where children can truly experience the joy of being practicing Jews, learning Jews, and part of a caring, nonjudgmental Jewish community,” said Dr. Miriam Heller Stern, Dean at the Graduate Center for Education at American Jewish University. “Rabbi Sufrin is driven by a genuine love of children and a dedication to nurturing their curiosity, passion, goodness and uniqueness as individuals. He honors every child as a human being.”
Reacting to his selection as a 2014 Covenant Award recipient, he echoed this devotion to children and the community.
“It is an honor and a privilege that The Covenant Foundation has selected me as a recipient of this prestigious national award. I am humbled to be associated with a group of individuals who have dedicated their lives to sharing innovations and inspiring their communities in meaningful ways. Receiving this award affirms my quest to unite the community while providing opportunities for Jewish children to excel. It will enable me to continue to achieve my goals, while expanding my educational and leadership vision on behalf of our children.”
For guidelines on nominating an educator for a 2015 Covenant Award, and to view a list and biographies of past recipients, visit www.covenantfn.org/awards.
The Covenant Foundation is a program of the Crown Family Philanthropies