Maya Bernstein never expected to be working in Jewish education. However, her heritage, passions, and experiences came together and created an empowering reality for her. For Bernstein, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox household in New York, that moment of intersection came while she was an undergraduate student at Columbia University studying Russian and theater, and teaching at a Jewish children’s camp in the former Soviet Union.
“Had my great-grandparents not emigrated, I would have been one of those kids,” she said. “And I realized that I had an immense tool box of knowledge that others wanted to acquire. So I felt a profound and deep sense of obligation.
“I went back there every summer during my college years and I realized that informal education – transmitting concepts, stories, and values in revealing and creative ways – was inspiring to me and to those kids.”
In Bernstein’s words, she had an “epiphany,” as she recognized and embraced the notion that building identity and community purposefully and inventively was a natural trajectory for herself and an imperative for Jewish continuity.
“Jews in the 21st century are different from Jews in the 20th century. If the community doesn’t evolve to meet their needs, then our values will no longer resonate or meet people where they are and allow them to adapt and grow,” she said.
In 2012, Bernstein received The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize in recognition of her promise as a young Jewish educator for leadership and impact in the field.
At the time, the New York native was living in the Bay Area and working for UpStart, the San Francisco-based, self-described “engine for Jewish innovation,” facilitating change and accelerating creative ideas across the spectrum of organizational life.
As a founding team member at UpStart, Bernstein helped to fuel the growth and success of startups such as BimBam (formerly G-dcast), Moishe House, Wilderness Torah, and Keva - some of the most forward-looking and increasingly visible organizations on the Jewish and non-profit landscapes. In addition, she worked with more established Jewish organizations, such as JCCs, schools, and Federations.
UpStart was a logical place for Bernstein, who had earned a graduate degree in Education at Harvard University and who possessed a keen interest in innovative programming and cutting-edge organizational theory to advance communal life and the Jewish future.
Indeed, Bernstein is immensely effective in the zone in which innovation and tradition overlap, according to Toby Rubin, the founder and former CEO of UpStart, who recruited Bernstein as her first hire.
“I saw in her a keen intellect, broad interest in and passion for Jewish education, and an educator’s stamp on the way she views and understands the world and the people in it,” Rubin said.
“In education, what matters is how you help move someone from Point A to Point B, orienting yourself to outcomes, and understanding the person you are leading on this journey. Maya understands this intuitively and is simply the best of the next generation due to her talent, drive, and capacities.”
A March 2016 article that Bernstein wrote for eJewish Philanthropy highlights her approach, which is to marry creativity and Jewish stories, values, and rituals in order to teach, lead, and move organizations ahead.
“Core elements of Purim are an elegant outline for achieving what Google is still striving to figure out – how to optimize team connectivity, creativity, and productivity,” she wrote in the article, “Lessons from Purim: A Model for Creating Impactful Teams.”
“We need not create the algorithm from scratch – we as a Jewish community have it right here, in our loudest and wildest holiday. Purim is our very own blueprint for the heightened social sensitivity and human bonds that professional teams need,” she wrote, citing Purim's themes of individual vulnerability, communal care, and spirit of playfulness as models to inspire more productive organizational team environments.
The Pomegranate Prize came at a critical juncture in Bernstein’s professional life; it became a catalyst for her to reexamine her own trajectory and effect.
“The Prize forced me to step back and reevaluate,” she said. “I wasn’t focused enough on my own personal growth as a professional. With the Prize, I was pushed to seriously think about my own career path. At the beginning, it was nerve wracking.”
Bernstein decided to work with a professional coach to identify her gap areas of knowledge and to figure out how to fill them. “I was able to analyze what I liked and what I wanted to do more deeply, and to basically dream big.”
At one extreme, Bernstein identified Adaptive Leadership as one such gap area, viewing it as a framework for accelerating Jewish and other organizations. She studied with Cambridge Leadership Associates, a thought leader in the field, and co-authored a widely read and critically acclaimed article. “Leading Change Through Adaptive Leadership,” that appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of the prestigious Stanford Social Innovation Review.
At the other extreme, she built on her own background in drama and performance by studying improvisational theater at Uptown Citizens Brigade in New York, an improv center that claims famous alumni across the entertainment industry.
“Improv is totally about sparking new ideas and patterns and behaviors,” she said. “Many of the same games, tools, and creativity that generate good improv can be used in my teaching and facilitating with Jewish organizations.”
Bernstein relocated to New York in 2015 with her husband and four children. She currently works as an independent consultant and educator, while continuing working for UpStart in an Associate role.
Over the course of her career trajectory thus far, Bernstein has also taught for the Wexner Heritage and Graduate Fellows programs, and is on the faculty of a new Georgetown University certification program in the Art of Facilitation and Design.
She also helped to spearhead the Day School Collaboration Network, a three-year project of UpStart and The Jewish Education Project to inject the concept and practice of Design Thinking into a cohort of schools to make them models of agility and excellence.
Bernstein’s three-year engagement as a Pomegranate Prize recipient allowed her the time and resources to more deeply develop and practice her theoretical and practical approaches to education. However, she noted that she found the extensive exposure to others in her Prize cohort and to members of the larger Covenant Foundation network just as valuable.
“It’s been very reassuring to meet and get to know others whom I admire and who, like me, are figuring out how to reach the next level of impact, while striving to navigate their work-life issues,” she said. “My cohort colleagues were inspiring; they challenged me in positive ways.”
“And perhaps most importantly,” Bernstein added, the Pomegranate Prize gave me courage.”