Reflecting on the history of the Covenant Foundation takes us back to the late 1980s when two first cousins, Susan Crown, daughter of Lester Crown, and Barbara Goodman Manilow, daughter of Charles (Corky) Goodman, discovered their common inspiration in the Jewish education they wished they had experienced. They conceived a national strategy of trying to do something positive to reward great Jewish teachers and improve Jewish education in America. It was no surprise that the plan resonated deeply with their fathers, who were themselves deeply involved national and international leaders in Jewish life.
What is remarkably unique is the way in which, throughout the 20th century, the Crown family philanthropic torch has been passed from one generation to the next. Lester Crown and Corky Goodman have followed the tradition of the founder, the legendary Colonel Henry Crown, and listened carefully to the ideas of their children. They taught their daughters well.
With encouragement from all of the Crown family members, Barbara and Susan began their due diligence by inviting a wide array of educators and Jewish leaders to share their experiences and perceptions. Susan remembers, “We had so much to learn—we were just trying to get the landscape. And so we asked some terrifically naïve questions like, ‘If you could do anything, what would you do?’”
The cousins concluded that, even though the field of Jewish education was suffering from financial constraints and institutional limitations, the Jewish community was bursting with exciting ideas that could bring about dramatic change. Susan elaborates:
Every time we asked, “If you could do anything, if tomorrow you could innovate with no constraint…,” everyone just seemed to brighten at that thought. Given the chance to think big or dream big or think out of the box, people’s faces, demeanors, and energy levels changed. Some people had answers right away—literally off the top of their heads—of what they might do.
According to Jonathan Woocher, one of the original architects of the Foundation (along with its founding executive director, Judith Ginsberg):
What made the Covenant Foundation unique was its core vision and strategy. Jewish education is ultimately the product of the efforts of individuals working on the front lines. Too often, the most talented and dedicated of these individuals never receive the recognition or support they deserve. Their energy and their dreams never have the chance to radiate into larger spheres of Jewish education, to initiate transformation and renewal from the bottom up and the inside out. Yes, Susan and Barbara agreed the best way to improve Jewish Education was to identify and nurture the extraordinary ideas and talent that did exist.
Thus were born the Covenant Awards and the Covenant Grants. Over the past eighteen years, 54 educators have received a gift that can be measured in more than dollars-the gift of recognition of their achievements and their aspirations. In turn, these educators have given back enormously to Jewish education. The institutions they have enriched, the programs they have initiated, the influence they have had on others have each been enhanced by being brought into the orbit of the Covenant Foundation. In ways small and large each has helped to make a Jewish renaissance imaginable.
Over time, the Covenant Awards have achieved their place in Jewish education. In a field where recognition is rare, a number of recipients have been so overwhelmed at the Awards ceremony that they have compared their feelings to having just been awarded a Jewish Nobel Prize, or a Pulitzer Prize. Because it is a national award, the Covenant Award has turned out to be a form of recognition for the thousands of great teachers that are nominated and considered across the country.
The Awards have inspired numerous similar prizes in individual communities across North America. They have infused the recipients’ communities with renewed pride and appreciation for their educators. They have encouraged communities to honor locally their own outstanding educators. In addition, they have validated both classroom teachers and those working in areas of the Jewish educational enterprise that had been considered marginal—Jewish special education, storytelling, music education, and family education.
Although the first year of the Awards was particularly exciting, since the honor was so new, its impact continues to grow and be refreshed by the continuing innovations of its recipients. Award recipients cannot be easily characterized. They do not share one denomination, one pedagogical approach, one teaching venue, or one definition of teaching. The one commonality among these uncommon people is their abiding love of Judaism and the Jewish people and their devotion to the perpetuation of the Jewish heritage.
The founders of the Covenant Foundation were not content to merely ameliorate deficiencies in a severely strained system of Jewish education. They sought (and continue to seek) ways to infuse new life and vitality within a system that needs reform and fresh thinking. Today, the Foundation awards two types of grants: Signature grants, which provide substantial funding for up to five years; and Ignition grants, for those especially striking ideas that rarely get the chance to see the light of day.
Recipients value the grants not only for the financial support they provide, but also for the leverage they afford. Because selection for support from the Covenant Foundation has earned inherent validation over time, these projects often attract grants from other foundations.
The words of Isaiah (59:21) that so inspired Susan and Barbara when they began their journey 18 years ago continue to guide the work of the Foundation. The two cousins, as well as the board and staff of the Foundation, are humbled by the extraordinary Jewish educators who have devoted their professional lives and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. The privilege of working with so many exemplary educators throughout North America energizes the work of the Foundation and we hope inspires others to enter the field.
The current Jewish educational system impacts hundreds of communities and tens of thousands of families. But despite significant investments to expand the reach, to improve the quality, and to diversify practice, big challenges remain. The revolution in communications technology alone brings an urgency to recast old teaching tools in a global era where everyone has a voice.
Building a world class educational system for Jewish children and their families, living in communities large and small, is essential. To do this we must welcome and nurture a new generation of young people who are searching for a profession that is meaningful and full of promise. They may just find it in Jewish education if we are there ready to engage them in this great Jewish endeavor.
When a superb Jewish educational system is in place, perhaps a decade from now, it will only be because communities and funders from across the country came together with the realization that educational excellence is the key to the Jewish future. We can only achieve this excellence if we all work together to put creativity at the center of a revitalized system that works for students, parents, teachers, and families. As Albert Einstein said, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” Let us recruit and sustain the best young people and experienced teachers we can find who know how to “awaken joy” and free them to lift the future onto their shoulders and set Jewish education on a new course.
Eli N. Evans