More than a decade ago, Covenant Award recipient Jody Hirsh had a hunch. And a vision. He wanted to fill a need among Midwestern Jewish artists for community, engage them in Jewish study in a way that would penetrate their work, and in doing so, bring art and Jewish expression to the local Jewish communities in a reinvigorated style.
“Arts are the best education,” Hirsh said, in a recent phone conversation, during which he looked back at the impact of the Covenant grant he received in 2010 for the Jewish Artists Lab. “Arts can be a purveyor of Jewish culture, tradition and knowledge.”
He piloted the project first at The Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, where he serves as the longtime Judaic Education Director, and then with partners at the Sabes JCC in Minneapolis and the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In 2014, Hirsh and his team received another Signature Grant to bring the project to Jewish communities in Chicago, Kansas City and Cleveland.
For each cohort, a group of Jewish artists was recruited, along with a professional Jewish educator and, in some instances, an art educator (in subsequent years participants stepped into the role of arts facilitator). While each group evolved its own style, the model was to meet regularly and study texts together – whether traditional Jewish texts or works of art, modern poetry or other eclectic materials sharing Jewish values on a theme – and then create art inspired by the sessions. Participants would also discuss their own art and exhibit the work together annually in a public space. The themes used over the years included text and subtext, inside and outside, wanderings, water and light.
“I know that artists living in the Midwest feel neglected – that the center of the art world is New York – and I wanted to help them to feel important and noticed. I wanted them to learn more about themselves as Jews,” Hirsh says. “And I think there’s a need for artists who are Jewish to get to know other Jewish artists. The process was electrifying.”
Hirsh and the other pioneering program directors – Robyn Awend, Director of Cultural Arts at the Minnesota JCC and Rabbi Andrea Steinberger of the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin at Madison – speak with enthusiasm and a strong sense that the project has flourished and gone better than they imagined.
“I am passionate about exploring ways that art and Judaism intersect and impact community,” Awend says.
An artist specializing in printmaking, Awend explains that in her city, the program has continued beyond their Covenant funding, with some of the artists involved all along, and new artists joining each year. In fact, Minneapolis is the only site where the program is still in full swing. This year, their theme was wholeness and brokenness, and they followed a new model: Each of the twenty Lab members selected a partner of a younger generation to work with outside of the Lab. The group met virtually throughout the year and will have a virtual show later this year.
Over these ten years, Awend explains, some of the artists have shown their work together in galleries, traveled together, formed deep friendships and acknowledged a lot of important moments together, both joyful and tragic.
“This program is such a special gem for the artists. Over this last year, people really needed this. Lab members already trust the process and each other,” she says. Participants share their thoughts and news of their artistic work on a blog.
In Madison, which does not have a JCC, Rabbi Andrea Steinberger had the challenge of bringing together students and older artists from the community to work together through Hillel. While the program is not running in a formal way, she says that many of the artists “have continued to be in community with each other.”
“The Art Lab was not really asking anyone to create Jewish art. It was an understanding that artists have a way of connecting with Jewish texts that is intense and beautiful, that learning with a supportive group can open up a piece of their identity,” she says.
“I think the artists who loved the Lab were thirsty for meaning in their lives,” she added.
Hirsh, who is also an award-winning playwright, says that many of the artists are still active on the Facebook page, Midwest Jewish Artists’ Lab Network. He is retiring this June, but he will continue to work on cultural projects for the JCC, and on his own projects, including theater.
“I’m very proud of this project,” Hirsh says. “It has brought out a new dimension of the artists’ Judaism, a new sense of participation in the Jewish community and Jewish culture, and has inspired them to think about how complex Jewish life is.”
By Sandee Brawarsky, for The Covenant Foundation
“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