The day my family moved into our then-home on West 16th Street in Manhattan three years ago, I noticed a line of people circling the corner and waiting outside a building across the street. The next day, I entered the church where the throngs of people had gathered and introduced myself. I learned that the church, St. Frances Xavier, has been a haven for the homeless in the Chelsea community, serving 1300 men, women and children a free meal every Sunday for the past several decades. As a rabbi, a religious Jew and fellow New York neighbor living right across the street, I asked how our community at Base might be of service to that community.
The national project that is Base Hillel, home-focused outposts of Jewish engagement spearheaded by pluralistic rabbis and partners now in nine cities and growing, started with us unpacking boxes, both literal and figurative. We were privileged and poised to pose the question on that Chelsea street: How can we be collaborative, supportive partners in our local diverse communities?
Since that Sunday morning over three years ago, our community at Base Hillel in Manhattan has delivered a weekly home cooked meal to the church’s smaller nightly shelter, The Fred Kaughlin Men’s Shelter, which houses 12 men suffering from homelessness. Graduate students and young Jewish professionals in their 20s and 30s come to our home after a long day to chop carrots, onions and whatever else is on the menu to those in need. We’ve framed our service at the shelter as a deeply Jewish act, like Torah study or ritual observance. It is but one small effort of our community’s contributions in building bridges and bolstering the undervalued neighborliness of our city.
But Base’s partnership with the church has extended far beyond breaking bread. I quickly formed a friendship with the young Jesuit priests working there when we realized that we were all just starting out in our respective careers. Fathers Sean Toole and Dan Corrou and I would meet for coffee and discuss our theological differences, our religious upbringings, and our political views.
Shortly after Elie Wiesel passed away, I reached out to Father Sean. Wiesel had come up in our casual conversations and now, Sean and I imagined something that extended beyond our coffee chats. A monthly learning group called Spiritual Readings for Base MNHTN participants and the young adults group from the Church of St. Frances Xavier was born.
Alternating locations between our living room and the church, each gathering centers on a different theme or topic. Together we’ve explored writings from both our traditions as it relates to forgiveness, gratitude, companionship, community, despair, trauma, family, and more. We also gathered the night after the presidential election to share reactions and explore what our faiths might have to offer us in politically tumultuous times.
“I love going to Spiritual Readings,” wrote Sam Bowser, a Base regular. “It’s a space created by people open to and actively seeking to understand the experiences and teachings that exist outside their own immediate circle. While we are privileged to discover new perspectives from our friends down at St. Francis Xavier’s, we more often than not stumble across these incredible similarities and parallels between our communities that resonate deeply. I always walk away feeling heard and recognized with my worldview widened enough to keep my mind in motion until our next meeting.”
The unique opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation around challenging issues with people from diverse religious and personal backgrounds is illuminating. For these young Jews and Catholics, it is an opportunity to step outside one’s own echo chamber and encounter the other. This holds true for the teachers as much as it does our students. Leading the course has allowed me to co-facilitate with fellow clergy and experience the dissonances and shared values of our traditions. Moreover, I’ve learned to cherish the value of facing outwards, that my rabbinic work is that of translation: of texts and traditions, certainly, but of values and stories as well to our post-modern, politically and ideologically messy times.
“While New York City can be a vibrantly diverse, open, and inclusive city, it can also be easy for any group to turn inward and to silo into individual communities,” shared Katherine, a doctoral student in her early 30’s who is also a parishioner at St. Francis.
“I feel uplifted and inspired after our meetings, as a hopeful idea undergirds this interfaith group—namely, that different groups might be able not only to identify similarities and differences, but also to celebrate both with love and respect.”
Katherine and Sam have created a community within Spiritual Readings. Each comes to the table with their own preconceived notions, experiences and belief systems but over the course of learning together, they encounter what they share in their faiths and families.
And so it was only natural that when our nation saw an ugly resurgence in xenophobia and Islamophobia, the Spiritual Readings community asked how we might we include our Muslim neighbors into our monthly conversations. Not because our tiny act of kindness would radically change the outside cultural current, but because it was ours. With an overwhelming news cycle and action items, which seem insurmountable, simply breaking bread and engaging in philosophical study with our neighbors was our civic spirit in action.
Depending on location, the church or Base sponsors the gathering with wine and refreshments, setting up a living room or church parlor space in a circle. Source sheets are provided. Texts are shared. But it’s more than the ambiance and aesthetics of a particular class that draw people. Father Sean articulates it best:
“Regardless of their spiritual tradition, young people in New York struggle to feel at home in faith communities,” he said. “Many are experiencing significant life transitions and are overwhelmed by how impersonal a large city can seem. Like the rest of Base’s offerings, the Spiritual Readings evening reflections allows young adults of our city to enter more deeply into faith and community with each other. We bond over shared values and struggles, both sacred and secular.”
With the high-holiday season behind us, we’re back in motion at Base. That includes our weekly service project, Torah classes, Introduction to Judaism offerings, support spaces and of course, Spiritual Readings gatherings. To frame Spiritual Readings as yet another “program,” though, would be a disservice. Base is about people, not programs, and the relationships that serve as an undercurrent. Spiritual Readings highlights this for us and reminds me why I do what I do.
“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
“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
"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.
“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