How do we take the stories of women’s lives and turn them into a living museum?
How do we chronicle our own family stories?
How do we motivate a young audience into an historic journey?
How do we share it?
For the past 11 years, Barbara Rosenblit, a 2004 Covenant Award recipient, JWA board member, Humanities and Jewish Studies Teacher and Director of Mentoring at The Weber School in Atlanta, has been considering these questions.
And the answers have come in many different forms–dresses, purses, shadow boxes, sculptural books, lamps, vintage hats, gloves and pearls, embroidery hoops and place settings. These creations are all the work of juniors and seniors at Weber who have taken Rosenblit’s course “Addressing Women’s Lives,” which she teaches together with Weber faculty member and conceptual artist Sheila Miller. In this interdisciplinary course, students engage in a year of studying the history of Jewish women in America, identify and interview a Jewish woman 75 years or older, and then create a mixed-media work that reflects something they have learned about each woman’s life. Rosenblit uses “In Our Own Voices: A Guide to Conducting Life History Interviews with American Jewish Women,” a curriculum developed by the Jewish Women’s Archive, to train the students in taking an oral history. At the end of the course each year, the students prepare to display their work in a public exhibition housed within the Weber School’s art gallery.
“In some ways, this course has changed completely and also not at all,” says Rosenblit, reflecting on the last 11 years. “Of course, the visualization changes every year—the whole first floor of our school is pretty much a gallery of these projects in their various incarnations,” she says. “But the purpose of all of this remains the same—to highlight the lives of women.”
“It’s like pentimento,” Rosenblit explains, invoking an Italian word that describes the process in art by which a composition shows the drawing or painting that has happened underneath it—so that when one observes the art, there are traces of the versions that came before. “Over time, as painters reuse canvas, white-washing over their previous work, the first painting bleeds through and shows up in their new work in curious ways, casting an image or shadow from the old painting. We feel that’s kind of how the lives of women are expressed through the lives of all of us, and through our students. The influence their lives have had on us sort of comes up, or emerges, over time.”
This year, Rosenblit and her students will consider the influence of famous Jewish women in history, as well, when they return to “A Place at the Table,” an homage to artist and feminist Judy Chicago’s famous installation The Dinner Party. Originally produced by Weber students many years ago, for 2015, the installation has a twist: students will design both a goblet and a plate. The goblet will honor a woman who has been interviewed by a student, and the plate will honor a Jewish woman in history whose story complements that of the interview subject. One of Rosenblit’s students has decided to create a plate in honor of Bel Kaufman, the famed granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem and a teacher and author best known for writing Up the Down Staircase, a novel about the realities of teaching in New York City public schools in the 1960’s. He chose Kaufman, who passed away last summer, because his grandmother had also been a public school teacher in New York.
On the outside, it might seem obvious why these stories should be told, but Rosenblit confides that year after year, those women who are interviewed don’t feel worthy of the attention. “The interviewees always think they are incredibly uninteresting people, that they are quiet women who have lived lives that are very ordinary,” Rosenblit shares. “But as their stories begin to emerge, and they reflect on—in some cases—almost a century of living, the backdrop of their lives broadens and they offer to these students a tunnel back into time that they would never have imagined they could share.”
For the students, there is surprise as well. “I’ll be honest,” Rosenblit says. “At the beginning of these interviews, the kids are not particularly excited. They’re not sure they’ll find their interview subjects interesting to talk to or be around…but when we tell them to turn off all technology and just listen…what happens is so cool. Every year, they wind up saying, ‘you know what? I had no idea…’ and then they begin adapting the lives of these women into their own sense of excitement, and into their artistic expressions.”
It’s that notion of “I had no idea…” that really motivates Rosenblit in her work. In her acceptance speech for a Covenant award in 2004, she said, “I’ve learned that it’s not important what I know, but what is important is knowing what my students know, and how to meet them where they are.” This imperative—that as educators, we must first determine where our students are coming from—combined with the knowledge that to help them succeed they must understand those who came before them, has formed the foundation upon which the Addressing Women’s Lives curriculum is built.
As Rosenblit continues to develop and rethink her work, she’s considered research from the social sciences to support the necessity of courses like hers, and in particular, research that’s being done at the MARIAL center at Emory University. There, Dr. Marshall Duke and others are studying ways to develop resilience in young people. We know that resilience is a predictor of success—as Rosenblit puts it: “anyone who has done anything worthwhile has failed many times along the way.” What Duke and others have learned, through their research, is that one way to build resilience is to teach the family narrative.
A student who is taught to develop their “intergenerational self,” a sense of self through historical time and in relation to family members, might also have a better chance of weathering the tides of their own experiences, research says. Sharing stories of triumph and tragedy gives kids a “psychological map” upon which they may begin to lay out their experiences and hopefully, develop a more resilient state of mind.
And Jewish teachings concur. In the Passover seder we are instructed to see ourselves as if we were slaves leaving Egypt. Abraham Joshua Heschel (noted in Dr. Duke’s work as well), urges Jews to locate themselves within the chronology of Jewish history, for these same reasons.
“Studying and learning from the details of a long life trajectory will teach you that lives have up and downs,” Rosenblit asserts, “students learn that there were times that were hard, and times that were great, and we struggled and we got through it,” says. “It doesn’t matter what the trajectory is, even a downward spiraling life story shows resilience because there is a person telling that story, which means, despite the struggling, they are still here.”
 Marshall Duke, Robyn Fivush and Jennifer Bohanek, MARIAL Center, Emory University.
In this podcast, 2004 Covenant Award recipient and Jewish Studies teacher Barbara Ellison Rosenblit discusses her reinterpretation of a midrash based on Genesis 1:16. Rosenblit explains that verse 1:16 is puzzling, as suddenly, of the two great lights that God has created—the sun and the moon—one, the moon, is abruptly demoted to a small light. Many sources have interpreted this passage through the lens of gender, assigning “male” to the sun and “female” to the moon and ultimately creating a dichotomy by which this tale is understood as a struggle for power, one gender pitted against the other. Rosenblit rejects this interpretation and offers her own—in which she “reinterprets greatness” and turns a lens on the “burdens of power” in a poetic and poignant midrash of her own.
“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
“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