Beit HaYotzer/the Creativity Braintrust had not originally planned to host a public event this spring. “But we felt compelled to create some kind of vehicle to help people process their experiences of this time,” said Dr. Miriam Heller Stern, National Director of the School of Education and Associate Professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
“The Omer is a time of loss but also of rebuilding and renewing,” she said. And as it happened, this April and May, the counting collided with the COVID-19 emergency.
In the age of COVID-19, the themes of vulnerability, wandering, humility, and redemption took on new meaning, as did the need for creative thinking in the face of what the Creativity Braintrust described as an “uncharted wilderness ahead.” The digital learning series “Reclaiming Time, Self and Voice: Counting the Omer with the Creativity Braintrust,” made possible by support from The Covenant Foundation, offered a public vehicle for reflection, conversation, imaginative work, and creative response.
The program’s live Zoom sessions (which are now available as recordings) were led by Dr. Stern and the Creativity Braintrust cohort of artist-scholars—Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger, Aaron Henne, Alicia Jo Rabins, and Jon Adam Ross. They invited a public audience to draw connections between Jewish ritual and culture, art-making, and personal experience, and to partake in the artistic practices of the Creativity Braintrust members themselves. The series featured reflections on the meaning of time; storytelling and poetry-reading; musical performance; a writing workshop designed for the online audience; and a chance to “put it together”—or to capture and interweave the insights that had emerged in each session.
“It has been especially meaningful to share some of our conversations and points of learning with the public,” said Aaron Henne, “so that some immediate impact, not just for ourselves but for a larger community of learners, can be felt.”
As an academic institution with a Jewish mission, HUC-JIR’s School of Education is committed to its students’ intellectual, spiritual, and emotional development. Through what Dr. Stern calls “integrating the intellectual work with the affective work”—and empowering students to cultivate and exercise their creativity—the School of Education equips future educators to put their hearts and minds in dialogue. This dialogue will help them engage with Torah and apply its wisdom; bring Jewish perspectives to urgent questions of social justice in our time; and deepen their own capacities for empathy.
The central work of Beit HaYotzer/the Creativity Braintrust is to “catalyze” creative thinking, and a major component of the program gives HUC-JIR School of Education graduate students the opportunity to learn from the artists, who serve as guest teachers in a variety of classes. By productively disrupting the academic environment, the artists in turn offer new approaches and modes of thinking and expression to the graduate students who will become leaders across myriad Jewish educational sectors and settings.
Creative practice can also broaden strategies and vocabularies for contemplating and expressing complexity. “The role of an educator is to constantly unveil nuance,” said Dr. Stern. “It’s to challenge learners to see things from multiple perspectives so that they gain deeper understanding. We’re asking educators to develop capacities for thinking in new ways, and to challenge the people who’ll learn from them to do the same.”
Creativity Braintrust-led workshops have helped future educators to discover the creative impulses that they already feel and fulfill every day. Sessions are fueled by the artist-scholars’ own creative processes and projects. Sometimes they even feature interdisciplinary, classroom-ready resources, such as Alicia Jo Rabins’ Girls in Trouble Curriculum.
“My work as a writer, musician, performer, and independent teacher of Torah is often carried out alone,” Alicia Jo Rabins said. “To be in community with other artists who are deeply engaged with Jewish texts and traditions is a profound support. Each time we meet—virtually, for now—I feel my practice expand and my sense of connectedness increase.”
The importance of that connectedness is the foundation of another major focus of the program: to nourish and sustain the creative work of the participating artists themselves. Monthly group meetings, facilitated by Dr. Stern, are meant to foster trust and support among the Creativity Braintrust group; encourage artistic risk-taking; and carve out space for creative exchange, feedback, and constructive critique.
Aaron Henne confirmed that learning from his fellow artist-scholars, with Dr. Stern’s leadership, is of enormous benefit. “This interaction has allowed me to grow my practice, and opened me up to the possibilities for engaging with people in this challenging moment in new ways,” he said.
Our challenging moment demands that we truly listen to one another; develop new strategies for moving through the world; and have the fortitude and willingness to hold different values in tension. It asks for our resilience and our care. The learning and growth of the Creativity Braintrust—and the value of their leadership through art-making—is in many ways rooted in the needs of the present. But its emphasis on creative thinking also resonates with Jewish history, and with the imperative to build the future.
“Jewish creative thinking has been the key to diasporic survival and thriving,” said Dr. Stern. “In every era, you can point to examples—in Jewish homes, on a Jewish communal level—of Jewish creative thinking sustaining Jewish life in new ways. That practice of creative thinking has to be learned. We should be teaching it in every Jewish educational context.”
By Miriam R. Haier, for The Covenant Foundation
Miriam is the Director of Content and Strategy at Pure+Applied, a multidisciplinary design studio in New York City.
“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
“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