It’s probably safe to assume that lots of Jewish high school kids have acted in a production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat—or at the very least, that they’ve seen some theatrical interpretation of the bible story on the stage of their school or summer camp. But it’s also probably safe to assume that most of them haven’t experienced the story of Joseph, the transgendered young man being bullied in high school. “It was an exploration of the gender binary, of the guy who doesn’t fit in, interspersed with deep themes of bullying and identity,” explains Charlie Schwartz, a Senior Jewish Educator and Director of BIMA and Genesis, two Brandeis University high school summer programs that offer intensive courses in the arts, sciences and technology, all within a Jewishly integrated communal campus experience.
Each summer, BIMA brings high school students from across the globe to the Brandeis University campus for a month to study dance, creative writing, music and theater. But BIMA is not regular old summer school. In fact, the Joseph theater project from last summer is just one example of the ways in which BIMA invites students to develop their artistic passions while simultaneously exploring their Jewish identity. Schwartz explains that in selecting participants for the program, he intentionally tries to create the most pluralistic community possible. “We have kids who identify as Jewish but do not practice any ritual at home, to kids whose first language is Yiddish. There’s a huge spectrum of observance and identity. They are coming to us from Long Island to Nashville to Kiev.”
Both the BIMA and Genesis programs are closely guided by principals of design thinking, which, as Schwartz explains, is a systematic approach to addressing challenges, to opening lines of dialogue within a community and to brainstorming the best ways to address communal needs. “While they’re taking these courses,” he adds, “the students also have to negotiate what it means to create a Jewish community here at BIMA and Genesis. They are not passive consumers, but rather, they use design thinking to consider how we approach sacred space.” For example, Schwartz explains, every Shabbat the community sits together and uses a design thinking process to decide what that particular Shabbat will look like. “Shabbat doesn’t happen to them, but rather, they design it, they craft it,” he says.
And students are supported in their design by a faculty comprised of experts in their respective fields. “We cast a wide net when looking for faculty,” Schwartz says. “We seek those with strong backgrounds in Judaism, in a textual or a cultural way, in addition to the emotional intelligence required to do good residential supervision, and the educational experience to teach intensive courses.” Schwartz speaks animatedly when describing the make-up of this summer’s BIMA faculty, which includes visual artist Batnadiv Hakarmi-Weinberg and Ellen Alt, writer Jon Papernick, collaborative theater maker Lynda Bachman, musicians Carroll Goldberg, Asia Meirovich, Jesse Regan Mann and Greg Wall and choreographer and dancer Mica Bernes.
“In general, since the way BIMA works is that there are Jewish elements in each of the majors, students get a high quality arts learning experience in a Jewish context,” Schwartz says. “More specifically, for example, Mica Barnes will work Jewish ideas into dance, tying larger Jewish ideas and questions and narrative aspects into the teaching of movement,” he explains.
In addition, every day at BIMA begins with an Artists’ Beit Midrash, where all the disciplines come together and focus on one central narrative for the length of their summer course. “The idea is that one narrative will be thought about and analyzed via the various artistic mediums,” Schwartz explains. “Text, dance, instrumental music, visual arts and creative writing—how might students from each of those genres consider something from the Adam and Eve narrative; what would it look like for a bunch of high school kids to interpret masechet chagigah?” he asks.
BIMA students also learn from community educators who live with the students in the residence halls. The community educators are generally in the midst of studying toward advanced degrees in Jewish education, and they come to BIMA with expertise in experiential education, too. “By coming on board for the summer, these community educators have an opportunity to learn and develop their own thinking on ways in which they might infuse Jewish education with arts education,” Schwartz says.
A typical day-in-the-life of a BIMA student might begin with morning yoga services, followed by breakfast and a trip to the Harvard University bookstore if you’re in the creative writing cohort or the Institute of Contemporary Art if you’re studying visual arts. For free time you might choose to swim, or read, or learn how to fix a flat tire (and why not?) In addition to time spent in more serious study with your instructor, you’ll likely be treated to an evening dance performance, film or discussion group.
Just one look at a sample schedule for a BIMA summer day is enough to make any would-be student—high school age or not—eager to pack their bags and head to Waltham, Massachusetts. And this summer, students from across the globe will do just that. “Our students are Jews from all over the world,” Schwartz explains, “the Former Soviet Union, Germany, Latin America, and many other places too. It’s a very level playing field,” he says. “Everyone is new, and everyone is experiencing what it means to be on a college campus for the first time.”
Being on a college campus for the first time can mean a myriad of things for new students. But for BIMA students, a few things are certain: they will encounter a community of artists, they will immerse in arts and culture, they will collaborate, and they will consider the “intersection of their identities: Jew and Artist.”
Not bad for a summer spent in school.
“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