Amy Skopp Cooper knows young adults have magic. “They’re cool. They have charisma,” she gushes. “They’re passionate, and kids respond to them.”
She’s not just talking about any young adults; in this case, Skopp Cooper’s talking about the special group of fellows in the Ramah Service Corps (RSC). “They’re future rabbis, or Jewish educators, or maybe they’re on their way to medical school,” she says. “These are well-rounded young people. They are so grateful for what they’ve gotten from their own Ramah experiences, they want to give back.”
And thanks to the Ramah Service Corps, they can, by working in local conservative synagogues across the country to bring Ramah-style ruach (spirit) and chinuch (education) to communities where future Ramah campers might reside and simultaneously creating a network of young Jewish educators across the country.
Tzadik Katamar Gimel with Andrew Stesis
But getting the RSC off the ground wasn’t easy. “We had many painful realizations as we thought through our initial plan,” Skopp Cooper shares.
Budding visionaries take note: an eight-month-long planning process, which involved meetings with practitioners and camping staff, led Skopp Cooper, Ramah’s National Associate Director and Director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, NY and Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Ramah’s National Director, to the realization that even with a large grant, they really couldn’t afford or sustain the kind of program they dreamed of.
But they didn’t give up. Instead, they kept talking.
“And through talking to our mentors at The Covenant Foundation, we realized what we needed to do,” Skopp Cooper shares. “While initially we envisioned a program modeled after Teach for America, where fellows would work full-time, embedded within communities across the country, we had to modify our dream based on the learning we did—our initial plan just wasn’t possible. So instead, with the funding we received from an Ignition grant, we conceived of and created a program where our young people would work very part time in the various communities, infusing those communities with Ramah-style learning and spirit.”
As any visionary knows, it’s not easy to give up on a dream. But with clear eyes and a revised mission, Skopp Cooper and Cohen applied to the Foundation for Jewish Camp for seed money, and in 2010 they had the funding to launch the first Ramah Service Corps intern cohort, which would ultimately support 25-30 interns in various communities nationwide.
During that first run of the program, Skopp Cooper learned that the magic, charisma and enthusiasm of the post-college Ramah alumni was translating directly into an increase in enrollment in Ramah camps across the board. “Synagogues and schools were asking for more and more time from the fellows,” Skopp Cooper adds. “So we knew our idea was resonating.”
And they learned other things, too. Namely, that they needed to install some form of mentorship into the program. “We were sending 20-year-olds out on their own, into synagogues and communities, and that’s complicated. We needed to have better local mentorship support.” So with that information and with funding from another foundation that would allow for three more years of programming, Skopp Cooper re-imagined the Corps yet again. Fellows now work for five hours a week within their assigned community, with the expectation that they will run various programs and have access to both local and national mentoring time.
Today, five years since the first Ramah Service Corps cohort first went out into the world, there are 30 young adults working part-time in communities across North America, and many aspects of the program Skopp Cooper and her colleagues initially only dreamed of have been put into place. “The fellows meet with local mentors weekly, they check in with national mentors every week or week and a half, they attend staff training sessions and webinars, and there is an existing program bank accessible to all fellows,” Skopp Cooper explains. Fellows are also in direct contact with regional Ramah camp staff, who assist with recruitment efforts on the ground in the communities where the fellows work.
It’s more than Skopp Cooper could have ever imagined. “With our one grant, we thought dayeinu,” she admits. “But what started small—an Ignition grant and an idea—has had a huge impact on our program.” And that impact keeps growing: two years ago, the Davidson Foundation in Detroit contacted Ramah about bringing fellows to work full-time in the metro Detroit area, and all of a sudden, “we were dusting off that original idea of having full-time Ramah alumni working in communities,” she says. Sure enough, in 2013, Skopp Cooper and Cohen’s original brainchild came to fruition when three full-time fellows moved into a shared Ramah bayit in metro Detroit (bringing the total number of Ramah fellows to 33). In its second year, full-time Detroit fellows now work with local synagogues and two area Jewish Day Schools, partner with local Jewish organizations and run programs with adults.
As for next steps, Skopp Cooper says the Ramah Camping Movement is beginning to look into how they could continue to grow their Detroit model in other communities. Without a doubt, it’ll take some magic, but Skopp Cooper now knows it can be done.
“Our mentors at Covenant said, ‘don’t settle,’” she shares. “So we didn’t. They told us, ‘don’t stop dreaming big and thinking big,’” she adds. “And we didn’t.”
“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