How does one engage with Jewish identity?
The answer is likely as different as each Jewish individual on the planet. Jewish identity is personal. It’s political. It’s rooted in family, in history, in education, in experience. Does our identity change as we age? As we move from our families of origin to our chosen families? Is it dependent on geography?
Yes, yes and yes.
And what about generational ideals? Does Jewish identity change with the times?
Absolutely. “We’re at this point now in the Jewish community where it’s pretty clear that social justice is the way many people–especially young people–engage with their Jewish identity,” said Abby Levine, Director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. “When I meet Jewish professionals who work at organizations with a broad mission, they are clear about this: Social justice is a primary way that young Jews today are choosing to express their Jewishness; this is not a debate.”
Since assuming the position as Director of the Roundtable, which self-describes as “52 organizations pursuing social justice from a Jewish perspective,” Levine has doubled the membership and works to build and support collaboration between member organizations and within the field of social justice at large.
Currently, she is focused on a civic engagement effort, supporting about 20 organizations in getting the Jewish community involved in those justice issues of our current election cycle.
“Voting rights are under attack,” she said, “and while this is true of every election cycle, with presidential elections in particular, there’s confusion in certain communities about the simple mechanics behind voting. Educating the broader society and helping our leaders be clear is a huge justice issue.”
Levine explained that this work also involves having member organizations work to educate the Jewish community on different ballot measures. In particular, this work is happening in California, where there are between 15-20 measures on the ballot currently which concern topics including education, healthcare, and minimum wage.
But surely, with Roundtable member organization affiliations ranging across the Jewish spectrum (from Keshet to Eshel) there are sure to be differences of opinion on which social justice issues deserve attention with the Jewish community. So how does this work?
“What unites us all is the commitment to mobilizing American Jews around justice issues,” Levine said. “Within our network are representatives from the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements, and we also partner with three organizations that work exclusively within the Orthodox community. But despite any religious differences, she explained, “all of the member organizations are working to educate the Jewish community to take action for positive social change, especially for and with those less empowered in our society.”
“There is not a single Jewish activist who takes any action without first being educated and asking questions about the issues that they’re working on,” she added.
What matters to the members of the Roundtable, Levine continued, is the articulation to society at large that this field—social justice—exists, and that it’s a direct reflection of how our world has paid increasing attention to how communities express their values.
“If we look at the world we live in, in 2016,” she said, “we are seeing a shift toward a broader sense of issues that fall under the social justice umbrella. Today, this term encompasses not just issues of race or religion, but also a broad definition of inclusion, gender, sexuality and much more.”
Member organizations work on human issues, not partisan ones, Levine explained. These are causes that are (or should be) concerns for all Jews, regardless of political or religious leanings.
For example, Levine shared, “AJWS just released a video about Sunita Jaiswal, an Indian woman who learned to drive through a program run by an AJWS grantee, the Azad Foundation.” Azad trains low-income women to become professional drivers with the goal of helping them find jobs and earn independence and freedom.
“In the U.S., we get out of our Uber cars, or pull into our driveways, and don’t have a clue what it takes to teach someone so far outside of our culture to drive a car. That’s not partisan.”
Levine went on and cited how last spring T’ruah, an organization that mobilizes rabbis to protect human rights, released a handbook on mass incarceration, which offers background information on various aspects of mass incarceration, Jewish texts that relate these issues, action steps communities can take, and more.
“It’s so easy for us to not think about people in our society who are in jail, because we never see them,” Levine said. But it’s precisely this type of education that Roundtable member organizations provide.
And there are so many other examples, too. “The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College just wrote a green paper on economic inequality,” Levine listed. “And Keshet and the RAC just created an inclusion guide together, called ‘Made in God’s Image,’ which offers suggestions to help Jewish congregations become more inclusive for transgender and gender expansive individuals.”
Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of membership in the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable are the opportunities for community building, for building the field of social justice, and for raising the visibility of Jewish social justice causes more broadly. Last year, at an annual training, members came together to learn how to fundraise, manage staff, and think about grassroots organizing. Looking forward to 2017, Levine is beginning to think about planning a big network gathering and another chance for people to convene.
“I’m a network weaver,” she said.
To this end, it’s no surprise that a constant theme for Levine is the importance of relationships in her work. “I learned so much from Daniel Sokatch,” Levine shared. “Ten years ago, when I worked for him in the Bay Area office of the Progressive Jewish Alliance,” she said, “he taught me the power of relationships and how important that piece is in our work. He taught me that it’s essential to always be as thoughtful as possible in how you say things—especially things that can be hard to hear.”
In a field where saying what needs to be said is of central import, this lesson isn’t lost on Levine. “We’re kind of like a drumbeat,” she added, speaking of the whole of the 52 Jewish member organizations that comprise the Roundtable.
“We keep the conversation going on issues that might not be easy to talk about, but we’re still drumming for justice all the same.”
“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