For many of us, growing up and studying Jewish texts–the torah, prophets, psalms and other writings–meant memorizing them, or at least, learning small parts by heart. Perhaps, you studied your bat mitzvah torah portion by playing and rewinding a cassette tape that your synagogue’s cantor prepared for you. Perhaps, if you attended a Jewish Day School, you had a blue machberetnotebook, the kind that opened from right to left, into which you painstakingly copied–with a number two pencil–verses from a mishnah tract you were learning in class. Perhaps, after taking notes and studying and memorizing, you took a multiple-choice exam. And perhaps, to this day, you remember little from that class, or that parsha, tractate or psalm.
While there’s inherent value in the traditional forms of studying texts, perhaps you also wish you had engaged with those sacred texts in a different way.
“When you look at something very closely, you gain an awareness,” explains Ilana Benson, Head of Education at the Yeshiva University Museum. “Students are used to reading Jewish texts in school and wondering what they’ll be asked to recall for a test,” she continues. “But when they step back and look at a piece of text with a fresh perspective, [especially] after looking at art, there’s a carry-over effect–an openness, no preconceptions. Whatever they notice matters, simply because they noticed it.”
It is this kind of “noticing” that drives “Re-Imagining Jewish Education through Art,” a Yeshiva University Museum initiative that uses the arts and critical inquiry–by adapting practices of the Lincoln Center Institute–to encourage students in Jewish schools to find new ways to think about and engage with Jewish texts–ways that go far beyond the machberet and the number two pencil.
Initially launched as a pilot program for the 2011 school year and funded by a 2012 Covenant Foundation Signature grant, “Re-Imagining” was conceived of and is directed by Gabriel Goldstein, an independent curator who worked at YUM for twenty years. Along with Ilana Benson, Goldstein is now envisioning how the program might be rolled out beyond the New York area. “We have two teachers from the Ida Crown School in Chicago who will be participating in our 2015 summer workshop, and we’re looking to replicate this model in a variety of settings,” Goldstein shared. “We want to take it on the road, and present the project across the country.”
Undoubtedly, students everywhere could benefit from the power inherent in entering into an experience with a sacred text. And while one might wonder if a non-traditional approach to encountering Jewish texts–asking students to write text messages to God before they study psalms, for example–makes students and educators working in traditional Jewish school environments slightly uncomfortable, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. “We’re a team that’s committed to a traditional study of text, and the range of schools that we work with is very broad; non-denominational schools, single-sex schools, co-ed schools–all kinds of schools are looking to build text engagement in their classes and highlight the power of the text on all of its levels,” says Goldstein.
So what does this engagement look like? And how does this process occur? “The basic methodology of the Lincoln Center Institute is that before you encounter a work of art, you go through a creative process that mirrors or parallels one aspect of what went into making that art,” explains Ilana Benson. “Maybe you use the same medium, the same colors; you create something first, so that you can better understand how the artist created his work. When you employ this technique, there’s an inevitable “AHA!” moment. Suddenly, students are no longer coming at the art as outsiders. Now, they’re insiders, too.”
In an attempt to bring students “inside,” Benson described how one teacher involved in the project who was beginning a lesson on the prophet Jeremiah spent time asking her students to think about elements of the prophet’s humanity. Where was Jeremiah coming from? How might he have felt, bearing the burden of delivering messages of destruction to his people? Then, this teacher had students look at stones–turn them over in their hands, feel their weight, and think about how each of us is, in some way, like a stone. The students then discussed Jeremiah’s feelings of isolation and despondency, and took that experience to the text, undoubtedly facing it with a far broader perspective, perhaps even a compassion, that might not have been there before.
“There’s a gamut of experiences that one has when encountering an object,” offers Zachary Paul Levine, a curator at the Jewish Historical Society in Washington, D.C. who participated in a one-day LCI training for teachers and educators when he worked at YUM in 2012 and credits the experience with making him a better teacher. “In this very short time, just eight hours,” Levine says, I began to re-evaluate my approach to thinking about the use of objects as teaching tools. I became much more conscious of the perspective of visitors to a museum, of taking my voice out of their experience. I learned to hold back and not just discuss what a visitor saw, but also, what looking at art makes a visitor feel.”
But sometimes, deep familiarity breeds the opposite of feeling, and it takes a re-immersion in a text or prayer or experience, for one to see it’s meaning. To this end, one of the project’s teaching artists decided to ask students at all of the participating schools to reconsider the ashrei, a prayer that’s traditionally recited three times daily, and one that’s most often memorized, if only because of its alphabetical composition. “In this activity, before we examined the ashrei, we took words from the prayer and put them up on the walls all over the room,” Benson recalled. “Then we asked students to compose their own poem on the theme of “home,” using ten words or so from the prayer. What they came up with was staggeringly beautiful.”
It’s probably safe to assume that once those students returned to the ashrei prayer, either later that day, or the next morning during their school tefillah service, their experience of reciting it, changed. Maybe they thought of the lesson that day, or of their poem, or of art and the nature of praise-filled verse. Maybe they just stopped and thought, for a moment, about the great wide world, and their place in it. Whatever the connection, whatever the association, just like that, a student’s mind has been re-engaged, and hopefully, a student’s relationship with his religion, his culture and his people, strengthened anew.
“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