The staff of a Jewish summer camp finds itself under tremendous pressure to buy local, organic food. But to do so would mean placing a significant financial strain on the camp and potentially reduce its ability to offer scholarships. What should the camp do?
A woman needs a bone marrow transplant. She is matched with a donor though Gift of Life, a bone marrow foundation. Her donor defaults. What is the penalty?
A teenager has been warned not to drive after dark. His friend lends him a car. He breaks the rules, has an accident, severely hurting someone. Who are the responsible parties?
“These are morally fraught, scientifically and financially complicated questions–and these are issues that might unfold in the lives of our children and students,” says Dr. Marc Kramer, Executive Director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network. “And we’re looking at what Jewish law has to say about these issues,” he explains.
In particular, Kramer is referring to the issues examined and mulled over in the Moot Beit Din program that RAVSAK has been running since they first received a grant from The Covenant Foundation to maintain and build out the pre-existing program in 2011. Through Moot Beit Din, high school students apply Jewish law, halacha, to contemporary issues like cloning, internet privacy and farming practices. The year-long program culminates in a competition—held in a different community across North America each year—that brings all participating students together to present oral reports and argue their cases in front of a panel of halachic experts.
At its core, Kramer advises, Moot Beit Din is still about bringing Jewish texts to life for students. But he explains that as RAVSAK began to really “be” a Covenant grantee, the program changed in numerous ways. Thanks to access to the Foundation’s staff and the networking that happens during a Covenant grant period, the RAVSAK team began to identify ways in which they could enhance the program, like adding a community service element to the shabbatonim competitions, bringing in compelling scholars and local residents to run workshops and encouraging students to explore the communities they visited.
And that was just the beginning. “We also identified an opportunity to network the educators we were working with,” Kramer adds excitedly. Now, RAVSAK treats those teachers who study with and train the Moot Beit Din students to their own shiurim on topics that the students are also wrestling with. “By doing so,” he explains, “we’re building a network of educators on the notion that the good work they do can have a positive impact on the academic lives of other schools. If a teacher writes a lesson plan in Miami and it’s picked up and used by a teacher at a day school in Los Angeles—that’s fabulous.”
Another significant outcome of the Moot Beit Din experience is the community-building that happens amongst day school students across the country. “Look, no matter where you are,” Kramer attests, “if you go to a Jewish high school, you are in a minority. And even in the big cities, this can be isolating. But through these yearly events, our students have begun to feel like they don’t just go to a school of 120 kids, but rather, they now know 100 other kids who also go to Jewish Day School.” Kramer shares that Moot Beit Din participants have formed real bonds—setting up their own Facebook groups and even planning inter-school Shabbat weekends.
When one considers the root motivations for Moot Beit Din—the development of a student’s deep and abiding knowledge of Jewish text—together with the engagement that the participating students feel with the community that forms around the competition, it becomes clear that this is much more than a high school mock trial program. Rather, Moot Beit Din is precisely the type of educational programming that has the ability to tether students—in the best way—to Judaism and Jewish life.
“I think Jewish identity without content is something of a hollow shell,” Kramer says, expanding on the idea that Jewish literacy is central to the mission of raising kids who will stay involved in the Jewish community, something Kramer has written about before. “We are a content people,” he continues. “And at RAVSAK, we want our work to be about advancing Jewish literacy.”
And so their work continues. Through the lens of Moot Beit Din, the RAVSAK staff identified yet another opportunity for enhancing Jewish literacy with the creation of JCAT: Jewish Court for All Time, a program funded by a Covenant Signature grant in 2013. Aimed at middle-schoolers, JCAT immerses students into the background of a character from Jewish history. Ultimately, students take on their character’s persona and make cases from that character’s vantage point in a simulated digital “court” space.
Kramer explains that JCAT removes the boundaries of the typical 6th grade classroom and instead creates a digital community where students can dig deep into Jewish history. “We want our students to have the content, to know the ideologies, to understand who Jews are, in multiple settings.” Beyond that, he adds, JCAT offers an opportunity for students and teachers alike, to be more than sole observers, and to see themselves as actors in the ongoing narrative of the Jewish people.
“Ultimately, deep rich engagement in Jewish life requires knowledge,” Kramer posits. “And when you do have that literacy, the whole world is open to you.”
“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