Rabbi Yigal Sklarin, a Talmud and Jewish History teacher at The Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and a recent Pomegranate Prize award recipient, claims he doesn’t know anything about art. “I’m not an art person,” he says, “but I’ve come to appreciate many aspects of the arts,” he continues.
It would be hard not to, considering how much time Rabbi Sklarin spends in museums and galleries during the course of a school year, as the Director of Ramaz’s Integrated Studies program. “My job is to find curricular connections to cultural places in Manhattan,” he explains. “I try and provide our students with context so that their curriculum becomes relevant to them.”
Clearly, this is no easy feat, given how hard it is to keep the attention of any group of high school students—pulled as they are in every direction by the demands of academics and social life. And yet, Sklarin is unendingly enthusiastic about his work. “First of all, taking students to galleries and museums broadens their understanding of what they are learning in their classes, and doing this in tandem with another educator adds to the experience. If I take a group of students to see an exhibit of illuminated manuscripts, and an art teacher comes as well, the art teacher will talk to the students about the aesthetic aspects of the work, but as a Judaic studies teacher, I talk to them about totally different elements of the work. This kind of dialogue can be very powerful and really broadens horizons for our students.”
In his experience, Sklarin has found that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is conveniently located just a few blocks from the Ramaz campus in Manhattan, regularly displays Jewish texts in their Medieval wing. “Just before Pesach, we try and bring our students to see the illuminated haggadah that has been on display at the Met for the past four years,” he shares. By poring over the extravagantly illustrated texts, students are able to consider how “Jewish art fits within a broader secular context,” Sklarin attests. And what’s more, by noting and learning about the similarities between a Christian medieval text and a Jewish one, students are better able to appreciate that when it comes to the art of that time period, Jewish culture often borrowed from surrounding cultures.
“It’s very interesting for kids to see this, and to consider just how Jews were integrated and influenced by their non-Jewish neighbors, even with their most sacred texts,” Sklarin says. “They usually think of rabbinic culture as very separatist, but these pieces of art show how that’s not true. Opportunities to get up close and observe the similarities—like when they go and see a Venetian Torah crown on display that’s situated in a room full of secular Venetian art—show students that one culture often borrows from another and there’s something beautiful about that.”
This year, Sklarin and a colleague from the history department piloted an interdisciplinary class focused on the topic of “the spaces we inhabit.” Specifically, they designed a curriculum that highlighted how both Judaism and general studies would analyze various topics in relation to space, including sacred spaces, private and public spaces, and even inner space. To begin, the class visited Temple Emanuel, a grand synagogue structure located on 5th Avenue and built in the mid 1800’s. “I think, if the Beit Hamikdash was rebuilt today, it would look like Temple Emanuel,” says Sklarin, only half kidding. “If you really look at the design of that building, it’s totally art deco, yet many of its features, including the vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows were inspired by Christian architecture.” In addition to trips to museums and galleries, Sklarin and his colleague invited other experts from outside of the school, including a cultural anthropologist and a city planner to come and talk with students.
Bringing in outside experts further buttresses the curriculum, Sklarin says. So when the Met hosted an exhibit about Assyria, Sklarin brought a class there, and invited Professor Shalom Holtz, an Assyriologist at Yeshiva University, to come and gave a presentation in order to help prepare and contextualize the students’ visit. The students in turn, were able to look at art and use the art to learn about Tanach. “The kids thought this was amazing,” Sklarin shares excitedly. “They sit in class and learn about the Philistines, and then they go and see art that depicts the Philistines, and suddenly, what is essentially a theoretical book—the Torah—becomes historically attuned to them. “Looking at the way art is created, whether it’s the way letters are formed on parchment, or the different depictions of Torah scrolls, gives students tools with which to view history and the world, in a different way,” he says.
New York City offers thousands of opportunities to engage with visual art, and Sklarin is doing his best to expose his students to as many relevant exhibits as possible. “Last year, we took our 10th grade class to see the Chagall exhibit at the Jewish Museum,” he says, because in 10th grade they study the 19th and 20th centuries in European history, the times in which Chagall lived and those that were depicted in his art. Thanks to our interdisciplinary approach, I get to teach them about some of the Jewish iconography depicted in the paintings, and their art teacher discussed his style and use of color and technique.”
When the 12th grade went to visit the Neue Gallery, students learning about the Holocaust were able to put that study into context as they saw an exhibit on Jewish art stolen by the Nazis. “Museums present you with something real and tangible, and allow you to move away from theory, which helps students engage,” Sklarin says.
Throughout his animated discussion of the ways Ramaz has integrated art into the curriculum for high school students, Sklarin repeatedly argues that he is not an “art person.” And yet, on a visit to see a 15th century illuminated Italian manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, on display at the Met, Sklarin found himself teaching to a room full of not just his own Ramaz students, but a group of general museum-goers as well.
“This was my seventh or eighth time visiting the exhibit, and I had a whole spiel prepared,” he says, laughing. “Eventually, I turned the students’ attention to certain objects in the case alongside the manuscript including an octagonal box and asked them why they thought this box was placed in the same case as the manuscript… I told the students that the curators at the Met never explain anything—they expect you to know the entire manuscript inside and out to understand why they place things are they do.”
At this point, Sklarin saw two women in the back of the room laughing, and realized that they were, in fact, the exhibit curators. “It was very embarrassing,” he chuckles. But they urged him to go on, and he did, explaining to the students why he thought the placement was as such. “On a different page of the text, there is a representation of the Beit Hamikash, in the same octagonal style,” Sklarin explains. “So that was the connection.” Then he looked to the curators for confirmation that his hypothesis was correct. They were emphatically nodding their heads, impressed that Sklarin had cracked their code, so familiar was he with all of the pages of this text, not just the one being shown in the museum.
“That was very cool,” Sklarin admits. “Very cool indeed.”
“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