When photographer Zion Ozeri and a group of New York City teachers met last October and chose “Sanctuary” as the theme for their students’ work in DivercityLens, they had no idea how prescient their choice would be.
Now, more than six months later, as the coronavirus pandemic has upended New York City life as usual – with schools shifted to distance learning, museums and cultural institutions closed – the students’ photographs and texts are particularly timely, poignant, and powerful.
This year, though, there will be no exhibition of the artwork as in previous years, and the catalog will not be in print, but available online. Ozeri, a Covenant Award-winning educator, has been working with the New York City Department of Education for almost a decade, sharing a curriculum he developed to explore diversity – and ultimately the common threads that unite people – through photography.
“We chose Sanctuary,” Ozeri says, “not knowing that we would all be looking for our own sanctuary.”
The students’ photos, executed with striking artistry, chronicle their inner worlds and their environments. For one student at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, Maleny Perez-Martinez, sanctuary is home and her city neighborhood, the places where she is known. She writes, sanctuary is “where the bakery on the corner knows how I like my tea.” Another student, May Lin, seeks out nature, where she is “alone with expanded space and infinite time.”
The photographs include a museum highlighting a different culture for Rubaya Ruba and for Tiffany Huang, a gathering of hands, layered, as they all reach to the center in an embrace or huddle, an innocent touch now unthinkable these days.
Huang writes, “This team is my sanctuary.”
All of these young women are students at New Utrecht, working under the guidance of Adrienne Mikulka, the school’s Visual Arts Educator.
“What’s appealing for the students is that they are being asked their opinions about the photos and the writing,” says Karen Rosner, Director of Visual Arts of the NYC Department of Education Office of Arts and Special Projects. Rosner, who has been involved with the program since its inception and is the focal link between Ozeri and the teachers and students, continues, “I am struck each year, that these kids are such deep thinkers — they have a side that is very contemplative and reflective. I’m very proud of them.”
The program involves 18 teachers, drawn from schools in every borough; the schools are mostly high schools with a couple of middle schools. Ozeri meets with the teachers at an opening session and then continues to work with them throughout the year on the formal elements of photography, curating the photos, and finetuning the captions to make them precise. The texts are statements that explain something about the photo and provide a sense of the student’s vision. Ozeri describes the captions as a kind of midrash on the photographs – they look beyond the surface to more profound meaning. The entire process enhances the students’ skills in photography, visual literacy, and textual analysis.
“This work shows us how to live in a diverse community and society and realize that, bottom line, we are all the same. We don’t want to let what is different divide us. That’s the main thing,” Ozeri says.
With teachers, Ozeri discusses the work of master photographers whose work he has long admired and finds inspirational, including Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, and Robert Frank. As part of the curriculum, Ozeri shares around 200 photographs that he has taken around the world; many, but not all, are taken in Jewish communities. For instance, when he shows photos of Jews in India or Ethiopia – who may not look typically Jewish to the students – he is affirming the value of diversity. Additionally, many of the study texts he shares are from Jewish sources.
“I believe that Jewish values are universal,” Ozeri says, “whether talking about the environment, Shabbat, or relationships ben adam l’chavero, between one and another. And I believe that the Jewish community is a reflection of the world at large.”
Ozeri would like to see the program scaled up to include many more schools and see it replicated in other cities. The DivercityLens is an outgrowth of a project he initiated in 2004, JewishLens, which features photography as an educational tool and uses images to ask important questions. That project is now under the auspices of the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, Israel, and he serves as creative director.
“Imagery is a good trigger to start conversation,” Ozeri says.
These interconnected projects are helped by the fact that almost every student has a phone and can take photographs with ease. And the technology is getting better and better. But for Ozeri, who admits to being “old school,” one of the drawbacks of the digital age in photography is that, unlike in previous times when a photo was thought to reflect reality, today’s photos are not necessarily believable as they might have been photoshopped. By always encouraging students – no matter what equipment they use – to think before they snap and figure out what it is they want to say, he pushes their creativity.
Education isn’t a field Ozeri expected to be involved in, but he enjoys it thoroughly and is highly engaged.
“This work comes from my heart,” he says.
Ozeri, 68, grew up in Israel, initially in a transition camp for new immigrants after his parents arrived from Yemen. He was the first of his siblings born in Israel, so he was given the name Zion. Growing up, he attended Bnei Akiva (orthodox) yeshivas, where he sat for many hours learning every day and evening. Always full of high energy, he knew this learning model wasn’t for him – and he was bored. He moved to New York in 1973 after his army service, but returned to fight in the Yom Kippur War as a tank commander. Upon his return to New York, he studied art and photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Pratt Institute. His photographs have been published widely, in his own books – including the spectacular “The Jews of Yemen: The Last Generation” and “The Jewish World Haggadah” – and in magazines and newspapers, and he has exhibited in museums and galleries around the world.
In the early 2000s, as he was frequently traveling and taking photos, particularly in Jewish communities around the world, he began to get invitations to speak. One thing led to another, and he realized that he was actively promoting his long-held interest in the diversity of the Jewish community and the idea of people listening and learning from one another. He then began experimenting with writing a curriculum that would bring together images and texts, making his methodology accessible to others.
About DivercityLens, he says, “My involvement over the years has reinforced my belief that art is essential to learning; it’s a core feature of the educational landscape.”
Rosner speaks of the great collegiality between Ozeri, the teachers, and students. She describes the teachers as a very dedicated group who all live with diversity. Many are professional photographers themselves and having worked on the project for several years, have now “taken off their training wheels.”
“Zion has put his heart and soul into this. We’re very thankful,” Rosner says.
By Sandee Brawarsky, for The Covenant Foundation
“There are children, grownups, everywhere
That would love to hear your voices
Singing for our health to be bright
So that we can join together...and paint our world with healing and hope”
-From the original song, Painting Our World with Healing Hope, by Karina and Debora Zilberman
“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