An ambitious initiative among JCCs around the world is creating unique connections and partnerships, tearing down silos, and seeding innovative international projects to strengthen Jewish community.
Although relatively new, Amitim, a program of JCC Global, is racking up successes and gaining attention and momentum.
For example, the David Posnack JCC in South Florida is partnering with equivalent agencies in Bogota, Colombia and Even Yehuda, Israel to fuel women’s empowerment through mother-daughter social justice projects in all three regions.
At the Merage JCC in California’s Orange County, teens are joining their contemporaries in Buenos Aires and Kfar Yona, Israel in a long-term leadership development program.
And the Sid Jacobson JCC on Long Island is collaborating with community agencies in Mumbai, India and Zaporozhye, Ukraine, as well as Jerusalem, to connect young adults with varying abilities and give them their rightful place as participating Jews.
Amitim aims to leverage a worldwide network of Jewish community centers and similar institutions to incubate collaboration, design joint programming, and advance the concept of Jewish Peoplehood – so often cited as a priority within Jewish communal circles – as a concrete and achievable goal.
Driving the initiative is an appreciation of the richness of Jewish communal and educational life across the widest of spectrums, and recognition that joining best practices with grand and creative thinking can lead Jewish outreach and engagement to new heights.
“All Jewish communities are equal,” said Smadar Bar-Akiva, Executive Director of JCC Global, which is based in Jerusalem.
“It doesn’t matter if it is in New York or Bulgaria or Moldova or Israel. Each is sharing the language and framework of informal Jewish education, yet each has a unique perspective and experience based on community and cultural history and norms. Each has something to give and each has something to receive. When they come together, it is both transformational and inspirational.”
Amitim – the Hebrew word for “friends” or “colleagues” – was launched in 2014, underwritten by JCC Global and UJA-Federation of New York, as well as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and some participating JCCs.
The first three-year cohort of participating agencies included 25 JCCs representing 11 countries. Seven joint projects were designed and implemented, reaching and engaging an estimated 5,000 community members, according to JCC Global.
Participation in, and impact of the program has grown dramatically. The second group – known as Amitim 2.0 Fellows – includes 50 JCCs or similar organizations in 15 countries. This cohort, which formed last year, is designing and executing 17 community engagement projects, impacting an estimated 10,000 Jews.
The Marlene Meyerson JCC, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was a member of that first Amitim collective, and worked with four other Jewish centers in the United States and abroad to create a leadership development program for a cohort of teens from each community. Participants gathered at Szarvas, a Jewish summer camp near Budapest, Romania, and also in Israel.
The relationships created among the teens themselves will influence their engagement and contribution to Jewish community for life. But also more broadly, the growing connections among Jewish community centers through Amitim-driven collaborations are invaluable, said Joy Levitt, the JCC’s Executive Director.
“We are a well-resourced JCC,” she said. “Nearly 100,000 Jews live in our neighborhood. That’s not true in every community around the world, certainly not in the FSU and Eastern Europe. JCC Global and Amitim give us the opportunity to be helpful to them. It’s part of our responsibility.
“They have their own stresses – less resources, smaller communities, anti-Semitism – yet they are very resilient and creative and in many ways are at the forefront of shaping 21st century Jewish community life. They are in a position to inspire and teach us all.”
The Sid Jacobson JCC, the largest on Long Island with about 3,000 member units, was in the inaugural Amitim Fellows group as well, and is also a participating agency in Amitim 2.0. In partnership with its cluster of AmitimFellows, it is devising ways to address some of the most imperative and universal communal issues: engagement of youth and inclusion of marginalized populations.
Their first project, L’Alliance Teen Project, was a collaboration with Beit HaKerem Community Center in Jerusalem, the Khmelnitsky Welfare Fund in Ukraine, and the Centre Culturel et Communautaire Jerome Cahen in Paris. Via social media and visits to each other’s countries, dozens of teens took part in leadership development and studied each other’s family and Jewish community histories and challenges.
The current project, Better Together, a collaborative project with the Evelyn Peters JCC in Mumbai, Beit Hakerem in Jerusalem, and JCC Mazal Tov in Ukraine, is using social media and travel to join hundreds of young adults with varying physical or developmental abilities in cultural and social exchanges through a Jewish lens, and to sensitize the neurotypical community to their challenges and empowerment.
“The connections and transformations and education taking place as a result of the Amitim program are extraordinary,” said David Black, Executive Director of the Sid Jacobson JCC, citing the inclusion initiative.
“These teens are getting international connections and exposures and support, and making friendships and forming alliances they never would have had. And the ripple effects are enormous, with other populations – families, professionals and lay leaders – being connected in a significant, meaningful and global way.”
In fact, in an evaluation of the first Amitim cohort, released last May by Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz of Research Success Technologies, the initiative is described as “providing a path for active community members to further their connection to the JCC and for connecting community members to global Jewry.”
In downtown Manhattan, at the 14th Street Y, an early stage of the Amitim model played out at the beginning of this month. Gal Maymon and Leener Ivry, two schlichim from Israel working now to engage teens in the Athens Jewish community, were there to learn about and observe LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture – an initiative marrying classic texts, original art, and thought – and the Kaleidoscope program – a monologue showcase – to determine which elements might work within the framework of Jewish-Greek culture and tradition.
Centers in Athens, London, Buenos Aires and Israel are collaborating with the 14th Street Y to create a Jewish text-based program for Jewish teens to explore their Jewish identities and journeys, and express it through monologues shared and discussed on online digital platforms and possibly face-to-face meet-ups.
“This is an amazing opportunity to see and work with people from different places with different perspectives and traditions,” Maymon said. “We are all here doing what we do for the same reasons. We know how powerful these partnerships can be for an individual, for a community, and for the entire Jewish world.”
“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