When 1998 Covenant Award recipient Rabbi Elana Kanter established the Women’s Jewish Learning Center in Phoenix, Arizona in 2010, she often heard the same questions over and over: “Why are you starting a learning center for women only?” “Isn’t that a step backward?”
Kanter understood the sentiments; after all, our society has come a long way since the days of Betty Friedan and the women’s liberation movement over fifty years ago. There’s far more openness now, and more opportunity for women to study and learn in ways they never could in the past. So why, then, would one intentionally separate men and women in study? What would the benefit be?
Kanter’s response was unequivocal, and she’ll tell you the same thing today: It’s not necessarily better to have women learning separately from men, but rather, it’s different, and it’s important to pay attention to why that is.
“There’s no question that the dynamic changes when women study alone versus in a mixed group. That’s just absolutely true,” she says.
Kanter and her colleagues wanted to give women space to learn and explore in a safe and supportive environment and the WJLC was established to do just that. Focused on offering “accessible, high-level, and creative Jewish learning for women” in the greater Phoenix area, Kanter, together with her colleague Rabbi Tracee Rosen, have been teaching Talmud, literature and topics related to Jewish spirituality there for the past 8 years.
But there has always been another motivation behind the work that Kanter does, and it’s one that recently has begun transforming the lives of Jewish women in Phoenix—and soon, much further afield—in new and exciting ways.
“We’ve always been interested in helping women develop leadership skills,” Kanter explains. “In 2014, we decided to poll three major Jewish organizations in the greater Phoenix area to really understand the landscape of Jewish leadership in our region, and we found that 10 of the 11 officers at the heads of those organizations were men. That truly made the urgency for a leadership initiative palpable.”
As the only non-denominational women’s adult education institution in the Phoenix area, WJLC was in a unique position to affect change.
“We couldn’t believe that there was such a dearth in women’s leadership. We thought, ‘how can this be?’ Our goals quickly expanded [at the WJLC] and we began to focus on increasing the presence of women in communal leadership roles, while also deepening the Jewish character of that leadership,” Kanter said.
And so, the Women’s Leadership Initiative was born. Co-run by WJLC and PJ Library of the Greater Pheonix area, it aims to equip Jewish women with both the skills needed to succeed in the business and education spheres as well an immersion into dialogue with Jewish texts that have a leadership focus.
“As it happened,” Kanter explained, “PJ Library of Pheonix, our partner in this endeavor, was basically being run by one woman, alone, for five years going. She carried the entire program on her own, signed up a couple of thousand families, but she needed leadership training and support. During the first year of our Institute, we mentored someone who became the new PJ Library co-chair, and also added to their cadre of professionals besides.”
Ten women between the ages of 25-45 are chosen for a cohort each year. The candidates must be nominated by a community leader or member of a previous WLI cohort and then complete an application. The program requires that each member of the cohort attend an opening retreat, meet once a month for a year to join together in study, attend part or all of Limmud Arizona, and meet regularly with a mentor. They are also required to take on a community project or position of their own choosing, of any size, small or large.
Kanter explains that the applicant criteria, is simple. “We are looking for people who are open to growing Jewishly, open to growing as leaders, and open to making connections with people outside of their own sphere.”
She shared that a common denominator amongst the first three cohorts that have completed the WLI so far is that there are always several who are active in their synagogues but don’t know anyone outside of that community and truly want to connect with people living and working right next door, who they might not be familiar with.
“As a result of our year together,” Kanter said, “each participant in the Institute connects with 10 other young Jewish women from different synagogues and communities who have varied interests and those connections yield not only lasting friendships but very fruitful partnerships.”
Equally as important, Kanter adds, are the mentor-mentee relationships that are the crux of the Institutes’ mission. In addition to the group study meeting that occurs once a month, all of the women in each Institute cohort meet with their mentor once a month. Initially, they are given a study assignment for each meeting but toward the end of fall, the meetings move toward a focus on the specific project that the mentee has taken on, and how the mentor can support her in her endeavor.
Most often, the mentor-mentee relationship is intergenerational and really serves to knit the fabric of the community together, Kanter said. She culls mentors from professional colleagues she’s encountered either through her teaching, women’s organizations she’s been involved with or in her travels throughout Jewish spaces in the Phoenix area.
In some cases, the matches between mentor and mentee foster connections that never would have happened otherwise. Kanter recalls a pairing of a young woman from one of the reform synagogues in Phoenix, who was looking to expand her knowledge of the larger Jewish community, with a mentor from the orthodox community in Phoenix, which yielded a wonderful match for both of them.
“This program is really about the networking,” Kanter said. “Many of our mentees are high-powered young women who run businesses and raise families and want to meet other like-minded Jewish young women but they don’t want to do it at a happy hour. Rather, they want to network through meaningful volunteer work that will make a difference in their community.”
The mentors are also supported with training and resources. What’s more, each mentee has access to all of the mentors beyond the one that she meets with regularly. Because of that, the network becomes ever more vast and effective.
“For example,” Kanter explains, “one of our participants who was helping PJ Library wanted PJ Library to participate in a literacy night at the Pardes Day School. As it happened, the Head of School at Pardes was a mentor in our cohort to another woman. And so, an introduction was made and a partnership, launched.”
Some of the other projects that have launched as a result of the Institute include a program to help integrate Jews by Choice into their communities, a teen leadership program at the East Valley JCC, a Jewish Storytellers program, a Financial Literacy Guide created for an in partnership with the Jewish Free Loan Society, a re-launch of a Passover Seder for Gesher– for people with disabilities, a community of practice for Jewish preschool teachers, programming that connects the Jewish community with the Syrian refugee resettlement effort, and much, much more.
Kanter speaks with pride about the success of these projects, focusing on their sustainability, in particular.
“One of our mentees decided to launch a PJ Library Camp weekend, and expected that she would enroll 30-40 people. Turns out she had over 140 people attend—a sold out event. She is now running the program for a second year. This isn’t a requirement anymore—this is something she is inspired to do.”
Now, news of the Institute’s success has spread. Kanter regularly hears from colleagues and friends in cities outside of Phoenix who want to run a WLI in their neck of the woods. She has now begun to train Jewish professional colleagues in certain areas to run programs of their own, beginning with the Jewish community in Birmingham, Alabama, where Kanter and her family used to live.
“We offered to train them and help them get the program off the ground,” Kanter said, “and we gave them a little bit of funding to do it. They’ve already recruited a cohort of 12 mentees and mentors for next fall.”
Across town from Scottsdale at the East Valley JCC, another WLI cohort will launch in Fall 2019, and Kanter is also in conversation with colleagues in St. Louis who are looking to launch their own cohort soon, too.
“The thing about this program that makes it so replicable,” Kanter explained, “is that it’s very low budget, and the curriculum is there.” (Teachers and administrators of the program do receive a small stipend, but it’s far less then a salary they might command in the private sector doing similar work.)
“All we ask is that each subsequent city that launches a WLI then goes on to find another pilot city to teach, so that we are all ‘paying it forward,’ so to speak.”
Just last week, Kanter hosted the third annual Women’s Celebration, honoring the most recent graduating cohort of the WLI. “We really want to raise the profile of this program,” she said. “The community should know what’s happening.”
At the celebration, a female rabbi from the community begins with a few words of Torah, and then each cohort member has the chance to share details of the project they’re working on and are joined by a representative from the agency they’ve partnered with.
In an article reflecting on her experience as a mentor to the first cohort of the WLI, Ellen Sacks, Associate Executive Director of Jewish Free Loan, shared that there’s a “magic” element to what happens amongst the women who participate in this program.
“Good thing we, as a community, get to see and experience it in the coming years,” she writes. “As these amazing women continue their leadership journeys and become a true force for change.”
“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