“What are we in this business to accomplish?”
So posits Mark Sokoll, President and CEO of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. Sokoll, along with his colleagues at the JCC, knows that this is the question one must ask when trying to affect change. And about 6 or 7 years ago, when Sokoll and his team of key professionals and volunteers engaged in strategic planning to re-envision the JCC of Greater Boston, it was this question that consultants pressed them to answer. By looking at a case study and attempting to draw out lessons learned from listening to constituencies, together they created what Sokoll calls “a contemporary vision,” and a plan to execute that vision, with a central focus on families with children.
“We thought,” Mark continues, “…if we, as a Jewish community, spent the last 100 years trying to attract people for a whole variety of reasons, to get Jewish immigrants acculturated, to help the grandchildren of those immigrants to embrace their Jewish identity; if we’ve spent the last 100 years getting people into the building, we should now spend the next 100 years taking our building out to the people.”
Taking a building to the people–more that 50,000 people spanning a geographical radius that includes 98 communities–is no small feat. And yet, that’s precisely what this JCC has done. Fifteen hundred people showed up to a Chanukah event at the Boston Children’s Museum last December. Seventeen hundred people turned out for a Cirque de Purim party last March. In September it was Rosh Hashanah at the Danforth Museum in Framingham, with music, art and activities for kids. From stroller walks to Barnes and Noble talks to Friday nights at the Vilna Shul to Mom’s Night Out with yoga, wine and cheese, Boston area Jews and their families can pick from hundreds of events to participate in, and many of them happen outside the JCC space.
“This is an era of ‘pervasive choice,’ Sokoll asserts. “We want to be a portal to a place where people can build their Jewish identity—for themselves and their families—on their own terms, without judgment,” he says. “However they choose to enter, we support them.”
But how, exactly, do they make this happen?
“Programs are the key,” Sokoll attests. In fact, in the research that they’ve done, Sokoll and his colleagues have discovered that people are 91% more likely to bring an element of Jewish celebration into their home if they’ve participated in an outreach program like climbing a pyramid rock wall and ziplining across the Red Sea at a PJ library “Rock on Passover” event or Summer Sizzle Shabbat in the City, where one can connect with other families living in Boston, sing, eat a festive meal, and make Shabbat crafts to bring home.
“But it’s also the books,” Sokoll adds. Namely, he’s referring to the PJ Library books.
“For us, the entire concept is to be a center for families, and to-date, our biggest outreach tool are PJ library books,” Sokoll explains, referring to the Jewish family engagement program funded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation which mails free Jewish children’s literature and music to families throughout North America, on a monthly basis. “Through the books, we try and enter into as many Jewish homes, or Jewish homes-in-formation, as possible,” Sokoll continues. “There are people in areas throughout greater Boston who are making all different choices about where and how they live, who they marry and what kind of family they want. The bottom line is: if we get them the PJ library books, they can become educators in their own homes.”
Once that happens, Sokoll explains, JCC staff—Jewish professionals who Sokoll refers to as ‘hub connectors,’ who are charged with knowing the families in their regional area and reaching out to invite them to JCC-sponsored events—work to engage those families in Jewish life programming. And once a family attends a JCC event, their info is put into a master database from which a core constituency is formed.
And what, exactly, is the end-goal with this master database of names? “We have no preconceived destination for the journey [of our families] Sokoll assures. “For us, it’s critically important that people get engaged with Jewish community and then make choices—we would love it if people joined synagogues, but our goal is not necessarily just for people to join synagogues. Our job is to help people make choices, and make more Jewish choices, but—and this is different than a synagogue—we keep our ‘menu’ as broad as it can possibly be.”
Sokoll goes on to explain that the way he understands it, the culture of young families today is quite different than years before, which means that in addition to “pervasive choice,” this is an era of “embracing duality.”
“This generation seems to want to avoid conflict in their identity,” Sokoll explains. People want to be comfortable as Americans, as Jews, and in who they are and the choices they make. And we want people to find meaning and joy in their experiences, to engage in a way that helps them advance those aspirations, and to feel that by connecting with us, they are happier and lead richer and more meaningful lives.”
So, then, to go back the pressing question at hand…what is the business of Mark Sokoll and the JCC of Greater Boston?
“We are in the Jewish identity construction business,” Sokoll answers, determinedly. “Family by family, household-by household. We are helping people design experiences on their own terms.”
Take one look at the current offerings from the JCC throughout the greater Boston area, and you’re sure to find an experience that suits your needs. But beyond the new parent playground meet-ups, the Family Shabbat Picnic at the Boston Common, the Strawberry Field Jam and Havdalah on the Beach, the “identity construction” that Sokoll refers to happens on the in-between, in those moments when—as he explains—people look around and realize, “hey, the Jewish community is happy to have me here.”
And who doesn’t want that? Sign me up.
“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