Before Jewish parenting blogs, mohels with websites or online guides to picking the perfect Hebrew baby name, Lisa Farber Miller, a nonprofit consultant from Denver, Co., had what seemed at the time like a radical idea: A glossy newsletter for expectant and new parents, about how to incorporate Judaism into their family lives.
This newsletter would include recipes, activity ideas, glossaries of Hebrew terms and thoughtful commentary on holidays and traditions. One regular feature would explicitly, and warmly, address interfaith families.
“Some people felt like if I even included something like that, I had to come out with a strong statement about the fact that intermarriage was a negative thing,” Farber Miller recalled. “I felt like that wasn’t the kind of inclusive message we needed to be sending.”
In 1994, Farber Miller — who was knee-deep in a major consulting project helping Denver’s Jewish Community Center reinvent itself — received a grant from the Covenant Foundation to create the newsletter, Apples & Honey. It was the beginning of a mission that came to define her career: Finding creative ways to bring in Jews on the periphery by filling their needs in an appealing, non-judgmental way, at junctures in their lives when the desire for connection and meaning is most pronounced.
“We’re the 16th largest Jewish community in the country, and anytime you have a market where 65 percent of your customers aren’t using you, you’ve got to think differently,” she said. “People are not going to necessarily come to us anymore. We need to go to them and prove our value and our worth and the beauty that Judaism can bring to their lives.”
For the past two decades, Farber Miller has done just that, as the Senior Program Officer for Jewish Life at Rose Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life in Greater Denver (other program areas are the Aging, Health, Education and Child and Family Development). Farber Miller shaped the foundation’s approach to Jewish grant-making, to focus on welcoming, innovation and a perennial quest for new ways to “connect Jews to Jewish life and to each other.” During 18 years on the job, she has stewarded more than $53 million in grants.
When it comes to bringing in Jews on the margins, Denver presents an interesting conundrum or, as Farber Miller would say, opportunity. She calls it the “native/non-native issue.”
A 2007 demographic study found that a third of Jews ages 25-39 had been in the Denver-Boulder area for less than five years. In many of those homes, one partner is not Jewish.
Though technically not a native, having moved to Denver when she was 18 months old (“It doesn’t count,” she explained), Farber Miller, 60, is the ultimate insider: She met her husband, a fifth-generation Denverite who is now president and chief executive of the Denver Foundation, in the seventh grade, and two of their three grandchildren are seventh-generation Denverites. Still, she has remained keenly attuned to the perspective of the new and disconnected.
“Those people have left their families of origin and are here without the support of family, and maybe can’t afford to belong to a synagogue or maybe don’t see a synagogue as a place where they want to be,” she said. “That’s a tough place to be.”
Many of the projects that Farber Miller has championed target parents with small children. She cites not only the yearning for community that new parenthood often brings, but research on the importance of early cognitive development.
“Even values are formed by the age of five,” she said. “I’m hoping that early childhood and early family engagement will be the next wave in the Jewish world, and people will get on the boat with us.”
To this end, in 2009, Farber Miller helped create MazelTot.org, a website for local parents of young children that quickly became a popular destination — and a crucial marketing tool for Jewish institutions. MazelTot.org features a calendar listing programs and events for young kids (family getaway at the 400-acre JCC Ranch Camp, anyone?) and offers generous discounts on everything from preschool tuition to ceremonies officiated by a rabbi “or ritual leader.” Beyond surfing for information in isolation, parents are invited to contact one of a dozen “parent connectors,” whose pictures and home neighborhoods are posted online.
“We often get calls from families who are relocating to Denver before they’ve even moved,” Farber Miller said. And while it can be maddening to try to find a human being behind many websites, MazelTot.org has a full-time staffer with a listed number. “He talks to parents all day long,” she said.
MazelTot.org has repeatedly been cited in the Slingshot Guide as one of the nation’s most innovative Jewish nonprofit projects. A recent evaluator determined that the website was “truly moving the needle on Jewish engagement” and urged other communities to “learn from this model and replicate locally.”
Also in the early childhood space, Ms. Farber Miller has spearheaded an effort called BUILDing Jewish ECE, to improve Jewish preschools (or Early Childhood Education centers), help them draw a wider audience, and integrate preschool families into synagogues and community centers so they aren’t lost to the community when their children go off to kindergarten.
And then after kindergarten? Another demographic group Farber Miller is determined to reach: teenagers. In particular, she has come to see philanthropy as a powerful way to excite and inspire young Jews.
“The teen years are when young people are creating their identity and asking themselves, ‘Who do I want to be when I grow up?’ and ‘What’s the good I want to do in the world?’” she said. “Hopefully we will be by their side, to inspire and inform the good that they want to do.”
Of all the programs Farber Miller has created, one of her favorite is Rose Youth Foundation, in which teenage “board members” learn about Jewish values related to giving and tikkun olam. Then, as a group, they determine grant priorities and conduct extensive research to select worthy grantees. Through RYF, Jewish teens have given away more than $700,000 in 14 years.
Jono Bentley, a member of the Stanford class of 2015, had little interest in the organized Jewish community when, in high school, a friend from his jazz band mentioned RYF.
“The opportunity to give $60,000 a year as teens is totally unique and was more intriguing to me than a traditional youth group, or what I knew of them,” said Bentley, who joined RYF and, during his senior year, served as co-chair. “It was very much the catalyst that reengaged me in the Jewish community.”
Bentley is still in touch with Farber Miller. “She is always having coffee with RYF alumni when they’re back in Denver on college breaks,” he said. “She’s very dedicated to keeping a strong connection.”
At a time when many Jewish institutions find it challenging at best to reach those on the periphery, what is Farber Miller’s secret to success?
Listen, then do.
“The most important thing is to listen first, and to understand people, and to not make assumptions about people,” she said. “Learn from the people you’re trying to connect with. Really understand where the gaps are.”
When Farber Miller organized and funded focus groups of teenagers recently, she found that the very experience of being listened to had a palpable effect. “The teens loved it,” she said. “A couple of parents called up and said, ‘What were you doing with my teen in this focus group? They came back and said this was one of the most powerful Jewish experiences they’ve ever had!’”
In her ongoing search for new ways to reach Jews on the margins, Farber Miller is both philosophical and practical.
“It’s learning how to answer the phone, and actually answering the phone, and promptly returning people’s phone calls,” she said. “It’s also being sensitive to the diversity of the human experience.”
“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