A Covenant Award recipient and seasoned practitioner, Cheryl R. Finkel has been invested in the field of Jewish education for over 30 years. As the Head of the Epstein School in Atlanta, Cheryl invigorated the Jewish community by growing enrollment at the school from 80 students at her arrival, to over 600 students over the course of her tenure there. Deeply committed to the professional development of her faculty and staff, Cheryl took the experience acquired through her 20 years of leadership at Epstein and shared it with over a hundred new Day School leaders as a member of the Jewish Day School Leadership Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Cheryl also served as a Senior Consultant at Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, where she provided management coaching to over 175 schools. Now, after ten years as a Covenant Foundation Board Member, Cheryl’s dedication to Jewish education enters yet another significant phase, as she assumes the role of incoming Chair of the Covenant Foundation Board of Directors.
Last month, we spent time talking with Cheryl about what she’s learned over the course of her career about strong leadership, her hopes for the future of The Covenant Foundation, and it means to be “meshuga la’davar.”
Cheryl Finkel and 2016 Covenant Award recipients
In an essay you wrote for the Covenant of Dreams publication, you describe being influenced by the notion that sometimes, one must step up to a challenge, even if one doesn’t necessarily know how they might accomplish or complete that challenge. How this has notion affected your leadership?
In that essay, I talk about having a small town Jewish background that inspired in me a willingness to take on Jewish assignments that I didn’t really know how to do. I still believe that it’s so important for leaders to be “nachshonim,” to be “initiators.”
To that end, I’ve learned that as a leader, it’s important to be humble. Leaders can’t possibly embody everything that a team or a school or an organization needs. Instead, I’ve learned to be smart about engaging those who do things better than I can, to recognize talent, and to bring that talent onto my team. Jewish education—and education, writ large—has so many content areas, no one could ever master them all. Instead, we should be realistic about managing what we don’t know, and not be afraid to ask questions.
How did that play out, in a personal sense for you, as a Jewish educator?
For 20 years, I studied in the Judaic Studies department at Emory University to make up for the deficit that I felt I had in textual knowledge. Growing up in the mountain town of Asheville, before it was a truly cosmopolitan city, we knew how much we didn’tknow, and we weren’t ashamed to admit it. So I made a commitment to continuous study and improvement. And I’d like to think that that’s really what I brought to my school leadership experience and to my role as a mentor and consultant today. To let what we don’t know inspire instead of shame us, and to always be willing to ask questions, because that’s what drives learning.
How did that notion of asking questions and always being open to new ideas and learning affect your work as Head of School at Epstein?
I had this idea that school should never be the same, year to year. Each fall, when students arrived at school, I wanted their experience to be different, and to be even better than the year before. This translated into a total commitment to everyone’s growth—the students and the teachers. I wanted to ensure that all of my staff was growing annually, in knowledge and capability. After studying at the Harvard School of Education, I had a clear idea of what excellence in the classroom looked like and I was driven to create that level of excellence at Epstein. When translated into a practical sense, this meant that if a teacher wanted to go off and learn something, I supported them, whether or not it was immediately obvious how that study might benefit their particular class. I trusted that if the teacher were intellectually stimulated, that engagement would benefit their students. If someone wanted to go study Chinese art or woodcarving, I would say ‘go study it!’ I wanted my teachers to go out and observe other classrooms and other school spaces. I wasn’t looking for them to come back and say ‘we’re great, we’re doing everything right.’ Rather, I wanted them to come back and say ‘here’s an idea—something we’re not already doing… how can we do this in our school?’
This is a notion that has truly been exemplified through my participation on the Board at Covenant. The board has always had a clear mission: great work is happening in Jewish spaces across the country, but there’s no rigid stamp on what makes a Jewish educator. You can be an animator or an actor or a musician—what’s important is the type of thinking you’re doing, not your job title. And so we’ve remained flexible, we’ve listened to people’s passions. Perhaps they’re making animated films but they’re also making Jewish connections with other artists working on Jewish content in their area. We are listening to what Jewish educators are telling us about what matters, now–not the other way around. It’s crucial that we maintain this level of flexibility and allow practitioners to lead us to the appropriate content, because moment to moment, content will and should change.
Of course, there’s a core principle, and that is to support excellent Jewish education. But we want to hear what people are trying out, what’s working, what’s getting them excited. We want to help encourage those passions. Ultimately, as the head of school and also as the Chair of The Covenant Foundation Board, I think it’s incredibly important to be a generalist. To not become tooattached to any one mode of thinking, but rather, to stay in touch with art and camping and digital learning and professional development and early childhood trends and social justice and supplementary school models and whatever the culture is bringing to the fore at any given moment. We must stay open to it and open to those who can educate and inform us.
Cheryl Finkel with Renee Crown
What was one of the biggest challenges you faced as a Head of School?
The reality for me 20 years ago and I know from my work mentoring Day School leaders today that this is still true: parents are coming to their schools with a wide array of needs and they have so many options, so many different methods they could apply, to instill a strong sense of Jewish identity in their children. Whichever setting you work in, the ability to create excitement in a truly engaging and supportive environment is paramount.
Excitement can’t be faked. You need people working on your team who are truly meshuga ladavar, or, “crazy about the method” which is to say, crazy about Hebrew language study, or Torah study, or informal education—but bottom line: passionate about Jewish learning.
To that end, I don’t see Jewish education as an either-or proposition. There’s no binary here, as in, camp is fun and school is boring. Rather, both school AND camp can (and should) be fun and intellectually challenging! When kids are fully engaged and motivated, they are happy and learning is integrated and seamless. Any educator would agree, regardless of the generation in which they might have taught: development in learning should be joyful.
Cheryl Finkel on Purim at The Epstein School in Atlanta.
What would you like to add about assuming the role at Board Chair?
Observing Eli Evans lead the Board of the Covenant Foundation during his two-decade-plus tenure has been the most amazing education for me –and I think for all of us –on the board. From Eli, I learned how to run a meeting—I thought I knew how until I met him. His tone was welcoming and encouraging, he always provided the 30,000-foot view, offering analysis on where we were going, on what our choices meant for the community. Eli kept an eye and ear toward whether we were reaching the geography we wanted to reach, the content we wanted to affect, the people we thought crucial to highlight and support. Eli modeled a crisp and inviting leadership, a fine balance between fearlessness and humility. From Eli I learned that it’s now my job to connect people, to bring voices in so that we may glean from them and allow them to influence how we support Jewish education. I look forward to partnering with our outstanding professionals at Covenant in prospecting for and engaging fresh ideas, and to always serving as a curious, open and dedicated guide in the field of Jewish education.
* * *
“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