Rabbi Philip Warmflash’s Torah is a wide-open book, the dark letters and white spaces close to his heart, and always guiding his hands. Whether at a meeting of Jewish educators drawn from across the movements, of synagogue officers from around the city of Philadelphia, or lay people planning an outreach event for young families, he begins communal conversations by leading study of Jewish texts. A masterful teacher, he motivates Jews at all levels of learning to grapple with the ancient words and find relevance.
As the founder and executive director of Jewish Learning Venture, Warmflash cares deeply about the Jewish future, about “making Judaism feel possible for people for whom it wasn’t quite on their radar.” At JLV, his work is multi-faceted, helping young families embrace Jewish life and bolstering the institutions that serve the community. They design and implement programs, share resources, facilitate the wider community’s sharing of resources, and promote and guide systemic change.
“Most organizations either do engagement, education, or congregational change. What we are doing is looking systematically at all three – how we can better reach and engage families raising Jewish children, and how we can help organizations to meet the needs of these families, whether on their own or in a collaborative fashion,” he says.
Indeed, the creative and entrepreneurial influence of Rabbi Warmflash and JLV in the greater Philadelphia area is pervasive: with young mothers gathering for a series of play dates through jkidphilly.com that result in Shabbat dinners in their homes, in workshops for synagogues that want to do better in terms of inclusion, in newly-merged and strengthened afternoon Hebrew School programs, in the One Book One Jewish Community series of events (the largest Jewish community-wide literacy event of it’s kind in the country), in forums for synagogue lay and professional leaders to share their best practices, and in many other ongoing programs.
Rabbi Warmflash’s work over the last two decades has varied in terms of new initiatives and structures, but serious engagement with Jewish life has been at the core. He has had, essentially, one job that has expanded and in which he has flourished, as the agencies he has headed have been renamed and reorganized. Jewish Learning Venture was formed through the merger of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education and Jewish Outreach Partnership, where he was also the founding executive director. In 2007, he received a Covenant Award for his work with JOP.
“The foundation of where my work comes from and where my passion comes from has remained the same,” he says.
“When the director of the Auerbach Agency left and I applied for the position, one of the things that seemed obvious was that both Jewish Outreach Partnership and ACAJE were involved in similar work, and it would be more beneficial to the community if the two agencies considered merging. That was in 2009. The merger that we were able to do was kind of a model for what we hope to do in other area of the community.”
In talking about organizational change, Rabbi Warmflash discusses the work of Allison Fine, author of “Matterness” and other books. “Matterness is the intersection of people and organizations when they come together in a positive and mutually beneficial way and a greater whole is formed. Among other criteria, Fine emphasizes the importance of listening and not just talking,” he says. In fact, he notes that Fine was once a synagogue president, and her advice, even as it is expressed in secular terms, echoes the challenges of Jewish organizational life.
Rabbi Warmflash quotes a fortysomething involved in one of their synagogue projects, who told him at a meeting, “I always thought about how we need to attract new people. Until tonight I never thought about how our congregation also needs to change!” That individual realized, through conversations with JLV, that they needed to make their synagogue more welcoming to a wide range of people in the community.
When asked about residual resistance to change, he replies, “That’s why the work is hard.”
“Part of the challenge here is a readiness for change, to show that it’s needed. We have a button that says, ‘Because we’ve always done it that way,’ with a slash through it.”
“Change is something we’re happy about when someone else is doing it,” he jokes.
“What our work is about is not change for change’s sake,” he continues, “but as a way of encouraging people inside and outside of our institutions, to find the holiness and meaning and personal connection in Judaism.”
Now, he and his colleagues at JLV start every meeting with what he calls a limmud, a short piece of text from a Jewish source — that might be familiar or not to the group – along with questions about what the text is saying. He explains, “I want people to see that Jewish texts speak to them, that they can grapple with Jewish texts and make it part of their vocabulary. Some volunteers have previously thought that having a connection to Jewish texts was only for the rabbis.” He adds, “I love the challenge of finding the right text for a particular group.”
One quote that they use a lot is from the late Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, “The old will be renewed and the new will be sanctified.” That notion of honoring tradition and embracing the new is essential to their work.
“I work to get people to an “Aha” moment, to lead people to rethinking ideas and taking new action. That’s really at the core of it — and to support them in our communal journey. Text is one of the key strategies for getting to Aha!”
The distinctive JLV logo is an orange v-shape; the left half has right angles, the right is all curves. It might be a Hebrew letter, a flame, a calligraphic flourish, an L on its side or an abstract bird in flight. The bold image reflects the agency’s dynamic work and its full embrace of many perspectives, many ways to experience Jewish learning and Jewish involvement. JLV was twice selected by Slingshot as one of the most innovative Jewish organizations in North America.
One project that Rabbi Warmflash is particularly enthusiastic about is Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, bringing together six community agencies from around the country to share strategies, and to develop opportunities to learn and apply best practices in Part-Time Jewish Education from one community to the other. (Shinui means change.) They recognize the strength in collaborating, guided by the spirit of generosity. That spirit also guided Jewish Learning Venture’s initiative, Lev: Getting to the Heart of Jewish Education, through which the agency has facilitated local congregations in the process of choosing and implementing a new model of congregational education.
These days at his own synagogue, Rabbi Warmflash prefers the role of congregant. He is also a consultant for Shevet: Consortium for the Jewish Family (formerly the Whizin Institute).
“The change that I hope to inspire is a change in the way people think and connect with Judaism, wherever they are on their Jewish journey. The question is this: How do we increase accessibility to new Jewish ideas, and how do we open the portals wider?”
“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