For four days in September, the august Manhattan reading room shared by the American Jewish Historical Society and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was populated by an unlikely collection of scholars. Among the group of ten: a dating coach/media personality intrigued by the Yiddish language. An accomplished producer interested in exploring his Holocaust survivor father’s complicated relationship with Judaism. A comedian/filmmaker known for mining dark subjects like eating disorders, rape and white privilege, who had recently found herself thirsting for Jewish historical knowledge.
They were participants in the Reboot Fellowship, a new endeavor funded by The Covenant Foundation and designed to forge meaningful connections between the Jewish community’s trove of museums, archives and other cultural treasures, and some of the most innovative culture creators, makers and creatives working today.
The fellowship was created by Reboot, an arts and culture non-profit formed in 2001 to reimagine Jewish culture, thought and traditions at the outset of the new millennium. Each year, a new cadre of Jewish (“and Jew-ish identifying”) creators, artists, entrepreneurs and activists is tapped to join the Reboot network, which now includes more than 600 people worldwide.
The Reboot Fellowship seeks to further the impact of the network by enabling a select group of “Rebooters” to have deep, immersive experiences with independently curated Jewish collections, working closely with historians and archivists to uncover hidden stories that could be the impetus for new projects. After these “deep dives,” fellows are charged with creating products, projects, exhibits or experiences that might engage new generations of Jews.
“The Reboot network is a network of makers, doers and storytellers who are looking for content, looking for inspiration,” said Francine Hermelin, Reboot’s chief network officer and the project director for the Covenant grant. “They’ll go anywhere to find it. At the same time, these institutions are sitting on a depth of Jewish knowledge, and they’re looking for new audiences and looking for new ways to connect with their audiences.”
“If we can set the stage to make it easy—and also rigorous, exciting, thrilling—for their search to be in a Jewish space, then these stories become part of their output and their work,” Hermelin continued. “That connection becomes like a ripe cocktail for something powerful and exciting and surprising to emerge.”
When Hermelin floated the idea to Dr. Annie Polland, executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, her response was an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
“It definitely was part of what we’re trying to build here,” Polland said. “We’re trying to not only have people engage with collections and exhibitions but, to the extent that we can, bring them into the stacks, show them documents, help them piece things together. Here we’re taking artists and writers and filmmakers into the archives themselves, so they can make sense of the stories.”
Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, executive director of the Council of American Jewish Museums, said that for the 70-plus Jewish museums operating nationwide, the Reboot Fellowship represents a new model for public engagement.
“I think museums and archives have a tremendous amount to gain by working directly with creatives,” she said. “Even though it’s a more time-intensive investment, it genuinely connects them to the next generation. Museums often talk about the ‘next gen,’ but they think that if we build it they will come, and if we put it up they will come. To some extent that works, but to another extent the engagement needs to be more authentic.”
Historically, Yaverbaum said, interactions between creatives and museums have been characterized by an “end game” mentality, focused on final products like where and how an artist’s work might be exhibited. The Reboot Fellowship shifts that dynamic, allowing for deep, genuine relationships between cultural institutions and culture creators at every stage of the creative process.
“When the Rebooters showed up and we all started talking, between the scholars involved in the program and me and the Rebooters, we had so many ideas, we couldn’t even keep up with them,” Yaverbaum said. “It was like, ‘Oh, you should come speak at our conference!’ ‘I know a great collection you should be working with!’ It really pointed to the potential for a much stronger ecosystem of Jewish creativity and culture.”
The program was piloted in 2017 at the Yiddish Book Center. Participants “were sitting like school kids on the floor, looking up at [scholar, author and YIVO curator Eddy Portnoy], who is holding a gorgeous Yiddish book with illustrations,” Hermelin recalled. “They’re looking at him, wide-eyed, and I said, ‘This is kind of crazy.’ This should be happening more—connecting people who have the ability to create and manifest cultural experiences with experts who I know are just exploding with stories. We needed to literally carve out—this is very [Abraham Joshua] Heschel of me, but we needed to carve out a ‘palace in time.’ How do we carve out time? The fellowship became that.”
After the successful pilot, Reboot partnered with the American Jewish Historical Society and YIVO to create the 2019 fellowship, with a grant from the Covenant Foundation. In an evaluation conducted after the four-day immersive learning experience, participants were unanimous in their desire to return to AJHS or YIVO for additional research and reported that they were more likely to consider incorporating Jewish historical research into their work.
The fellows are now at work on their projects, which include scripts, screenplays, a libretto, a social media campaign, a podcast and an installation.
“I’m looking forward to being surprised,” said Polland, of AJHS.
Following the four-day immersion, fellows were asked to complete “worksheets” describing the ideas and questions they were focused on going into the fellowship, how those ideas evolved, the current status of their projects, and their plans and needs for bringing those projects to life.
Damona Hoffman, the dating coach, wrote that she initially intended to explore historical love letters for an article or a segment of her podcast, Dates & Mates. But she ended up doing research for a second podcast, about the origin of names. “I was amazed by the number of personal diaries and essays with unbelievable stories that are here and unpublished/not available anywhere else,” she wrote.
Jessie Kahnweiler, known for her darkly comedic web series, intended to focus on old Jewish stories and “radical comedic personalities,” she wrote, with an eye toward developing a television show. Now she is exploring ways to use social media “to tell the stories of Jewish immigration and beyond,” vowing “to keep digging until I hit the golden idea.”
Adrian Salpeter, a film and theater producer, wrote that he embarked on the fellowship intent on “exploring the theme of luck through the lens of [his] father’s life” as a Holocaust survivor, Communist defector and Canadian immigrant. Salpeter found first-person accounts of other survivors and immigrants before and after World War II, but wrote that he still needed more time “to define a unique narrative that forms the backbone of whatever shape this research unearths: book, screenplay, stage play, etc.”
Some projects will come together more quickly than others, with the full fruits of the fellowship taking years to materialize—all the more reason to keep the program going, in Hermelin’s view.
“I would love to keep making these shidduchs, if you will, between creatives and Jewish institutions,” she said. “We are deeply committed to the creative process and to building a lifelong curiosity for Jewishness within culture creators. We know that culture takes time.”
“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