Tiffany Shlain has a lot going on.
Considering the Emmy nomination for her AOL series “The Future Starts Here,” the global premiere last spring of her film “Science of Character,” which drew millions of viewers together for a free screening and worldwide Q&A session, the opening of “The Brain Portrait,” an “interactive, visual, and educational art exhibit” at the Sandler Neurosciences Center in San Francisco, a 2013-U.S. government-sponsored trip to Israel to screen her film “Brain Power,” countless awards, speeches, addresses, talks, interviews and, of course, a continued push to conceive of and develop new films, it’s no wonder that the filmmaker, founder of The Webby Awards, author, Covenant Foundation grantee, wife and mother Tiffany Shlain has spent the past five years unplugging on Shabbat.
November 10, 2014 Tiffany Shlain Presentation from The Covenant Foundation Pomegranate Prize Program.
“Technology Shabbats,” as Shlain has dubbed them, mean no screens for twenty-four hours. “It’s life changing,” she says. In fact, the experience has had such an impact on Shlain and her family that the first episode in her AOL series “The Future Starts Here” is dedicated to the topic and has been one of the series’ most popular episodes.
But it’s not just screen-free Shabbats that have changed the way Shlain thinks about her life and work. In fact, tech Shabbats were inspired by another life-changing event that has, in many ways, crystallized the objectives of Shlain’s oeuvre. “Losing my father really inspired the Technology Shabbats,” Shlain remarks, when asked how Leonard Shlain’s death in 2009 has affected her filmmaking. “We might [physically] be with the people we care about, but we’re often staring down at screens. I feel really blessed that because of my father’s death, I had a chance to experience the preciousness of life at a young age. I have a sense now that things can end at any moment. Losing my dad made me a more present person….All of the topics of my films now are about how to live a good life and be present.”
This sense of life’s fragility is reflected in Shlain’s filmography. As one watches Connected, The Science of Character, Brain Powerand others, it becomes obvious that Shlain’s central thesis is about the very human need to connect, reflected in the desire to open up dialogue, to consider why character matters, and to remain present.
“My films are usually about stuff I’m trying to figure out,” Shlain admits. “Films are a way for me to process deeply what I’m curious about.”
In 2005, what Shlain was curious about was Jewish identity, which led to the hugely successful release of her 18-minute film The Tribe. Although the film premiered at Sundance over eight years ago, Tribe has had a lasting impact. “I just got an email today,” Shlain said in August, “from a Jewish educator who told me that she uses the film in every one of her classes.” And at a recent keynote address at the Foundation for Jewish Camp Leader’s Assembly last March, when Shlain asked the room full of hundreds of people how many had seen the film, 80% raised their hands.
“We want to widen our reach,” Shlain explains, when asked to consider the legacy of Tribe. “We want to make another Jewish film, hand Jewish educators yet another tool to reach younger generations.” With Tribe, educators had access to curriculum guides and teaching kits that were produced with a Covenant Foundation grant. In this way, the film became a teaching tool and a genuine “new Jewish text” particularly appealing to younger generations.
In thinking about what made Tribe a compelling new Jewish text, and how artists might continue to offer similarly innovative and engaging material, Shlain posits that “as opposed to some other Jewish films and documentaries that are much more earnest, Tribe used humor and irony to tackle complicated subjects.”
“It took deep research to get there,” she adds, “and every line was written with a tremendous amount of thought and was grounded in such depth. I’ve really tried to evolve that model, to come at serious topics in unexpected ways, and to go deep, to trigger conversation.”
Next on the docket for Shlain is a film about what it means to be human in the 21st century, and, she hopes, another Jewish film. In fact, it was at the Jewish Camping conference that Shlain was inspired. “It was there that I learned about the Mussar Movement,” Shlain explained excitedly. The Mussar Movement, founded by Israel Salanter in 19th century Lithuania, focuses on practices that allow an individual to turn inward, consider ethical conduct and ideas of piety. After learning more about Mussar, Shlain realized that there was much overlap between those ideas and ideas explored in Science of Character. “I realized that we could do a Jewish version of our Science of Character film, thinking about character development through a Jewish lens.”
It’s particularly appropriate, that Shlain has turned some of her inexhaustible energy toward the ideas of Mussar in the wake of her father’s passing, for the word “mussar,” which means “instruction,” comes from Proverbs 1:8 which reads, “Hear, my son, the instruction of thy father.”
And indeed, Shlain honors her father’s memory, his “instruction,” by pushing herself to continually re-imagine ways in which her filmmaking might contribute to, inform, and better the Jewish conversation—and the global conversation in general. As narrator Peter Coyote tells viewers in Tribe, “American Jews now live in a multicultural world, where cultures circulate and mix freely. And this freedom allows them to redefine and reclaim their connection to tradition.” This process of reclaiming and redefining is precisely the noble endeavor to which Tiffany Shlain has dedicated herself and her work.
To Learn More about Tiffany and her work, visit Let It Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change
“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