“A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives…” said Maira Kalman, Israeli-born illustrator, artist, writer and designer.
But can a visit to a museum be an act of civic engagement, as well? To the staff of educators at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York- A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, the third largest Holocaust museum in the world, it can and it must be so.
“Part of ensuring that [an event like the Holocaust] doesn’t happen again is actively creating the world you want to live in,” said Miriam Haier, Senior Director for External Affairs at the Museum. “It’s an ongoing civil project, to understand in a constant way that you’re responsible for being active in the world.”
As a primary resource in North America for teaching and learning about the Holocaust, educators at the Museum think very carefully about how to engage visitors and student groups and more specifically, how the facts of the Holocaust connect to contemporary issues.
“Rather than drawing comparisons,” Haier explains, “we want people to understand that what they learn here can be relevant to their own lives.”
With that charge, Haier and her colleagues recently hosted “After Charlottesville: With Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn,” a special presentation by two of America’s leading litigators who are currently representing the plaintiffs from Charlottesville, Virginia who were “targeted on the basis of their race, religion, and ethnicity or because they stood up for the safety and civil rights of others.”
“The rally was rife with anti Semitic language and neo Nazi participation at a higher rate than any other event in recent U.S. history,” Haier said. “That’s relevant to our student groups and our visitors because they come to this museum to try and understand the Holocaust—and part of that is acknowledging that some of these very same ideas are still present in communities in this country.
“Our intention isn’t to instill this idea in a fearful way, but rather, to help people confront the issues and access the legal tools and the civil rights tools that we have, to address them here, in a respectful space,” she said.
According to Michael Glickman, President and CEO of the Museum, when the doors to the building opened in 1997, it sent a powerful message that “mere decades after the tragedies of the Holocaust, the Jewish communities of New York claimed the right to speak for themselves.”
“At the museum,” Gilckman said, “our daily work of responsibly documenting history and honoring Holocaust victims and survivors is inspiring us to be honest about our present moment in this country. We have work to do.”
The Museum recognizes the work of Kaplan and Dunn as contributing in a major way to that imperative. As literature on their website explains, ‘Kaplan and Dunn’s groundbreaking lawsuit against white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and affiliated hate groups is designed to make it clear that inciting and engaging in violence based on racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism has no place in this country.’
They argue that the rally was not a free speech issue, as many have claimed. Rather, this was a conspiracy to commit violence, and someone died, and many others were injured. Kaplan and Dunn are taking a look at those acts of violence and working with precedents set after the Civil War, including the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, which aimed to protect the civil rights of black Americans and fight against the KKK’s “reign of terror” in the South at that time.
Kaplan and Dunn are making headway. Their suit is in progress and they’ve completed the first part of argumentation against a motion to dismiss the case.
During their October 10th presentation at the Museum, they lawyers told the crowd about the complaint they filed which put their suit into motion. That complaint happens to be the most comprehensive catalogue detailing what happened at that rally in August of 2017 and by circulating it and making it public (anyone can read it, here) people can begin understand what truly happened. There’s also a website hosted by the organization Integrity First for America, which shares all of the details of the case.
The Charlottesville program, which was moderated by Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate magazine who writes primarily about law and politics, gave audience members the chance to ask their own questions and “talk back,” a priority and goal of all the educational programming that happens at the Museum. Audience members who attended live as well as those who were watching the live stream were able to dig deeply into the issues and have their opinions shared and responded to. (Haier shared that within about 24 hours of the event’s live stream, there were more than 15,700 online views of the video.)
Over 60,000 students come through the doors of the Museum each year, from across the socioeconomic, racial and religious spectrum. As Haier explains, the Museum aims to show all visitors that a space devoted to Holocaust education can be the site of “meaningful conversation.”
Programs for students are designed to ask them to reflect on their own place in history; the Museum curriculum focuses on heritage and students are encouraged to consider their own. The lessons are not exclusive to Jewish students, either, but rather, every student who visits is asked to think about what makes them a meaningful member of their own community.
“In our work, we are constantly modeling respectful conversation,” Haier said, “and we do this for all of our visitors.
“If we want them to understand the lessons that can be taken, implicitly or explicitly, from the events of the Holocaust, then we must live our values, in real time.”
Toward the end of the program, an audience member asked Dunn and Kaplan if they feared that by bringing this suit before the courts, they would potentially further anger and incite violence amongst those who rallied in the first place. Would this lawsuit only serve to grow their bigotry?
Kaplan’s response was unequivocal.
“We live in a morally difficult world,” she said. “But what’s the alternative? To not fight back? To not speak up? To not apply the rule of law against what these people did? To me, to me that’s an unacceptable thing to do.”
By Adina Kay-Gross for The Covenant Foundation
“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