What does community mean to you?
When I became a mother three years ago, it became increasingly important to me that my family find opportunities for belonging. But as a Jewish professional, educator, and a Russian-speaking immigrant in a constant identity tug-of-war, I have a mixed experience of what it means and feels like to be a part of a community.
I wanted my family to thrive in a kinship of like-minded families, with similar traditions, immigration stories and personal baggage, a chance to live Jewishly in our own understanding of the concept, and a unified hope to preserve the Russian language. But I didn’t realize how hard it would be to find it.
For the past 9 years, I have worked at Generation R, a department within the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, founded by American Russophile Audrey David. Generation R serves the rapidly growing Russian-speaking Jewish (RSJ) population on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
What started as a small UJA Federation-funded initiative in 2005 to serve Russian-speaking 20s and 30s, grew to include cultural tours, concerts, plays, literary events, and a multitude of programs under David’s leadership, expanding to family- and child-centered programming, which I currently oversee.
Since Generation R’s inception, the JCC’s doors have welcomed thousands of Russian-speaking Jews from all over the tri-state area.
The department’s success lies in the continuity of engagement: the ‘singles’ coming to our 20s and 30s events go on to join us for family events once they’ve had children, and their children then come to our programs; therein, they build friendships and make discoveries about Jewish traditions. Once the children age out, they return as volunteers. We’ve built strong connections with the families we serve and in turn, many have come to view Generation R as a hub for Russian-speaking Jewish community.
And so, the community-building success I’ve witnessed and experienced at Generation R inspired me to try and build something closer to where I live, in Queens.
For most of my life, I have felt displaced, constantly having to work hard to belong: from Ukraine to Brooklyn, to Indianapolis, then back to Brooklyn, and later, to Queens.
I was always in transition, often hiding my identity or revealing only parts of it. Having a Jewish last name and Jewish blood running through my veins was an issue in the Soviet Union; having a Christian Orthodox mother was problematic amongst some of the Russian Jews I met in Brooklyn. In Indianapolis, speaking Russian made me stand out; and then, there was Queens: a place of uncertainty, and where I would start a family and raise my daughter.
Close to home, I met women in a similar predicament: here they were, living in the area for years, yearning to be part of a Russian-speaking community with ties to Jewish life but not finding it.
“But what does community mean?” asks Linda White, community engagement play curator and founder of Imagination Play Project. “I think it’s important to ask people this question. What does [community] feel like? How do you build it? What would it take for you to feel part of a community?’”
The RSJ community I yearned to be part of would consist of families interested in growing, sharing, playing, discovering, creating, and celebrating together, with a drive to preserve the Russian language and culture, and to raise our children with an appreciation for their Jewish heritage.
“Community is about that space, outside of your family, where you feel embraced, accepted, and understood; where support during times of need are not questioned and where people are in ongoing dialogue,” said Abby Knopp, chief operating officer at The Jewish Education Project, who has done extensive work with Russian-speaking Jewry.
I wanted to build such a community, so I started with what I knew best: education. I sought interest within local social media groups populated with Russian-speaking mothers to gather for playgroups with a focus on progressive early childhood education through a Jewish lens.
While children played and made discoveries about Jewish holidays, the intention was also to spark conversation among mothers about child development, what it meant to live Jewishly, and how to bring Jewish traditions into our homes. I received enormous interest in such playgroups, but I had no space to run them.
I also needed funding. I reached out to colleagues and friends within RSJ networks, and began looking for grants. Stars aligned in my favor, and I ultimately launched Kinder Klub thanks to generous funding from PJ Library and the Genesis Philanthropy Group. The next step was to find Jewish organizations in the neighborhood to partner with, so that we might have a space where we could meet. But this, too, proved to be more challenging that I might have imagined. Calls and emails went unanswered.
According to the 2011 Berman Jewish DataBank study, 49 percent of all households in the Forest Hills/Rego Park/Kew Gardens area (the region of Queens where I live), identify as Jewish, of which 44 percent include a Russian speaker, with 24 percent Queens-wide. Why then, was there not support for it, too?
Throughout my search, I spoke with multiple leaders of Jewish organizations in Queens. Among those who attempted to engage RSJs, one shared that his programs lacked attendance, and that the families that did come did not always return due to their lack of religious connection to Judaism. Another said that big Jewish holiday events were well attended by RSJs but there was “lack of commitment” in other areas, such as congregation attendance.
But perhaps, focusing on programs instead of on RSJ community building is the problem.
COJECO’s executive director, Roman Shmulenson, believes that organizations offering programs in an attempt to engage RSJs without a larger picture in mind will not get very far.
“We always define success at COJECO as long-term community involvement, where people develop a sense of belonging and a sense of responsibility for what happens in the community,” Shmulenson said. “Every program should be planned as a tool to build a community.”
After more weeks of knocking on doors and sending emails, Kinder Klub finally found a temporary home at Forest Hills Jewish Center. The community center rented us a classroom in its nursery school for a very reasonable price. Executive Director, Deborah Gregor, and then-nursery school director, Susan Rosenbaum, consistently checked in, inviting our families to community center events and greeting us with smiles.
Interest in Kinder Klub group grew. Families befriended each other, and we began to feel like a community—an enthusiastic, supportive, caring community of like-minded families with similar goals and values.
This past winter, our big success was a residency at FHJC, thanks to a microgrant from The Jewish Education Project and Genesis Philanthropy Group. We celebrated Chanukah, Tu B’Shevat, and Purim together. Once the grant ran out, we found ourselves quasi-homeless, but we braved the cold weather to continue our learning outdoors.
Today, I find myself wondering how to sustain our community’s future. We’ve grown from 14 families to more than 90 in two years, and if I could wish for something, it would be indoor space.
Then again, I trust that with a deep sense of belonging, a strong connection to each other, and a shared responsibility for meaningful Jewish involvement, we can overcome any closed doors and survive any thunderstorms.
2017 Pomegranate Prize Recipient, Director of Russian-speaking Children & Families Programs, Generation R, Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan
“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