Throughout his life and career, Eli N. Evans has made a habit of tackling challenges with a trademark blend of confidence and grace. His effectual method is three-fold and direct: First, identify excellent change-makers with an intimate knowledge of the problems that need tackling. Second, ask them to identify the aspects of those challenges that need attention and invite them to develop innovative solutions for doing so. Third, give them the resources and confidence to “go forth, and go for it,” as Evans put it recently when he sat down for a conversation reflecting back on his proudest career accomplishments.
“I really learned early to take it big,” Evans noted, as he contemplated pivotal career moments. “Whenever I faced a situation where I was unsure of what we were supposed to do next, taking it big was always my answer.”
“Eli’s lifelong dedication to Jewish education and Jewish continuity is legend. The Covenant Foundation today reflects his insights, creativity, gift for relationships and vision.”
—Mr. Lester Crown
Chairman of Henry Crown and Company
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Born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, Evans’ roots in the south run deep. His father, Emanuel J. Evans, was Durham’s first Jewish mayor. His mother, Sara Nachamson Evans, was a prominent local, regional and national leader of Hadassah. Together, Evans’s parents helped create, support and raise funds for the Judaic Studies Department at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where Evans would eventually become the first Jewish student body president.
Following his graduation from UNC, Evans joined the United States Navy and completed a tour of duty in the Far East. He then attended Yale Law School and served in The White House as a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1968, Evans joined the Carnegie Corporation of New York as a Senior Program Officer. One of the country’s premier education foundations, Carnegie took a vested interest in the inequitable circumstances that existed at the time for black law students in the south. When Foundation president John W. Gardner asked Evans to travel to the region and investigate, Evans had his first opportunity to put the approach of “taking it big” into action by ultimately developing what remains one of his most treasured professional achievements: the Earl Warren Legal Training Program, an unprecedented collaboration among foundations and law schools aimed at expanding the pool of black southern lawyers.
“We understood that if one could increase the number of black lawyers, one could make a significant contribution to the future of the country,” Evans said, recalling the Corporation’s investment. Sure enough, five years after the Training Program’s launch, nearly 300 black students had graduated from law schools in the South, with hundreds more in the pipeline.
Evans remained at Carnegie for ten years and then moved on to become the founding president of The Charles H. Revson Foundation. Over the course of his 25 remarkable years at Revson, he helped launch numerous creative ventures including the PBS Series Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, and Bill Moyers’s Genesis: A Living Conversation.
“Talking muppets that could speak directly to children through their television sets…another big idea,” recalls Evans, with a smile.
During this time, Evans was also extraordinarily prolific, and developed a niche chronicling Jewish American southern history. The author of three books, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South; The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner, and Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate, Evans’s literary accomplishments were so impressive that he inspired the Israeli diplomat and scholar Abba Eban to declare, “The Jews of the South have found their poet laureate.”
With big-picture thinking and a noted ability to inspire confidence in others, Eli N. Evans assumed the role of Board Chair of The Covenant Foundation in 1994, succeeding Robert Adler, the Foundation’s first Board Chairman.
The Covenant Foundation, the brainchild of Susan Crown, daughter of Lester Crown, and Barbara Goodman Manilow, daughter of Charles (Corky) Goodman, was borne of the cousins’ mutual desire to create and sustain engaging Jewish education.
“They conceived a national strategy of trying to do something positive to reward great Jewish teachers and improve Jewish education in America,” Evans said, reflecting back on the early days. “They concluded that even though the field of Jewish education was suffering from financial constraints and institutional limitations [at the time], the Jewish community was bursting with exciting ideas that could bring about dramatic change.”
In its earliest days, Covenant functioned mainly via a ground-up approach, soliciting nominations and proposals from the field of Jewish education instead of ordering up plans from the offices in New York.
“We wanted to hear what people are interested in, what was keeping them up at night,” Evans noted, reflecting on the unusual process of prospecting for talent. “We were not saying, ‘Here’s what you should do.’ Rather, we were saying, ‘What’s going on out there? We wanted to know.”
During his 22-year tenure as Chairman of the Board of The Covenant Foundation, Evans helped envision a program of grants and awards that became the backbone of the Foundation and one that is fundamental to its success and the esteem it has garnered.
Board members credit Evans for helping steer the foundation amid shifting seas, as the world of philanthropy, the priorities of Jewish philanthropists, and the nature of education itself have evolved.
Considering the impact that the cohort of Covenant Award recipients had on Jewish education in 2009, Evans wrote, “Over the past eighteen years, 54 educators have received a gift that can be measured in more than dollars-the gift of recognition of their achievements and their aspirations. In turn, these educators have given back enormously to Jewish education.”
“The institutions they have enriched, the programs they have initiated, and the influence they have had on others have each been enhanced by being brought into the orbit of the Covenant Foundation. In ways small and large each has helped to make a Jewish renaissance imaginable,” he wrote.
In many ways, the same may be said of Evans’s own contributions both to The Covenant Foundation and to the project of Jewish education, writ large.
At the 2016 Covenant Awards Dinner and 25th Anniversary Celebration, Lester Crown, Chairman of Henry Crown and Company, honored Evans for his chairmanship and dedication to The Covenant Foundation.
“Early on, our aspirations were to elevate talented educators, transform their ideas into practice, honor institutions, and support nascent and promising programming,” Mr. Crown said.
“Eli’s lifelong dedication to Jewish education and Jewish continuity is legend,” he continued. “The Foundation today reflects his insights, creativity, gift for relationships and vision. He gently but effectively pursued a vision of pluralism, ensuring that the best of Jewish education can be celebrated and supported regardless of denomination, location, or scale.”
Evans will remain a member of The Covenant Foundation Board of Directors when Cheryl Finkel, a 1999 Covenant Award recipient, assumes the role of Board Chair this month. He will serve as Chair Emeritus.
“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