When you walk into a museum, you don’t generally expect to view the work of teenagers, but that’s exactly what you’d see on a visit to The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM). In fact, youth engagement, creative collaboration with teens, and featuring teen voices, are significant parts of The CJM’s mission.
Committed to supporting youth as they explore their identity and values, The CJM has always placed a strong emphasis on youth engagement through TAC (Teen Art Connect—the umbrella for all of the museum’s teen programming), a year-long TAC Internship, free admission to the museum for youth 18 and under, and a vision for involving teens in the co-creation of museum exhibitions.
“We don’t want to create for—we want to create with teens,” said Fraidy Aber, Constance Wolf Director of Education and Civic Engagement at The CJM.
Three years ago, with support from a Covenant Foundation grant, The CJM launched a new youth project called What We Hold: 100 Jewish Teen Voices—an educational program in which teens create audio recordings of stories that explore Jewish values through intergenerational family narratives. Research has shown that a sense of “intergenerational self”—a self with a deep sense of both family and personal history, coined by Dr. Marshall Duke—is a strong predictor of overall psychological health. By delving into their Jewish heritage, and recording a family member’s story, teen participants in the What We Hold project have an opportunity to intentionally and reflectively build their “intergenerational self” in their own unique way.
What We Hold gives teens this timely opportunity to reflect on their Jewish heritage at a point in their adolescence when they are actively exploring their Jewish identities and values as individuals and building their sense of intergenerational self, Aber explained.
To create the audio recordings, teens picked a family story, determined who they’d need to interview, conducted interviews and transcribed them, storyboarded and edited the narrative, and either developed a script to read for their recording or used professional editing software to splice together moments from the original interview into a tight and compelling narrative. Finally, they added their own reflections to the recording about what they learned from their family’s story. Intentionally designed to mimic the process of a professional podcaster, the project empowered participants with lifelong skills for telling Jewish stories to a 21st century audience. Through this process, teens dug deeper into their Jewish family story and gained new insights into their own Jewish identities.
Ethan Finestone, a student at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, recorded a story about his great-great-grandfather’s emigration from Odessa, Ukraine to Scotland. He explained that because he learned that his family faced so much hate and persecution—to the point that they had to leave the place where the family had lived for hundreds of years—he now feels a new sense of purpose.
“It’s my role as a Jew to bridge gaps when people are immigrating [to America] and to help immigrants as much as I can,” Finestone said.
From recording his family’s story, he also gained a renewed sense of pride in his Jewish identity and a feeling of appreciation for life in the United States.
“The fact that my ancestors had the courage to pack up and leave their family, home, and community—I feel proud of the strength they had,” Finestone shared. “[I understand better] how lucky I am to be living where I’m protected and can express my Judaism to the fullest extent and still feel safe.”
Elizabeth Levie, who participated through The CJM’s TAC Squad program, explained that she didn’t grow up particularly observant or involved in Jewish life. The What We Hold project opened a new path for her to engage with being Jewish and made her much more conscious of her Jewish heritage. Levie’s recording tells the story of how her grandmother faced bullying for being Jewish and grappled with her Jewish identity as a result.
“[Her story] changed my perspective and made me feel like I have a responsibility to honor and hold on to it, because of all the persevering she did. It reaffirmed the importance of my Jewishness. I’m in college now and go to Hillel every Friday, because I understand how I am part of this wider history.”
For Lilah Ferris, What We Hold was not only informative and inspiring but also liberating. A student at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, Ferris recorded the story of her great-great-great-grandmother, Kerry Wiler, who left Germany and immigrated to Washington Heights, New York. After learning the way that Wiler crafted her Jewish identity, Ferris is now more confident in her own Jewish identity.
“I can be my own type of Jew and create my own Jewish path—that’s what my great-great-great-grandmother did,” Ferris said. “I feel more comfortable with my Jewish identity and knowing that it won’t necessarily be like anyone else’s Jewish identity. I have the freedom to define what it means to be Jewish for myself.”
When Jesse Stein* was an intern at The CJM, he recorded a story that gives context to his grandfather’s ardent Zionism. After fleeing Nazi persecution, his grandfather’s family settled in Palestine. There, at age 16, his grandfather fought on the front lines in Israel’s War of Independence. Interviewing his grandfather provided Stein an opportunity to reconcile two conflicting aspects of his Jewish identity: a commitment to advocating for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and being descended from someone who fought in that conflict.
“[What We Hold] forced me to confront that this [history] is a part of who I am,” Stein explained. “You can take account of your family and take responsibility for where you come from, but you don’t have to be defined by it. [It’s like] existing in two worlds. It’s challenging but I can hold both. [I can say], ‘This is where my family comes from, and I’m going to do everything I can to create a better future.’”
At an opening celebration for the What We Hold exhibition, teen participants—in front of their families, friends, and community—publicly reflected on what they had learned from the whole experience. This special evening reiterated how The CJM’s youth engagement work makes teens feel not only welcomed but also honored and respected.
“People don’t usually hear teen voices or have access to teen ideas, so for museum visitors to witness teens being treated as professional artists in a museum space is extremely powerful,” Aber said. “[What We Hold] is about real people and real stories, and reminds visitors that museums are places of human connection.”
*Last name has been changed.
By Yonah Kirschner, for The Covenant Foundation
“There are children, grownups, everywhere
That would love to hear your voices
Singing for our health to be bright
So that we can join together...and paint our world with healing and hope”
-From the original song, Painting Our World with Healing Hope, by Karina and Debora Zilberman
“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