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Awards Program

1998 Covenant Award Recipient

Elana Kanter

Rabbi Elana Kanter

Director of the Women's Jewish Learning Center

Co-Rabbi of The New Shul

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Rabbi Elana Kanter first absorbed her passion for Judaism from her parents, Rabbi Shamai Kanter, a congregational rabbi and scholar, and Jeannette Kanter, a social worker and advocate for the hearing impaired. Her formal Jewish education began at the Solomon Schechter School of Boston during the school’s early years. She describes her learning there as a “privilege.” She notes that thirty years later, five classmates from her kindergarten class are still in touch with one another because the power of the educational experience, of Torah study, “made us into a small community: a community of learners whose bonds were too strong for time and geographic distance to break.” While an under· graduate at Barnard College in New York City, Rabbi Kanter attended the morning minyan at the neighboring Jewish Theological Seminary where debates were taking place on the ordination of women rabbis. When the Seminary’s rabbinical school opened its doors to women in 1984, she joined the first group of women to study for the Conservative rabbinate. She spent a summer during rabbinical school as an intern chaplain at New York’s renowned Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. There she learned from her mentor and teacher, Rabbi Pesach Krauss, the “Aleph” and the “Tav” of her vision of Jewish education: “as human beings, we are created in the image of God. A teacher should try in a normal-life situation to do what the chaplain does in crisis: to help people understand what it means to be in the image of God.”

After her ordination in 1989, Rabbi Kanter taught at the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in New York City. She subsequently served as Judaic Studies Coordinator of the Epstein School in Atlanta, Georgia, and, later, as the Assistant Director of the Alperin Schechter Day School in Providence, Rhode Island. Rabbi Kanter and her family moved to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1993. There she taught for four years at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School. In the spring of 1996 Rabbi Kanter helped to create and became the director of the Birmingham community’s Institute for Jewish Community Leadership, an intensive course of Jewish study for lay leaders and professionals. She also serves as the Associate Rabbi for Education at Temple Beth-El, the Conservative synagogue in Birmingham.

“‘Ahava Rabah,’ the blessing before the morning Shema, speaks of God as a teacher for whom teaching is an act of love. This is how I experienced my earliest Jewish education from my parents and teachers. Jewish education is my sacred work and it is the way in which I try to make God’s presence palpable in this world. If a blessing could take on human form the Shehecheyanu would be my mother. The Shehecheyanu is the blessing that asks us to mark the moment, to fill it with meaning and, by reaching out to God, to live it fully and completely. This is the way my mother lives her life: every moment given to her by God is potentially sacred and joyful. And through her I learned one of the most basic of all religious truths, that life is made up of moments. The more we can fill each moment with purpose, the more meaningful and full our lives become.

As Jewish educators, if we truly feel the holiness of what we do, we need a way to articulate our goals in Jewish terms. I believe that the more the profession of Jewish education understands itself in Jewish terms the more vibrant it will become. Let me offer an example. When we speak of the need for individualized instruction and for meeting the needs of each child, we should do so not only because secular educational theory mandates these things, but because Jewish tradition expresses them as a value. ‘When a human being creates many coins out of one mold, each coin is the same as the next; but the King of Kings, the Holy One creates each person in the mold of the first human being, yet no one is exactly like another’ (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5).

But as long as the Mishna and the secular educational literature are teaching the same thing, why does it matter which language we speak? It matters because, as Marshall McLuhan said, ‘the medium is the message.’ How we speak about Jewish pedagogy is what we believe about Jewish pedagogy. And when we use a holy text to speak of how children are born with different gifts, we remember that our work with them is holy work and that our students are images of the divine. When we use the language of our tradition to express our pedagogical values, we remind ourselves of what we are trying to achieve, our greater goals, in a way that lends meaning and purpose to our work.”

“Through teaching at our Day School, Conservative synagogue, the University of Alabama, and the Federation’s new Institute for Jewish Community Leadership, Rabbi Kanter is making an extraordinary impact on our community at virtually every level. She has elevated the prestige of formal Jewish education and instilled a new hunger for Jewish learning in literally hundreds of Birmingham Jews. On top of it all, she has become a beloved figure and leader in a relatively short period of time. Birmingham Jews from all walks of life rely on her for spiritual guidance and friendship. The Institute for Jewish Community Leadership, which Rabbi Kanter helped develop and now directs for the Federation, explores contemporary Jewish leadership issues through the prism of Torah study. It is a year-long program, meeting in extended study sessions twice a month. It is made up of approximately 25 community leaders who applied to be in the Institute, largely because of Rabbi Kanter’s ‘drawing power’ and teaching talents. Using her depth of Judaic knowledge, charismatic rabbinic presence, and unique and creative pedagogical skills, Rabbi Kanter has developed spiritual, intellectual, lively seminars. In each session she helps participants learn more about seminal Torah ‘turning points,’ and expand their understanding of them in their application to contemporary leadership issues.

My son Sammy had the privilege (and he will tell you that) to have Rabbi Kanter as his Judaics teacher in fifth and sixth grade at our Day School. I asked him what made her such a special teacher. ‘She’s always so interesting, always has been,’ he told me. He cited such classroom activities as assignments to create dioramas of Biblical events, visits to nursing homes on Rosh Hashannah so that the students could blow shofar for the institutionalized elderly, discussions of the O.J. Simpson trial within the context of Jewish law, etc. Today, even though he’s completed the Day School, he is continuing his studies with Rabbi Kanter, building upon the interest and love for Torah that she nurtured in him.”

Richard Friedman

“Jewish education these days is not so easy. In order to be maximally effective, in order to teach people in a wide array of backgrounds, in order to be stimulating to both young and old, religious and non-religious, in ‘ order to excite and ignite Jews in a time when the ‘outside’ secular world seems to overpower us with choices that tug at our ties to Judaism, Jewish educators must be unending in their devotion to making their surrounding world more Jewishly educated tomorrow than it was in the past. On so many levels Elana has touched and turned on a myriad of Alabamians in so very short a time. She has taken on a very significant role at Temple Beth El where her husband is the rabbi of a 700-family Conservative synagogue. In a completely volunteer role, Elana started a host of programs to meet the needs of various congregants. Early on, she began a regular Women’s Rosh Hodesh study session. A group of women met monthly in the evening, during which time Elana would highlight varied female role models found in the Bible and in other Jewish texts. Our synagogue had not previously organized weekly Shabbat services geared for young children. Again, Elana saw a need and filled the educational hole. Elana set up two weekly services: ‘Tot Shabbat,’ for pre-K children, and ‘mini minyan,’ for children in K-2. She and six other volunteers lead these groups. The program is a huge success; not only do more children come to services, but the six volunteers are now studying on their own to learn more about each week’s Torah portion; a true intergenerational success.

Elana also created an innovative program for the Birmingham Federation to teach Jewish concepts to community leaders, teaching such issues as Shabbat observance to Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform adult students, where all involved left with a greater understanding of Shabbat and tolerance for others’ beliefs. For days after these sessions, the participants try to share the overwhelming experiences with the people around them. This program has been instrumental in creating more Jewishly knowledgeable leaders in Birmingham.”

Sheri and Jimmy Krell

“Judah Ha Nassi said that ‘only the lesson that is enjoyed can be learned well.’ Enter Rabbi Elana Kanter’s classroom; you will see children learning with pleasure. Rabbi Kanter’s classroom is a community of learners who love what they are doing. The students are knowledgeable; they carry on discussions with vigor, intelligently; they create dramatic presentations and works of art; they debate; they work in collaborative and cooperative cluster groups. The students are very comfortable in their class. Even when they are not sure if their information is correct, they take the risk of answering – they are not afraid of making mistakes because their teacher, Rabbi Elana Kanter, provides a learning environment that is stimulating, inviting, safe.”

Lynn W. Raviv