October 27, 2013

Three Jewish Educators Receive 2013 Covenant Award and are Honored by Jewish Community, Leadership

Three educators from across the spectrum of Jewish life received The Covenant Foundation’s 2013 Covenant Award today, honored for their commitment, vision and wide-ranging impact by hundreds of Jewish community and educational leaders, philanthropists, students, colleagues and others.

Howard Blas, Director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England; Judy Finkelstein-Taff, Head of School at the Chicago Jewish Day School; and Zion Ozeri, Founder and Creative Director of The Jewish Lens in New York are the 2013 recipients, all of them making significant marks through innovative approaches and directions in Jewish education.

“The 2013 Award recipients have achieved excellence in very different settings and contexts, but a common theme runs through their work – celebrating the diversity of Jewish life and community,” said Eli N. Evans, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation, in remarks at its annual awards dinner, this year in Chicago.

“Our Rabbis reflected upon the miracle that all of humanity in its diversity could descend from a single human being.  For our Award recipients, honoring this diversity underlies all that they do – through a camp program that has become a national model for inclusivity, a community school that brings together Jews of all backgrounds and denominations, and an educational methodology that values and nurtures multiple intelligences and diverse perspectives.”

The Award, among the most prominent citations on the Jewish landscape, goes to three educators every year after a rigorous selection process.  Including this year’s awardees, 69 Jewish educators have received a Covenant Award since its establishment in 1991, and nearly 50 of them attended the presentation.  

The Covenant Foundation is a program of the Crown Family Philanthropies.  Members of the Crown family – including James Crown, Sara Crown Star, and Lester Crown – presented the three recipients and bestowed the Award.  Each of the 2013 recipients received $36,000, and each of their institutions, $5,000.

In their acceptance speeches, recipients identified passions that have shaped and propelled them, and the primacy among Jewish educators in cementing community engagement, vitality and continuity.

After being presented The Covenant Award by James Crown, HOWARD BLAS cited scripture as a foundation for his work advancing inclusion at Camp Ramah in New England and other Jewish educational settings.

“Every Rosh Chodesh and chag when I recite the Hallel, I am magically transported to Camp Ramah in New England,” he said. “For it is there where I first began to understand the meaning of the Pasuk in the 118th chapter of Psalms, which reads: ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.’

“For more than 20 years, I have had the honor and privilege of being associated with the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England. Camp Ramah is a very unique place, where people with disabilities are valued for their tremendous abilities and become true pillars of the community.”

As Director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, Blas is driven by a passion for inclusive community – one that embraces and offers Jewish educational opportunity and growth to all, including those with developmental disabilities and their families.

Blas leads an eight-week overnight camping program for 60 campers with special needs, fully integrated within a summer camp attracting 800 children and teens. He has widened the portal for youth with developmental disabilities and their families to enter and thrive in a Jewish educational environment and set them on a course for life.

The Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England was established four decades ago, when the concept of inclusion in the Jewish or general communities was largely theory.  Blas has taken the program into new territory, programmatically and geographically, and has become a major communal voice and advocate for the issue within the Jewish community.

An in-cabin inclusion program, designed and implemented by Blas, integrates campers with special needs into typical bunks, immersing them into the full camaraderie of the summer camp experience and promoting assimilation and friendships across the greater camp population.

He has expanded the camp’s vocational training programs to give campers with special needs a sense of purpose and to equip them with marketable skills to bring to the outside world. And he has moved to sustain the community beyond the summer months, creating year-round programming for campers with special needs and their families to maintain Jewish connection and decrease the isolation that can often exist.

“I am delighted that The Covenant Foundation has chosen to honor the field of Jewish disabilities,” he said in his remarks.  “In doing so, Covenant is helping take the lead in acknowledging the importance of including all people in the Jewish community and in Jewish life. I pray for the day when all people are meaningfully included in Jewish life, and have the opportunity to be rosh pina – pillars of the community.”

Receiving the Covenant Award from Sara Crown Star, JUDY FINKELSTEIN-TAFF said Jewish education and those who practice it reflect the positive attributes of the Jewish community as a whole.

“We are a resilient people who have a long history of facing our future by taking risks and facing adversity.  No one promised us it would be easy, and no one promised us that we would not have challenges. This award signifies the promise that we accept the challenges of sustaining and ensuring a vibrant Jewish future together.”

As Head of School at the Chicago Jewish Day School (CJDS) since 2004, Finkelstein-Taff is a life-long Jewish educator who has worked across a spectrum of educational venues and imbued students, parents, colleagues – and everyone she touches – with a passion for learning, connection and growth that is deep and pervasive.

Appointed to head CJDS beginning in its second year, Finkelstein-Taff brought experiences and perspectives from her own upbringing, education and career to firmly establish and grow what is now one of the most highly regarded Jewish day schools in the Chicago area.

Finkelstein-Taff’s success as an inspiring educator, leader, team-builder, and counselor – guided by a vision for how a pluralistic day school should feel and look – is reflected by a variety of indicators.   The outstanding and meteoritic growth of the school, from seven students entering first grade when she joined CJDS, to more than 180 in junior kindergarten to eighth grade today, is but one.

Less tangible is a purposeful diversity of thought pervading nearly every aspect of the school, promoting a sense of community, cooperation and respect among all stakeholders and across denominations.

As Head of School from the near beginning, and with a near-blank slate, Finkelstein-Taff was devoted to building such a culture, brick by brick.  She created real mechanisms for the involvement of Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox rabbis on the school’s board, sought the active involvement of parents from the start, and built bridges to other Jewish and secular schools in the Chicago area.

Integral to her educational philosophy, she seeks to make a welcoming home and destination for not only students, but also for their extended families and for the community at large.  Her presence is felt everywhere, from the weekly Kabbalat Shabbat, to a program engaging students’ grandparents and weaving a multi-generational thread through the school’s culture. 

Finkelstein-Taff traces her commitment to Jewish education and community back to Phoenix, Arizona, where her parents were committed to Israel and Jewish community, and were among the founders of the first Jewish day school in the area.

“As much as this is the greatest professional honor I will ever receive, this award is not as much about me as it is about you,” she said to those gathered for her acceptance remarks. “Whether you are a student, a lay leader, a rabbi or a professional working in the trenches, this is about our Jewish future and the future we are building for generations to come.”

Accepting The Covenant Award from Lester Crown, ZION OZERI, founder and director of The Jewish Lens, described his own evolution as a Jewish educator.

“It took me a while to figure out, that my lifetime occupation, photography – and more specifically, documenting the mosaic of Jewish life around the globe – could actually be in the service of Jewish education.  But it was through my desire to help others learn the language of images – and combine it with Jewish values, Jewish community, and Jewish text – that The Jewish Lens was born.”

As Founder and Creative Director of The Jewish Lens, Ozeri has created a unique blend of experiential and traditional Jewish education pulsating with the promise of 21st century media.

Ozeri founded The Jewish Lens in 2004 to couple the emotional impact of photography with more traditional, text-based learning, enabling students to express and interpret through their own photographs and commentaries.

With it, he was ahead of the technological curve in Jewish education, and a prognosticator of how it could elevate and create new forms of teaching and learning. He still is, as he continues to push it into new realms and evolve it as a methodology adopted in classrooms in the United States, Israel and elsewhere.

Since its inception, The Jewish Lens has involved thousands of students in hundreds of Jewish schools, camps and other educational settings in the United States.  More than 50 schools use the program in Israel, the curriculum itself is in its third edition, and a recently announced partnership with The Center for Educational Technology will lead to creation of a new online, interactive platform.

Born in Israel, his interest in the Jewish arc led him to travel the world to capture the Jewish soul and document through photography often remote and little noticed Jewish communities, beginning in Yemen, the land of his own ancestry.

His works have been published and exhibited around the world, from The Israel Museum in Jerusalem to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. He envisioned what would become The Jewish Lens about 10 years ago during an exhibition of his own work in Southern California. Teachers at an area Jewish day school broached the notion of using photography as a tool within a formal educational setting and the program incubated there.

Nearly a decade into The Jewish Lens, and at the moment that he received The Covenant Award for his impact and innovation as a Jewish educator, Ozeri said he continues to be forward looking.

“While I am elated to receive this great honor and join a select number of great educators, I know that I must keep defining, redefining and sharpening the original vision and methodology while also keeping up with the ever-changing technology.”

For guidelines on nominating an educator for a 2014 Covenant Award, and to view a list and biographies of past recipients, visit www.covenantfn.org/awards.

The Covenant Foundation is a program of the Crown Family Philanthropies