ARTICLEShining a Light on Innovation and Excellence: The Covenant Foundation Looks Back at 25 Years

The past twenty-five years have been a time of change and innovation within Jewish life and education in North America unlike any period that preceded it. As The Covenant Foundation celebrates its own 25th anniversary, it is using this milestone to reflect upon the major trends that have shaped this quarter century of Jewish learning and engagement. Future articles in this series will explore how Jewish education has been transformed within multiple domains – including congregations, day schools, early-childhood programs, camps and other experiential settings, and the online world – and the Foundation’s role in sparking and encouraging these transformations.

As an introduction to this retrospective series, this piece will look back at the beginning of this twenty-five-year era to understand the environment out of which The Covenant Foundation arose, the challenges facing Jewish education at the time, and the goals and strategies the Foundation embraced as a response to those challenges.

To tell this story, interviews were conducted with a selection of practitioners who could offer insight into the history and achievements of The Covenant Foundation and the broader field. They include: Executive Director of The Covenant Foundation and Foundation Board member Harlene Appelman, founding Board members Betsy Katz, Martha Minow, and Jonathan Woocher, Covenant Award recipients and leading educators Barbara Rosenblit and Jo Kay, and national Jewish communal leader John Ruskay.

“Education’s Time Had Come.”

The period of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when The Covenant Foundation was planned and launched, was a turning point for the field of Jewish education. For most Jewish communal institutions at that time, the “peoplehood” issues that had gained strength in the 1960’s and 1970’s were the primary focus and mission.

John Ruskay, CEO Emeritus of UJA-Federation of New York, recalled, “For those of us who were involved in Jewish education in the late 1970’s and early to mid-1980s, this was a somewhat lonely time. Understandably, the major focus of the community was on the continued challenge of supporting the then-young state of Israel, fighting anti-Semitism, saving Soviet Jewry, commemorating the Holocaust, and other such concerns. Jewish education, therefore, was further down on the agenda of the greater Jewish community. Indeed, there was good work going on, but it was not a high communal priority.”

However, as time progressed these core issues that had engaged and energized the Jewish community began to be less central to the Jewish communal ethos. Dr. Betsy Katz, Adult Educator and Former North American Director of the Florence Melton School, explained, “It seemed as if whole segments of the community were shifting away from crises and toward more constructive methods with which to strengthen the Jewish community. Education’s time had come.”

It was at this moment that a grass-roots movement for innovation and change in Jewish education began bubbling beneath the surface, laying the foundation for more mainstream institutions to catch up. As early as the late 60’s and 70’s, a new focus on Jewish learning and more serious Jewish content was emerging in the Jewish community, explained Dr. Jonathan Woocher, Senior Fellow at Lipman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. “Some of it was propelled by alumni of Camp Ramah and other Youth Movements, including Habonim and Young Judaea. Some of it was just the natural reaction to suburbanization and Jewish life of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s and picking up on some of the counterculture themes in the general society. In the mid-1970’s you also had the emergence of a grass-roots endeavor, which was the start of CAJE [Conference of Alternatives in Jewish Education]. As CAJE took root and began to grow, people began to pay more attention to the idea of innovation in Jewish education.”

This renewed attention to Jewish education led to further transformative developments in the field, including the founding of JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America, in 1981. Two major philanthropists, Bill Berman and Mort Mandel, were among the first to focus on Jewish education, championing the cause and drawing attention to it.

Further, in 1990, two publications were disseminated that had a tremendous impact on the field and the outlook of communal leaders across the country. The Commission on Jewish Education in North America published a report titled “A Time to Act,” which called upon the Jewish community to recognize that American Judaism was facing a “crisis of major proportions” as large numbers of Jews had “lost interest in Jewish values, ideals, and behavior.” The report also stated that there were many Jews who “no longer believe[d]” that Judaism had a role to play in their “search for personal fulfillment and communality.” The call to action that the report issued was clear: “The responsibility for developing Jewish identity and instilling a commitment to Judaism for this population now rests primarily with education.”

The issues highlighted by that seminal report were also reflected by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which generated a cross-communal conversation focused on new possibilities in Jewish education. As Harlene Appelman, Executive Director of The Covenant Foundation recalled, “These two developments galvanized a broad contingent of Jewish leadership and a wider swath of Jewish institutions to focus on Jewish education and its potential role in strengthening and sustaining American Judaism.”

During this same time, cousins and philanthropists Susan Crown and Barbara Goodman Manilow, founders of The Covenant Foundation, discovered their common inspiration in identifying and supporting the type of Jewish education they wished they had experienced as students. In response to that mutual commitment, they conceived of a national strategy to highlight and reward excellent Jewish teachers and innovative and forward-thinking education initiatives, in an attempt to improve Jewish education in North America.

“This was a time when people were defining Jewish identity in different ways,” Betsy Dolgin Katz said. “It wasn’t just religious behavior that made you a Jew. There were cultural Jews, ‘just Jewish’ Jews, Israelis living in America; the texture of the American Jewish community was different, and The Covenant Foundation was open to that diversity. This openness was part of a field-wide awakening to the potential Jewish education beheld.”

“Where Jewish Education Really Takes Place”

The Covenant Foundation was launched in 1991 (formally structured as a partnership between the Crown Family and the Jewish Education Service of North America), and quickly solidified its core mission of identifying and celebrating innovation and excellence in Jewish education. As Martha Minow, Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School recalled, “the creation of the Foundation reflected a very thoughtful understanding that other communities had created ways to honor great teaching and great innovation, and it had not happened in Jewish education, at least not across all of the different forms of Jewish education. So it was an exciting opportunity to honor excellence that takes many different forms. We very quickly came up with the two basic strategies, which were to give awards to individual educators and to give grants to institutions.”

“What made the Covenant Foundation unique was its core vision and strategy--and this is to Susan and Barbara’s credit,” Jonathan Woocher recalled. “They wanted to have open nominations for the Awards and an open grant process, so that the people at the grass roots of Jewish education would really be able to benefit from the Foundation. That was very different from the approach that other philanthropies had taken. So the notion of innovation and excellence was coupled with the importance of giving voice to the people on the front lines of the field. Susan and Barbara along with the founding board agreed that the best way to improve Jewish Education was to identify and nurture extraordinary ideas and talent.”

The Covenant Awards were initially the more widely known of the Foundation’s two signature programs, which was in keeping with their goal of promoting and publicizing achievements by outstanding educators. Barbara Rosenblit, a Covenant Award recipient and Humanities and Bible Teacher at The Weber School in Atlanta, recalled how receiving an Award was both an honor and a motivator to continue reaching new heights in her own career:

“I’ve been asked what it meant to me to receive a Covenant Award. I think once they put that crown on your head, you think, OK, now I’ve got to live up to this. It inspires you to be the teacher they think you are. And that’s been wonderful in my own life. My personal gratitude to Covenant is that it’s given me that visibility, but it also said, now you have to perform. This wasn’t a lifetime award – it’s a ‘life-ahead’ award,” she said.

The impact that honoring Jewish educators made on the field extended far beyond the individual Award recipients. As Jo Kay, Covenant Award recipient and former Director of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, explained, “By creating the Covenant Awards, the prestige of the entire field was elevated.” Similarly, John Ruskay added that “by recognizing Jewish educators, The Covenant Foundation has helped the field as a whole remember and honor where education really takes place.”

“The Covenant Awards were a clear recognition that front-line educators - teachers in classrooms, principals, youth workers, etc. – are critical,” Ruskay said. “I have always said, my best job was as principal of a Hebrew School. Decades later people still come up to me and say, ‘You changed my life.’ That happens in the classroom. That happens in the youth group. That happens in summer camp. And the Covenant Foundation has sought to highlight that by focusing on front-line educators, recognizing excellence, and providing a substantive award, not just a token award. It serves the purpose of highlighting where Jewish education really takes place. It doesn’t take place in think tanks. It doesn’t take place in national bodies, or denominational organizations. All those things can be very important in providing support. But the real, critical work takes place right where students, young and old, meet educators and walk into an environment, which is either inspiring or mediocre.”

“Bringing the Peripheral into Focus”

The Covenant Grants were similarly groundbreaking, both in the kinds of projects that were supported and the process through which they were chosen. As mentioned above, inviting institutions around the country to submit promising ideas was (and still is) a rare philanthropic approach. As Harlene Appelman explained, “The thing that’s always been most unique about the Foundation is that we accept proposals over the transom from anywhere and anyone. We have never veered from the process we put in place at the beginning – it’s extremely important to us. And that’s what led to the tagline, ‘A platform for dreams and a breath of optimism,’ because you can’t be optimistic if you don’t believe that you can have a dream.” Barbara Rosenblit echoed the idea that the Covenant grant process reflects openness and optimism: “One of the things I really like about Covenant is their willingness to support small visions that offer large promise. You don’t feel like you have to be the biggest engine in the room to get their attention.”

Even more significantly, from its start The Covenant Foundation defined the concept of “Jewish education” broadly and creatively. Harlene Appelman reflected on the Foundation’s early funding: “Even in the early years, the Foundation highlighted disciplines and areas that implied an incredibly forward-thinking perspective on the field – ecology, arts, technology, early childhood, family education, special education – and the concentration on these areas has carried through. The parts of the field that were in the peripheral vision of Jewish education, the Foundation brought into focus. And that’s still our goal.”

The inaugural cohort of grants (awarded in 1991) included three supporting new educational technologies, one in the nascent area of Jewish ecology, one focused on outreach to intermarried families, and one to train avocational teachers in a small, Midwestern Jewish community. The following year the Foundation funded initiatives in special education, family education, museum education and advanced Talmud study for women. Soon after the Foundation awarded grants to artists such as Elizabeth Swados and Shari Lewis, further broadening its definition of where and how Jewish learning could take place. While such domains are now deeply integrated into the field of Jewish education, at the time those areas weren’t necessarily on the communal radar.

“Conversations we were having at The Covenant Foundation twenty-five years ago about education taking place outside of formal settings are now the mainstream, everywhere,” noted Martha Minow.

Creating a “First-Class Profession”

As a number of interviewees emphasized, the overall impact of The Covenant Foundation is greater than the individual professionals and organizations it has invested in over twenty-five years. The cumulative effect of the Foundation’s support and work has been to raise the professional standards of Jewish education and bring new energy and excitement to the field as a whole.

“Covenant has changed the outlook on Jewish education,” Barbara Rosenblit said. “Back before Covenant was first started, I often felt that Jewish educators were kind of running in place. It felt as if Jewish education was a second-class profession. Now, Jewish education is something which is lauded, and worthy, a discipline that celebrates cutting-edge thinking.”

Jo Kay echoed this idea. “Both before and during the 1990’s, the issue was: how do you recruit people to the field of Jewish education, and how do you keep them in the field, once they’re there?” she reflected. “In the past, it was very hard, there were so many areas that needed attention-- reputation, salary—in both Jewish and general education. It may not be perfect now, but there are so many more talented and passionate young educators being drawn to careers in Jewish education, and the Covenant Foundation has much to do with that trend, by encouraging creative thinking, utilizing up to the moment methodologies and helping nourish educators by elevating their profile and investing in their development, helping Jewish educators to grow and be the best that they can be.”

As the Foundation has grown and evolved, it has continued reinventing the ways in which it supports and nurtures the field of Jewish education. Martha Minow framed this approach using former Chairman of the Board Eli Evans’ words: “Eli Evans’ conception of ‘elegant grant-making’ is now embedded in Covenant’s DNA,” she said. “This includes the notions of building relationships among grantees, establishing cohorts that support one another and understanding that this network can encourage other educators into the field, who might otherwise have gone in a different direction.” This is further illustrated by the Pomegranate Prize, which the Foundation established in 2011 to honor emerging Jewish educational leaders who have been in the field for ten or fewer years.

“The Covenant Foundation is creating a literature of success,” Betsy Dolgin Katz added. “By setting high standards, and reaching the broader educational community through networking and discourse, the Foundation is raising expectations of what Jewish education should be and can be.”

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