Three Exceptional Jewish Educators Receive 2011 Covenant Award and are Honored, Celebrated by Jewish
Annual Awards Presentation and Gala in Denver at the General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America
Rabbi Eve Ben-Ora, Jewish Educator at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco; Amy Skopp Cooper, Director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, NY and Assistant Director of the National Ramah Commission; and Rabbi Shai Held, Dean, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Hadar in New York City are the 2011 recipients, all having made significant marks by taking innovative approaches to Jewish education.
“Award recipients cannot be characterized easily,” said Eli N. Evans, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation, in remarks at its annual dinner at the General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America. “They do not share one denomination, one pedagogical approach, one teaching venue, or even one definition of teaching. What they do share is an abiding love of Judaism and the Jewish people, and a deep commitment to perpetuating the Jewish future.
“All of our Award recipients gather people inside their Jewish communal tents – tents that are open to all who desire the warmth and comfort of a welcoming community, who seek fulfilling Jewish educational experiences for themselves and for their families, and who yearn for deep spiritual and intellectual growth.”
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, 63 Jewish educators have received a Covenant Award since its establishment in 1991, and this year’s recipients were selected from among 130 nominees.
The Covenant Foundation is a partnership between the Crown Family Foundation and JESNA, and members of the Crown family - including Renee Crown, Barbara Goodman Manilow and Steven Crown – presented the three recipients and bestowed the Award. Each received $36,000, and each of their institutions will receive $5,000.
In their acceptance speeches, the three Covenant Award recipients identified the passions that have shaped and propelled them, and the primacy of Jewish education in ensuring community engagement, continuity and vitality.
In her acceptance remarks after being presented The Covenant Award by Renee Crown, Rabbi Ben-Ora, cited the great Jewish sage Rabbi Hiyya as her inspiration.
“Hiyya is my role model as a teacher because he believed in empowering others,” she said. “By involving an ever-widening number of people in the transmission of Torah, he increased the likelihood that our tradition would flourish. He did not believe that he needed to be in the middle of everything. By relinquishing control over every detail, he could focus on a collaborative process of transmission and thus reach many more people. Wherever I have lived and taught, I have tried to be as much like Hiyya as possible.”
Rabbi Ben-Ora, Jewish Educator at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (JCCSF) for the last five years, and Director of Jewish Education at the Jewish Community Center of Houston for ten years before that, has worked to instill formal and informal Jewish education as a living, thriving and accessible piece of the organizational landscape and has made the JCCSF the Jewish address for a pluralistic, diverse community.
As the lead Jewish educator at one of the Bay Area’s centerpiece Jewish institutions – one that serves a diverse population of 17,000 members and thousands more non-members - she has framed and designed creative and engaging Jewish education programs for a wide range of audiences.
She has infused the organization with a Jewish educational mindset. Not only does she work closely with staff and teachers to foster a deeper understanding of the theory and application of Jewish values and knowledge in educational settings, she has expressed these, quite literally, on the walls of the building itself, visible to all who work or visit there, be they Jewish or not.
From an interactive digital Omer calendar that occupies the JCC’s public space, to the “Sukkot Outside In” project - which transformed the atrium of the JCC building into an indoor sukkah and offered visitors and staff digital and programmatic points of entry into greater teachings and lessons of the holiday – she has brought Jewish education into non-traditional venues.
She has worked with pre-school teachers to incorporate Judaism into the Reggio Amelia inspired educational model in the early childhood education program. And she often ventures far from the JCC campus, to Israel, where she designs and leads an annual staff seminar that instills participants with a knowledge and affinity for the Jewish homeland that they apply in programmatic and educational spheres.
Rabbi Ben-Ora served for five years as Director of Education and Programs at Congregation Emanuel in Denver. And she served as Director and faculty member of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School in Houston.
“I trust that the beauty and depth of Judaism will not only survive, but will thrive when we learn and teach Torah as a collaborative process,” she said. “When we work together to nurture for independence, a productive and healthy Judaism will flourish. This has been at the core of my practice as a teacher and as a parent.”
Receiving The Covenant Award from Barbara Goodman Manilow, Amy Skopp Cooper described the experiences, people and settings in her own life that shaped a driving Jewish identity, consciousness and soul, with Ramah being a defining one for herself, and one that she seeks to make as transformative for others.
“There is not one single experience, not a single place, not only one teacher that shapes our Jewish souls,” she said. “Rather, our journeys must have innumerable stops and many opportunities to participate in Jewish communities, to structure our environments and to carry all of the lessons learned … as we search for the next summit on our Jewish voyage.
“And that is what the great visionaries of Ramah created 64 years ago: a compelling, spirited and intentional stop on the journey, a place where Jewish vision and a Jewish lens would frame our decision making, our experience, and our relationships.”
Cooper has served as Director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, NY since 1997, and as Assistant Director of the National Ramah Commission of The Jewish Theological Seminary for the past seven years.
She lends an overflowing energy, passion and vision to Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, which under her leadership has seen a significant increase in campers, now numbering more than 700 annually from across the spectrum of Jewish life.
She applies it as well to the cadre of over 200 residential staff members – high school and college students who are the collective spine of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack - whom she nurtures, educates, and builds into a community of Jewish leaders for the future. Under her direction, the camp has become a national model for Jewish leadership development.
As Assistant Director of the National Ramah Commission, Cooper has lent vision to Ramah’s entire network of eight overnight camps, three day camps and camping programs in Israel. She is responsible for training over 250 Israeli staff members annually for the entire Ramah network.
Cooper also directs the Ramah Service Corps, a trailblazing new initiative that creates year-round opportunities for young staff members to develop Ramah-style programming in synagogues, schools and other educational environments.
“How incredibly rewarding it is to be a part of the Ramah legacy,” she said, “to have the opportunity to build a community each summer for children and for teens, and to create a haven for young adults, those on the brink of making their own Jewish decisions about where and how to live. For these young people, so full of potential and promise, Ramah is a place for study, celebration and dialogue, a place to form enduring connections, and most important, a place where they are empowered to become the next generation of Jewish teachers.
“I will forever be indebted to Ramah for allowing me to devote myself to Jewish education each and every day and for the opportunity to shape and nurture our future.”
Accepting the Covenant Award from Steven Crown, Rabbi Shai Held described his view of the ideal Jewish educator, and one he aspires to be.
“Just as God, often imagined as a teacher, makes space for us to grow in freedom and responsibility, so should we grant that space to our students. And just as God remains radically present even as God makes space, so should – so must – we.”
Held is co-founder, Dean, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Hadar: An Institute for Prayer, Personal Growth and Jewish Learning, an egalitarian Torah study and prayer community based in New York City.
He is widely recognized by colleagues, students, and other Jewish educators as an inspiring and visionary teacher, leader and thinker who has put a stamp on Jewish education and engagement through an egalitarian model that not only emphasizes dissection and interpretation of classic texts, but instills in students a view of the Torah as a guide to hesed, or acts of loving kindness.
Creating a place where Jewish heart and Jewish mind are wed has proved to be a powerful educational model, one strengthened by a commitment to those struggling within the world. Rabbi Held and his students make regular visits to the sick and elderly.
Affiliated with Hadar since 2006, Rabbi Held has made a mark in educational settings – including Harvard Hillel, JTS and Kehilat Hadar - where he was a sought-out and respected teacher and counselor and considered by many to be an emerging Jewish educational leader for the 21st century.
“We have a dream for the Jewish world, and we hope many of our students will come to share in that dream, and in the burden of making that dream a reality,” he said. “But I also hope that no matter what, they always remember to dream.”
“The Covenant Award gives deserved recognition to those doing extraordinary, innovative and impactful work on the ground,” said Harlene Winnick Appelman, Executive Director of The Covenant Foundation and 1991 Covenant Award recipient.
“Their daily work, often uncelebrated, touches Jews of all ages seeking inclusion and fulfillment in Jewish life, immeasurably strengthening Jewish community for now and into the future.”
For guidelines on nominating an educator for a 2012 Covenant Award, and to view a list and biographies of past recipients, visit www.covenantfn.org.
The Covenant Foundation is a program of the Crown Family Foundation and the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA).