Jewish educators are the unsung heroes of the community — underpaid, underappreciated and often blamed for the lack of engagement among our young people.
That is why the annual Covenant Awards, presented each year at this time by the Covenant Foundation, which celebrates excellence and innovation in Jewish education, are so meaningful. This year’s three national winners are based in New York, underscoring the depth and diversity of the educational experience here.
Peter Geffen, a founder of The Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, was honored as founder and executive director of Kivunim, which provides a gap year program for American post-high school students in Israel, with extensive visits to Jewish communities throughout the world.
In accepting the $36,000 award at a dinner in Baltimore on Sunday evening attended by hundreds of educators and community leaders, Geffen said his career in education was inspired by Rabbi Heschel, the Talmud scholar and civil rights leader, who told him, “You must teach the children, you must teach them a Judaism that can remake the world.”
Said Geffen: “Those words of Heschel’s in 1968 led me to travel into the Jewish past in order to anticipate the Jewish future.”
Gitta Jaroslawicz-Neufeld traveled a different path, seeking to educate Syrian Jewish women and encourage them to enter the work force as teachers themselves. As director of education at the Allegra Franco School of Educational Leadership in Brooklyn, she has not only taught courses in Talmud and Jewish law, but has served as a role model, teaching young women to be intellectually curious and proud contributors to Jewish learning.
She sees her work as not a feminist mission but a human one.
Karina Ruth Zilberman, director of Jewish Family Life and Culture at the 92nd Street Y, sees her primary work as bringing joy to people, primarily young children, through engagement in song and the arts.
Her Shababa program, featuring puppets and Shabbat songs, has become increasingly popular over the last six years, serving as a gateway for marginally engaged and interfaith families to feel comfortable and involved in the celebratory aspects of Jewish life. What the three educators have in common is the willingness to take risks and create something new. As Covenant board chairman and evening emcee Eli Evans noted, “Through their imagination, perseverance and sheer will, they are transforming the world of Jewish education.”
The Covenant Foundation, a program of the Crown Family Philanthropies and the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA), deserves credit for supporting and highlighting high-quality innovation.
One left the dinner inspired by the accomplishments of the awardees and uplifted by the notion that teachers can and do change the world, one student at a time.