How the Covenant Award Changed the Lives of One Educator and an Entire Ethiopian Israeli Family

How the Covenant Award Changed the Lives of One Educator and an Entire Ethiopian Israeli Family: When Philanthropy Promotes Professional Achievement and Personal Generosity

by Debbie Nahshon

When Danny Adisu (not his real name), a confident and accomplished 30-year-old Ethiopian Israeli, first walked into one of Tel Aviv’s most prestigious law firms a few months ago to begin his law career, very few people knew that his successful academic record in both law and business was part of a journey that began with a Covenant Award to an exceptional American Jewish educator in 2000.

Danny’s experiences and the story of his extraordinary family came to mind earlier this week as I attended the 2013 Covenant Awards ceremony in Chicago, as a member of the National Ramah delegation to honor one of this year’s Award winners, Ramah colleague Howard Blas. Thirteen years ago, also in Chicago, I was present for the Covenant Awards as the nominator for Award recipient Dr. Karen Shawn. The Award completely transformed Karen’s professional and personal life, a vital example of how one of the most enduring ideas in philanthropy – rewarding people who excel in service to their community – can have a much broader impact on their field of expertise and on people whose lives they touch. From that night, Karen’s experiences have been interwoven with the life trajectory of the Ethiopian-Israeli Adisu family and their ten children, through college scholarships her Award winnings supported and through the life wisdom she has been able to share with them and so many others. It is a compelling tale of how directed philanthropy, in this case on the part of the Covenant Foundation funded by the Crown Family of Chicago, can impact the field of Jewish education while truly transforming lives thousands of miles and worlds away.

Karen was a popular middle-school English teacher in a public school on Long Island when she was first drawn to teaching the Holocaust through literature. In 1985, she made her first trip to Israel. She and her husband had opportunities to spend time with Ethiopian olim, encouraged by her father, who was a long-time educator and a supporter of the Ethiopian aliya. Shortly after that trip and her father’s death a short time later, and in response to a growing interest in the Holocaust, she decided to apply for a summer Fellowship to study the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance at Yad Vashem and the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum. “I mourned both my father and the six million that summer,” Karen told me. “In their memory, and for the survivors I met and befriended, I committed myself to teaching what I learned.” She returned to Israel for the next two summers to study Hebrew and to immerse herself in Holocaust pedagogy, changing the focus of her doctoral dissertation to an exploration of literature as a way to introduce Holocaust study to adolescents. She was invited to join the summer faculty of Yad Vashem, where she served for a number of years as a teacher, and was the facilitator of the Consortium of Holocaust Educators, a tight-knit community of American educators from varied backgrounds who embraced and promoted age-appropriate Holocaust education.

By 1993, as a recognized expert in the field, Karen was invited to direct a new Holocaust Studies program at the Moriah School in Englewood, NJ. Not long after, as educational consultant to the American Friends of the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum, she helped create the International Book-Sharing Project, which involved dozens of schools and thousands of students – American and Israeli – in the study and joint online discussion of age-appropriate Holocaust literature. In parallel, she published articles, a textbook, and was deeply involved in teacher training and education. She also helped to create the Korczak Prize, which recognized Holocaust educators – harking back to the impact that the Covenant Award had on her own life.

“The Covenant Award gave me the courage and the confidence to take professional risks that have greatly enriched my life and moved me in career directions that I never dreamed of,” she says. Now a Visiting Associate Professor of Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, she is also a Senior Fellow in YU’s University-School Partnership; the lauded editor of “PRISM: an Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators,” and a speaker, teacher, and lecturer in great demand across North America. “Before the Covenant Award, it never crossed my mind that I could co-teach with the iconic Holocaust educators of our generation, or mentor scores of new teachers each year in creating an age-appropriate context for Holocaust education,” she told me. “The Award was an absolute watershed in my career as a Jewish educator.”

Yet aside from the public recognition she received through the Award and the professional development opportunities it offered, the philanthropy behind it enriched her life and the life of one family, beyond measure. The Adisu family of Afula, Israel, became an integral part of her life when she used the Award’s generous monetary prize to establish a fund through her local Federation to support college scholarships for young Ethiopian Israelis. She was invited by the Federation to read applicants’ essays for the scholarship, which was named for her parents, and meet the finalists each year in Israel.

In 2003, she chose Esti Adisu, an education student at Haifa University from an impoverished family of ten children. “Esti knew no English, and my Hebrew was too basic to really communicate. But when she walked into the hotel lobby in Haifa to meet me, holding a small bouquet of flowers, we both started crying – an instant, magical connection. It was a life-changing moment.” Through Esti, Karen first really understood the extent of the family’s poverty (“Esti could never afford a book bag, and I will never forget her joy when our gift enabled her to buy one,”) and the impact that the scholarship support would have on all of the Adisu children and their parents. The scholarship helped put Esti and her brother Danny through college, and benefited other students each year while Karen and her family continued to privately support additional Adisu siblings in their college careers. All of the Adisu children are exceptionally accomplished in academics and now the working world, as well as having been leaders in the Israeli army and in the Ethiopian community in Israel. Karen has brought the older siblings to the US to speak to young American Jews about their experiences as Ethiopian Israelis; and she and her husband Keith visit the Adisus on every trip to Israel, including joyfully participating in their life-cycle events. Her love for her “Israeli family” has enriched the lives of many of her friends, like me, who have also been invited to be part of the Adisu family’s experiences and accomplishments. To be fair, any well-meaning donor could, perhaps, become more directly connected with an Israeli family in a similar way. But the fact that this relationship is the fruit of a philanthropic project that also elevates Jewish education makes it a unique one.

Walking into Dr. Shawn’s home, one is greeted by framed photos of her daughter and grandchildren, scattered evenly among photos of all ten Adisu children and their parents. The Adisus stay in touch by email (the younger ones are more fluent in English, though there are some interesting Google Translate moments) and eagerly await her next visit. “The Covenant Award is inextricably bound up in my mind with this new, rewarding phase in my life,” she says. “I hope that the work I do to help prepare the next generation of Jewish educators, and the daily achievements of my Israeli children, will both serve as inspirations for other educators who are just as deserving of the Award and its recognition.”

Debbie Nahshon is the Director of Institutional Advancement of the National Ramah Commission, and, as former Executive Director of the American Friends of the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum, was the nominator of Dr. Karen Shawn for the 2000 Covenant Award.