Stay Optimistic, Keep the Conversation Going: Notes from the Covenant Foundation

By Harlene Winnick Appelman

Over the past twenty-five years, a generation of innovative, committed and philanthropic Jewish citizens has taken a serious interest in Jewish education and identity building. As a result, the landscape of Jewish education has seen significant change.

Those steeped in Foundation work have helped engender an influx of funding to particular arenas – including day schools, summer camps and travel to Israel. These particular arenas received attention and dollars for a number of reasons, including foundation-supported research that revealed a pressing need, or, sometimes, because a particular donor had a particular passion about a topic or cause.

But there’s an important point to remember: foundations and those who run them have the distinct privilege of sitting at a knowledge nexus point: knowing what has been accomplished, thanks to sustainability studies and close review of outcomes, and a wide-scope view of the newest ideas out there. The challenge is to synthesize that knowledge, identify the most important ideas, grow them, and share the acquired knowledge in a productive and responsible manner. Then, foundations must always be asking what’s next, and listening very closely to what communities are sharing about their needs, hopes, and dreams.

At this auspicious moment of the 25th anniversary of The Covenant Foundation, we are taking stock. Founded on the premise that there are remarkable people with great ideas working in the field, and that our task is to shine a spotlight on them, a quarter of a century later we still strive to nurture Jewish educators and encourage their best work.

So what will the next 25 years bring? The Foundation’s core principals remain steadfast: First, continue to invest in people. The greater the investment the Foundation makes in developing Jewish educators, the more likely it will be that the programs and people it funds will succeed, not just for a few years, but for the long-term. Through both the Covenant Awards program, for experienced educators in the field, and the Pomegranate Prize program, for rising leaders who have been in the field for up to ten years, the Foundation has developed a framework that ensures this long-term relationship building and support.

Next, continue creating meaningful connections through the development of communities of practice, annual retreats and additional learning opportunities, which allow Jewish educators to cross-pollinate, learn from one another beyond the barriers of venue and geography, and develop a body of work that will positively impact the field regionally and nationally.

Third, we remain solidly committed to the idea that sustainability is key when identifying potential grantees. Action must be rooted in knowledge. We will continue to ensure that prospective grantees have gathered sufficient knowledge about their community and constituent needs as the basis of their proposed grant programs through our peer-review selection process, which engages front-line practitioners in the field. And we will to continue to revisit completed grants after a period of five years to determine efficacy and sustainability.

As we peer into the future, it is our sincere hope that The Covenant Foundation will continue to be identified as the “go-to address” for a great idea, and that the projects ignited through the Foundation’s support will continue to thrive long after we have fulfilled our commitment.

With an ear to the ground, we hear the drumbeat – and the heartbeat – of thought leaders out in the field. We hear talk of civic engagement, the essentiality of arts and humanities, design thinking, STEM programs and digital literacy.

But what we know for sure is that we must engage in an open and far-reaching conversation with you, the front-line practitioners, idea champions, artists, classroom teachers, heads of school, nonprofit executives, musicians, historians, informal educators, inspired individuals, all of you – so that we may best understand where Jewish education is going, and how Jewish education can address what society needs.

For any field to thrive, it needs a platform for dreams and a source of optimism. The Covenant Foundation aims to build that platform. Bring us your best ideas; stay motivated, hopeful, excited and true. Your community is waiting.

Harlene Winnick Appelman is the Executive Director of The Covenant Foundation. She has worked in Jewish education for nearly thirty-five years as a family educator, director of community education and outreach, and as Chief Jewish Education Officer of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Known internationally as a creative force in Jewish education on both the institutional and communal levels, Appelman received the Covenant Award in 1991 and was invited to join the Board of Directors of the Foundation in 1994.