Three visionary educators demonstrating the power of inspired Jewish education to create change and drive impact are the 2015 recipients of The Covenant Award for excellence in the field, The Covenant Foundation announced today.
Michelle Shapiro Abraham, Director of Program Development for the Campaign for Youth Engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism, as well as a consultant for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and a clinical faculty member in the HUC-Jewish Institute of Religion Executive MAJE Program; Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County in Davie, FL; and, Amy Meltzer, Lead Kindergarten teacher at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, MA, are the 2015 recipients of the Award, which is among the highest honors in the field of Jewish education.
The three recipients join 72 other Jewish educators honored with a Covenant Award since the Foundation established it in 1991. Along with the honor, each will receive $36,000, and each of their institutions will receive $5,000.
MICHELLE SHAPIRO ABRAHAM, Director of Program Development for the Campaign for Youth Engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), has spent nearly two decades as a Jewish educator and has altered the educational landscape in myriad settings and for a cross section of students and colleagues.
“My work as a Jewish educator takes me from synagogues, classrooms and offices, to camps, conferences and preschool programs,” Abraham said. “For the Covenant Foundation to honor me and my diverse work is truly a validation of all of these settings and the many places Jewish educators can make an impact.”
Her roles – and resulting effect – within Jewish education are many and varied, including author of children’s books, writer of curricula, director of a synagogue school, and creator of summer camping programs, among others.
Abraham’s multi-faceted professional career reflects a closely held belief that Jewish education itself must transcend labels, boundaries and silos in order to make the most lasting impression and generate the greatest short- and long-term rewards.
“I have had people look at my resume and ask me what I actually do,” she said. “What is my specialty? They want to know if I am a formal educator or an informal educator; an author of curriculum or an author of prayer books; a teacher of adults or a teacher of children. For me, all of these categories are merely methodology and setting. What I am is a Jewish educator, and what I do is whatever is required. For me, the lines are fluid.”
As Director of Program Development for the Campaign for Youth Engagement at URJ since 2014, and before that as consulting partner there, Abraham has created educational experiences that have transformed the lives of thousands of Jewish youth, and altered approaches of camp staff and educators.
In her role at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, she was instrumental in designing Jewish values-based curricula customized for URJ specialty camps, such as the Six Points Sports Academy and Six Points Sci Tech Academy. As manager of the URJ Service Corps program, she works with college-age camp staff to bring camp-type experiences to synagogues during the off-season, building a continuum of exposures throughout the year and solidifying community. She helped develop the Kivun program, designing a series of professional development opportunities to equip camp specialists with skills and Judaic knowledge to deepen and enhance learning and experiences for campers.
For 12 years, Abraham served as Director of Education at Temple Sholom in Fanwood, NJ. There, she designed and oversaw educational approaches and programming for nearly 140 students in the religious school and for the congregation as a whole. She is credited with, among other accomplishments, creating a new and markedly successful approach to family and congregational learning that engages the entire synagogue in the same topics concurrently, fortifying community and cross-generational ties.
DR. SANDRA OSTROWICZ LILIENTHAL, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County (Orloff CAJE) in Davie, FL, attaches an uncommon passion and approach to adult Jewish education and in the process is equipping and empowering students to create and deepen their Jewish identities.
Affiliated with Orloff CAJE since 2006, she has transformed the agency, its educational impact, and the face of adult Jewish education in South Florida. She has done this through not only her dedication to teaching and her students, but also by designing and using new curricula and approaches that fuel personal and community growth through Jewish knowledge and perspective.
“Intellectual struggle is what generates spiritual growth,” Dr. Lilienthal said. “I encourage my students to examine their beliefs and their practices, experiment with what they are learning, and embark on a continuous journey of inquiry, whether in my class, our agency, or wherever they may find the opportunity.
“Ultimately, I want to guide students to achieve Jewish literacy, promote Jewish commitment, instill continued love for Jewish learning, and forge relationships that create a community of learners. I view my educator role as necessary for the continuation of the Jewish nation.”
Central in Dr. Lilienthal’s toolkit is Pillars of Judaism, a four-module, 50-session curriculum that she wrote and designed. Since its introduction, Orloff CAJE has seen a quadrupling in student enrollment in her classes. The depth and success of the curriculum has gained national recognition and interest by other agencies as research indicates it generates stronger Jewish identity and more meaningful Jewish experiences.
Dr. Lilienthal grew up in Brazil in a largely non-observant family. Her own thirst for a place on the Jewish chain fueled her journey toward education and a meaningful Jewish identity.
She eventually abandoned a career in marketing to pursue Jewish education full time, earning a Master of Arts in Jewish Studies from Gratz College, and a Doctorate in Adult Jewish Education last year.
Besides her affiliation with Orloff CAJE, where she has also created course materials for the Midrasha Graduate program, Dr. Lilienthal is an adjunct professor at Gratz College and is an instructor for The Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.
“I have chosen Jewish education as my life mission because I believe that teaching Judaism as a living religion and infusing true passion in every learner encourages meaningful personal Jewish journeys,” Dr. Lilienthal said. “Every life we touch, every person we inspire, becomes a partner in building a stronger community and consequently a brighter Jewish future.
“I am humbled by receiving The Covenant Award, as it recognizes the value that I see in Jewish education. Being a recipient of this award encourages me to strive to engage and empower more adult learners of all walks of life and inspire them to strengthen their connection to their roots, their community, their past and their future by taking active roles in their Jewish lives. It also drives me to inspire a new generation of educators to join in this beautiful, sacred, journey of ours.”
AMY MELTZER, the lead Kindergarten teacher at Lander-Grinspoon Academy (LGA) in Northampton, MA, is proving that a small classroom in a small school in a small town can be a nucleus of inspired Jewish education and a model for the entire field.
Leading nine kindergarteners in a school of 77 students this year, Meltzer started teaching at LGA in 1997 and immediately began to draw on her own journey toward a meaningful relationship with Judaism. She designed programs and project-based experiences for her students that are tangible, unique and exciting, and that reflect her standing at the corner where education, community building, family engagement, the arts, and Jewish identity and Jewish values meet.
She labels herself a “constructivist” Jew. “Humans build our understanding of the world by experiencing things; we make meaning through action,” she said. “Not only do I believe this is true about learning, but I believe that it’s true about Judaism.”
Her approach is applied to her classroom in myriad ways. She created a popular, resource-rich blog at the school as a two-way mode of communication with parents and offering information about children’s learning and resources and ideas to bring lessons and traditions into homes and the community.
She also pioneered family programming for the kindergarten class to actively engage parents in the curriculum and Jewish life, and to offer a portal for their own immersion into Jewish knowledge and practices. Meltzer, believing that children at the youngest ages should practice Jewish values, fostered relationships with surrounding social service agencies such as the Northampton Survival Center, to engage students in community life and gemilut chasadim, acts of lovingkindness.
One of the biggest manifestations of her engaging and integrated approach is the annual Gan (Kindergarten) Opera, an original production and an initiative cited as an exemplary model of arts-based education by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in nearby Amherst, MA. The annual project, said Debbie Krivoy, Executive Director of Avoda Arts in Northampton and the parent of a LGA student, “cements a sense of camaraderie, rigor, art, music, joy and Jewish learning,” and reflects Meltzer’s belief that “artistic expression raises the kavanah, or focus and intention, of learning to a whole new level, and boosts a child’s ability to find greater meaning in his or her actions.”
The kindergarten classroom at LGA may not have been Meltzer’s intentional destination, but it is the logical one after an early adulthood seeking Jewish identity and an early career creating impact.
She has envisioned, designed and led numerous programs for families with young children in the Northampton area and nationally, oversees a monthly program for pre-school families in partnership with PJ Library, and has led tot and family Shabbat and High Holiday services at local synagogues. She travels to schools, synagogues and JCC’s throughout the country to lead programs based on her two children’s books, The Shabbat Princess and A Mezuzah on the Door.
Meltzer is a founder of the Teva Learning Center, where she imagined, designed and directed environmental education experiences for day school students.
Meltzer said that her recognition by The Covenant Foundation is one for all Jewish educators teaching in classrooms across the country.
“The Covenant Foundation is affirming that the value of our work as Jewish educators is measured not by how many students we reach but by how we reach each individual student. I’m humbled to represent the many classroom teachers who are taking risks and refining their practice on a daily basis, and who collectively deserve this honor. I hope that by sharing both my greatest successes and my wildest failures, I can further and deepen the conversation about best practices in all our classrooms.”
For guidelines on nominating an educator for a 2016 Covenant Award, and to read biographies of past recipients, visit www.covenantfn.org/awards.
The Covenant Foundation is a program of the Crown Family Philanthropies.