Dr. Jane Shapiro, co-founder of Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning in Skokie, is one of three outstanding Jewish educators to receive this year's Covenant Award.
Shapiro is joined by Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, founding principal of SAR High School in Riverdale, New York, and Meredith Englander Polsky, national director of institutes and training at Matan in New York and developmental support coordinator at Temple Beth Ami Nursery School in Rockville, Maryland as 2017 recipients of the award, which is among the highest honors in the field of Jewish education.
"These Jewish educators exemplify inspired, courageous and visionary leadership," said Cheryl Finkel, chair of the Board of Directors of The Covenant Foundation and a former Covenant Award recipient. "Across the spectrum of educational venues, they are stimulating their students, communities and the field to think and practice in innovative and pioneering ways. Their achievements challenge all of us in Jewish education to make our own work bolder, more ambitious, and more impactful."
Along with the recognition that accompanies this award, each recipient will receive $36,000, and each of their institutions will receive $5,000.
As co-founder of Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning, Shapiro is building a new model for engaging Jewish adults in the Chicago area and beyond -- a holistic approach to Jewish education that is an emerging paradigm for personal and community growth.
The founding of Orot in 2014 reflects Shapiro's entrepreneurial, risk-taking spirit and unique pedagogy. It is a milestone on her trajectory as a change-making educator within her community and the field of Jewish education more broadly.
Orot offers Jews of all backgrounds and levels of knowledge new entry points into Jewish knowledge and practice to fuel and empower individual and communal engagement.
Programming at Orot integrates Jewish wisdom and text with meditation, yoga, music, art and writing -- opening up new pathways to Jewish learning. And it is this integration of serious text study with alternative creative expression that brings to daily practice Shapiro's belief that adult learners who crave in-depth Torah study can find it through a variety of pedagogical methods.
"I am energized by the chance to develop this new pedagogic practice and help students cultivate this type of learning so they can explore what the Torah has to offer them in this totally new way," Shapiro said. "In these days of intractable conflict and anxiety about the world, I believe that this type of Torah learning is desperately needed."
"The rational, mind-centered drive to take in more data is not sufficient when people are looking for wisdom that springs from the heart and from a sensitive moral tradition they can use for guidance," she added.
Orot's popularity and growth in the Chicago area is dramatic. When it began in 2014, 70 people attended a half-day of learning to prepare for the High Holidays. It has since grown to serve over 500 students each year through weekly classes and meditation sessions, yoga workshops, immersive learning experiences, weekend retreats and trainings of Jewish educators, social service workers, and communal professionals.
"Jane's unceasing passion, energy and creativity have pumped essential fuel into the fire of this new startup," said Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman, Orot's Co-Founder and executive director. "She has dedicated her entire professional life to reflective, innovative Jewish teaching, continues to imagine new, progressive models of Jewish learning and brings her whole self to their realization."
As a Jewish educator, Shapiro is an architect, driver and practitioner of visionary and impactful teaching. Prior to starting Orot, Shapiro was associate director of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning in Northbrook, and coordinator of mentoring for students in the Masters of Arts in Professional Jewish Studies program at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. As a professional coach, she has trained Jewish educators and created curricula for dozens of synagogues and Jewish organizations around the country.
"To Jane, it is all about the students," said Sandy Starkman, a student of Shapiro's in an Artists Beit Midrash, who nominated Shapiro for the Covenant Award. "The learning truly radiates from her. Jane views her work as a true calling."
Upon learning that she is a 2017 Covenant Award recipient, Shapiro reflected on her students, and how teaching has sustained her.
"I share this honor with all the wonderful students whom I have had the privilege to serve for many years," she said. "The chance to bring them into a deeper relationship with the vitality of the Torah and to explore ways to engage them even more through artistic expression and embodied practices means an experience of personal transformation for us all.
"Covenant has given me the chance to follow the advice of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and continue to grow my practice as an educator by being 'tremendously surprised' by ideas and by developing new skills to create conditions for the inner light of Jewish wisdom to shine out into the world."
The Covenant Foundation and the Jewish community will honor the 2017 award recipients on Nov. 12 in Los Angeles, at an annual awards dinner during the General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America.