U.S. Jewish Educators Recognized With Covenant Awards

Disabilities, music and Talmud teachers among prize winners for excellence in Jewish education.

Shefa students work on an art project in which they make self-portrait collages.
JTA/Courtesy of The Shefa School

The founder and head of a Manhattan day school for children with disabilities, a New York-based Jewish music educator and the founder and head of a “traditionally radical yeshiva” in Chicago are the three recipients of the 2016 Covenant Awards for excellence in Jewish education.

The New York-based Covenant Foundation announced the recipients of the award, among the highest honors in Jewish education, on Monday. Each recipient will receive $36,000, and each of their institutions will get $5,000.

The winners are:

* Daniel Henkin, music director at The Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and at Camp Ramah Nyack, a Jewish day camp in New York’s Rockland County.

* Rabbi Benay Lappe, founder and rosh yeshiva of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, in Chicago.

* Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, founder and head of school at The Shefa School in Manhattan.

In a news release issued by the foundation, Eli Evans, its board chairman, said the three award winners “now join 75 [previous winners] who, together, form a contingent of inspired, courageous, motivated and forward-thinking Jewish leaders.”

Henkin, according to Ramaz principal Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, “is a Jewish educator whose students come to love Judaism, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel because they love him and they love what he stands for.” In addition to his work at Ramaz, an Orthodox day school, and Camp Ramah, a Conservative movement day camp, Henkin directs choirs at numerous Jewish institutions, including the Queens College Hillel.

Lappe founded SVARA in 2003 to provide serious Talmud study for LGBT Jews. The organization, according to its website, strives “to create a space in which folks historically excluded from the tradition can engage in intimate and intense conversation with it — and each other — through serious text study and dialogue.”

“There were so many others like me — Jews on the margins who’d been told that Judaism was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition,” Lappe said in a statement in the Covenant Foundation’s news release. “But in the Talmud, I discovered a Judaism that offered a third alternative. What I saw the Rabbis doing was very powerful to me. I realized that the Talmud, which has been taught to only 1 percent of the Jewish population, needed to be taught to the other 99 percent and I figured out a way to do that.”

Ruskay-Kidd in 2014 established the Shefa School, a pluralistic Jewish day school for children with language-based learning challenges. Formerly the director of the JCC in Manhattan’s early childhood education program, Ruskay-Kidd pushes for all Jewish day schools to more effectively recognize and support children with learning disabilities, convening over 150 Jewish professionals from more than 40 Jewish day schools in the past year.

The awards will be presented at a ceremony in November at the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.