Judy Finkelstein-Taff, Head of School at Chicago Jewish Day School (CJDS), was one of three educators from across the spectrum of Jewish life to receive The Covenant Foundation’s 2013 Covenant Award on Oct. 27. Recipients were honored for their commitment, vision and wide-ranging impact by hundreds of Jewish community and educational leaders, philanthropists, students, colleagues and others.
All of them made significant marks through innovative approaches and directions in Jewish education.
“The 2013 Award recipients have achieved excellence in very different settings and contexts, but a common theme runs through their work – celebrating the diversity of Jewish life and community,” said Eli N. Evans, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation, in remarks at its annual awards dinner, this year in Chicago.
“Our Rabbis reflected upon the miracle that all of humanity in its diversity could descend from a single human being. For our Award recipients, honoring this diversity underlies all that they do – through a camp program that has become a national model for inclusivity, a community school that brings together Jews of all backgrounds and denominations, and an educational methodology that values and nurtures multiple intelligences and diverse perspectives.”
The Award, among the most prominent citations on the Jewish landscape, goes to three educators every year after a rigorous selection process. Including this year’s awardees, 69 Jewish educators have received a Covenant Award since its establishment in 1991, and nearly 50 of them attended the presentation.
In their acceptance speeches, recipients identified passions that have shaped and propelled them, and the primacy among Jewish educators in cementing community engagement, vitality and continuity.
Receiving the Covenant Award from Sara Crown Star, Finkelstein-Taff said Jewish education and those who practice it reflect the positive attributes of the Jewish community as a whole.
“We are a resilient people who have a long history of facing our future by taking risks and facing adversity. No one promised us it would be easy, and no one promised us that we would not have challenges. This award signifies the promise that we accept the challenges of sustaining and ensuring a vibrant Jewish future together.”
As Head of School at CJDS since 2004, Finkelstein-Taff is a life-long Jewish educator who has worked across a spectrum of educational venues and imbued students, parents, colleagues – and everyone she touches – with a passion for learning, connection and growth that is deep and pervasive.
Appointed to head CJDS beginning in its second year, Finkelstein-Taff brought experiences and perspectives from her own upbringing, education and career to firmly establish and grow what is now one of the most highly regarded Jewish day schools in the Chicago area.
Finkelstein-Taff’s success as an inspiring educator, leader, team-builder, and counselor - guided by a vision for how a pluralistic day school should feel and look - is reflected by a variety of indicators. The outstanding and meteoritic growth of the school, from seven students entering first grade when she joined CJDS, to more than 180 in junior kindergarten to eighth grade today, is but one.
Less tangible is a purposeful diversity of thought pervading nearly every aspect of the school, promoting a sense of community, cooperation and respect among all stakeholders and across denominations.
As Head of School from the near beginning, and with a near-blank slate, Finkelstein-Taff was devoted to building such a culture, brick by brick. She created real mechanisms for the involvement of Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox rabbis on the school’s board, sought the active involvement of parents from the start, and built bridges to other Jewish and secular schools in the Chicago area.
Integral to her educational philosophy, she seeks to make a welcoming home and destination for not only students, but also for their extended families and for the community at large. Her presence is felt everywhere, from the weekly Kabbalat Shabbat,to a program engaging students’ grandparents and weaving a multi-generational thread through the school’s culture.
Finkelstein-Taff traces her commitment to Jewish education and community back to Phoenix, Arz., where her parents were committed to Israel and Jewish community, and were among the founders of the first Jewish day school in the area.
“As much as this is the greatest professional honor I will ever receive, this award is not as much about me as it is about you,” she said to those gathered for her acceptance remarks. “Whether you are a student, a lay leader, a rabbi or a professional working in the trenches, this is about our Jewish future and the future we are building for generations to come.”
The Covenant Foundation is a program of the Crown Family Philanthropies. Members of the Crown family – including James Crown, Sara Crown Star, and Lester Crown – presented the three recipients and bestowed the Award. Each of the 2013 recipients received $36,000, and each of their institutions, $5,000.