Mike Feinberg (b. 1969) graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991, while Dave Levin (b. 1970) graduated from Yale the following year. The two met in a Houston school where they were both teachers. Despite each having just two years of teaching experience, they started a new education program called KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) in 1994. The program was geared towards children living in poverty, and aimed to increase the number of such students that graduate and go on to college. Students would go to school six days a week, with longer days and shorter summer breaks. There was a lot of homework, but also a lot of teamwork; strict discipline, combined with music and travel. The result was spectacular. Impoverished students were succeeding at unprecedented levels, and enjoying it, too. Feinberg and Levin won ‘Teacher of the Year’ awards, then opened two official KIPP schools, one in Houston, and one in the Bronx. By 1999, these were among the best schools in their regions. In 2000, KIPP got a $15 million donation from Don and Doris Fisher (the founders of GAP, and former Jews of the Week), to expand KIPP into a national network. Today, KIPP has 200 schools across America with over 80,000 students. It is the largest and most successful charter school system in the US. About 96% of students are either black or Hispanic, and 87% from struggling households. 90% go on to graduate high school (compared to the national average of 80%, and 69% for black students), and 45% get college degrees (compared to the 9% national average for impoverished students). So many people want to get into KIPP schools that students are selected through a lottery. Feinberg and Levin have won multiple awards and honourary degrees for their work, including the prestigious Charles Bronfman Prize, for “Paradigm-Shifting Vision in Education”, and the National Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen. Their story is told in the bestselling book Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created America’s Most Promising Schools.
Words of the Week
The Torah commands: “Six days shall you labor, and do all your work.” But is it possible for a person to do “all their work” in six days? Rather, [it means to say] rest on Shabbat as if all your work is done. – Mekhilta
The Baal Shem Tov’s gravestone in the Jewish cemetery of Medzhybizh, Ukraine.
Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760) was born to very poor parents in what is today Western Ukraine. He was orphaned at just 5 years of age, and adopted by the Jewish community. Even as a child, Israel would go out into the forests by himself after school and spend hours meditating. It is said that he started receiving visions from Biblical prophets while still a teenager. He married young, too, and when his wife tragically passed away, Israel left his village and embarked on a long journey. During his travels, he met a mystical sage named Rabbi Adam Baal Shem (the title baal shem, “Master of the Name”, was given to spiritual healers and great mystics). Israel soon started his own kabbalistic circle, and the group became active in assisting Jewish communities across Eastern Europe. Rabbi Israel remarried and had two children, sustaining the family by working as a clay and lime digger. He also worked as a school teacher and a gabbai (synagogue warden), and later became a shochet and managed his brother-in-law’s tavern. During this time, he became very proficient in healing herbs and his reputation as a baal shem grew rapidly. By 1740, Israel was known as the “Baal Shem Tov”, and countless people journeyed to Medzhybizh to learn from him. There, the Baal Shem Tov started a new movement that would be known as Hasidism, which strove to integrate mystical teachings into the daily lives of Jews, while focusing on serving God with utmost joy and happiness. The movement spread very rapidly, invigorating poor Eastern European Jews with a fresh breath of life. (Ironically, Hasidic Judaism took off among poor Jewish peasants who knew little Torah and ritual observance, while today Hasidic Judaism is associated with rigorous Torah study and strict ritual observance!) Meanwhile, the Baal Shem Tov battled passionately against various false messianic movements sweeping European Jewry, particularly the Frankists. He inspired a whole generation of great rabbis and is considered the founder of Hasidic Judaism. Many legends surround the Baal Shem Tov, including a purported ability to read people’s minds, exorcise demons, and even fly! Rabbi Israel passed away on the holiday of Shavuot.
Dalia Itzik, Israel’s First Female President (הצלם אלכס קולומויסקי וידיעות אחרונות)
Dalia Itzik (b. 1952) was born to an Iraqi-Jewish family in Jerusalem. She studied literature and history at the Hebrew University before becoming a teacher. At the young age of 21, Itzik was a co-founder of Jerusalem’s Katznelson School, where she taught for 17 years. In 1984, she became the chairwoman of Jerusalem’s Teachers Union. Due to her vast experience in education, Itzik was elected to the city council in 1989 and took over its education portfolio. From there, she rose to the position of Jerusalem’s deputy mayor. In 1992, she ran for the Knesset as a member of the Labor Party and won a seat. She would go on to serve in Israel’s parliament for nearly twelve years, and during that time filled the roles of Minister of Industry and Trade, Minister of the Environment, and Minister of Communications. She sat on the Finance Committee and the Education and Culture Committee, among others. In 2006, she became Israel’s first female Speaker of the Knesset, and shortly after, Israel’s deputy president. The following year, President Moshe Katzav took a leave of absence, making Itzik Israel’s first female president (though only in an interim position). Since leaving politics in 2013, Itzik has served on the board of Hadassah International – one of the largest women’s organizations in the world – and as the chairwoman of From the Depths, an organization which strives to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. She was also nominated for Israel’s presidency in 2014.
Words of the Week
Fundamental to our faith is the belief that every event in a person’s life is by Divine Providence. So expressions such as “If only I had…” or “If only I hadn’t…” smack of heresy.
– Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch (1860-1920)