Meet Judy Finkelstein-Taff: The Crown Philanthropies Award Recipient Who's Making Jewish Education Popular Again

Parents send their kids to Jewish schools for a variety of reasons: to keep their heritage alive, to learn conservative ethics, to reinforce good behavior, and to fulfill family expectations. Judy Finkelstein-Taff says Jewish education and those who practice it reflect the positive attributes of the Jewish community as a whole. As Head of School at Chicago Jewish Day School (CJDS), she's one of three recipients of this year's Crown Family Philanthropies' Covenant Awards. (Read Crown Family Philanthropies: Chicago Grants).

When Finkelstein-Taff started working at CJDS, the school had a whopping seven students entering first grade. Today there are over 180 students enrolled in the school between kindergarten and eight grade. Enrollment in Jewish schools has been on the decline for a number of years. Jewish day schools, which gained popularity after World War II, divide their curriculum between general secular subjects and Hebrew teachings, without the archaic connotations of a religious boarding school. Finkelstein-Taff is doing her best to make them relevant again.

She's been commended for her vision of how a pluralistic day school should look and feel. In the rigid world of Jewish education, she's squeezed in some diversity and involved Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox rabbis on the school board. She's also been able to get the parents and the non-Jewish community involved in school programs. “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,” Finkelstein-Taff commented as she was handed a $36,000 personal check and a $5,000 check for her school.

Crown Family Philanthropies has been giving checks to Jewish educators since 1991. Crown, which actively supports all sorts of Jewish causes at home and abroad, gives out three Covenant Awards each year. This award is their way of recognizing Jewish teachers and school administrators for what can otherwise be a thankless job and an uphill battle.

“We are a resilient people who have a long history of facing our future by taking risks and facing adversity,” Finkelstein-Taff said. “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.”