September 3, 1998
By Beverly Gray,
Joel Grishaver, everybody's favorite hip Jewish uncle, had been up half the night, schmoozing with a rabbi's son who was visiting from England. So when Grishaver answered the phone at 6:30 a.m., he was hardly prepared for the voice that said, "You and I have a date for lunch in Washington on Sept. 15. You've just won the Covenant Award."
Once the words sank in, Grishaver realized that he'd been given a high honor. The Covenant Foundation, a national group dedicated to the betterment of Jewish education, hands out three awards annually to community leaders, synagogue educators and others who have made a significant impact.
Grishaver thinks he qualified primarily because of the 25 weekends a year he spends on the road, presenting seminars and Shabbatons. In such unlikely outposts as Odessa, Texas, Altoona, Pa., and Fargo, N.D., Grishaver has brought his own puckish slant on Jewish values and the joys of Jewish study to learners of all ages.
The Covenant Award is more than a fancy plaque. Grishaver will receive what he calls "a nice chunk of change": a $20,000 cash award. In addition, a check for $5,000 goes to the institution with which each winner is affiliated; since Grishaver has long been a freelancer, he plans to combine this sum with $5,000 of his personal award and create a special endowment. He'll dip into this fund for annual scholarships, enabling the teens who contribute to his weekly electronic newsletters, Bim Bam and C.Ha, to make trips to Israel and spend their summers at Jewish camps.
Grishaver created Bim Bam (for high school students) and C.Ha (geared toward youngsters in grades five through seven) to give young people the opportunity to debate Jewish topics with their peers. Thanks to the Internet, the newsletters allow youngsters from across North America to exchange views with their counterparts elsewhere. (There have been participants from Israel, France, New Zealand and even Cuba.)
Recently, in C.Ha, a battle has raged over a newly issued Superman comic book, which features the Warsaw Ghetto uprising but makes no mention of Jews. Meanwhile, Bim Bam readers have been mulling over a new Midwestern fad: ID bracelets with the initials WWJD, which stand for "What would Jesus do?"
Though both newsletters also feature staff-written essays and a summary of the weekly Torah portion, their focus is always on what Grishaver calls "the kind of things real Jewish kids talk about in real life."
Teens who want to join the debate are welcome to e-mail Grishaver at firstname.lastname@example.org.