February 25, 2020

Naomi Ackerman: Making Ripples in Female Empowerment

Los Angeles-based Israeli-American actress, teacher, advocate and social justice warrior Naomi Ackerman recently received a prestigious Covenant Award from the New York-based nonprofit Covenant Foundation. 

The organization recognizes outstanding Jewish educators in North America across all denominations and settings, and each year honors three people who have made an impact on Jewish life through innovative educational practices and models. Each award carries a prize of $36,000 for the educator and an additional $5,000 for his or her institution.

Ackerman, 54, is the founder and executive director of the Advot Project (advot means ripples in Hebrew), which teaches young people from disadvantaged backgrounds how to communicate, lead healthy lives and put an end to domestic violence. She teaches through theater and workshops, and collaborates with many Jewish organizations around Los Angeles.

She also wrote a one-woman show focusing on domestic abuse called “Flowers Aren’t Enough,” which has been translated into four languages and which she has presented more than 1,800 times around the world, including in India, Israel, New Zealand and South Africa. 

Speaking with the Journal, Ackerman said she also wanted to acknowledge her Covenant Award co-recipients: Deborah Newbrun, senior Jewish educator and director emeritus at Camp Tawonga, San Francisco, and Susie Tanchel, head of school at Boston’s Jewish Community Day School in Watertown, Mass.

Jewish Journal: How did it feel to win the Covenant Award?
Naomi Ackerman: It felt really great. It’s been a year in the making, and every tier that I passed was exciting and shocking at the same time. It’s not that I don’t think I’m worthy, but there are some really amazing people doing really amazing things. 

JJ: What was involved with each tier?
NA: Someone had to nominate me, people had to write letters of recommendation, and I had to show my portfolio. After that, they interviewed me, then they came to L.A. and watched what I do and talked to the people I work with. They saw my work in New York, as well, because I had a week when I was performing there. 

JJ: What will you do with the $41,000 prize money?
NA: What is beautiful about this acknowledgment is that some funds go to our organization, directly into Home Shalom (a program in the Advot Project that raises awareness about domestic violence in the Jewish community by presenting teen workshops on healthy relationships in synagogues, schools and youth organizations), and an amazing campaign we’re doing called #KnowYourWorth. It’s an initiative with Jewish Family Service, and we’re going to be talking about communication and healthy relationships in the Jewish community. 

We believe if we teach communication and healthy relationships to teens, then they will have these skills when they go into marriage and serious relationships. 

JJ: How important is your work given that you’re raising three daughters (ages 11, 12 and 14) and your award has come on the heels of the #MeToo movement?
NA: Apropos my girls, it’s all the more personal because I’m raising daughters. I’ve been having conversations with them since they were babies, telling them, “You are worthy; no one should ever touch you; you always say no”; and it’s not, “No, I’ll do this but not that.” It’s OK to say [to boys], “This is not OK. Period.” 

A lot of the stories we’re hearing coming out of #MeToo is that people spoke up and nobody listened. I want to teach my daughters and other girls through my work that if they’re not heard the first time, they need to speak up again and again and again until someone listens. Let’s pursue the justice. I feel the #MeToo movement has finally brought out the message that we will not be silenced anymore. 

JJ: Why do you work with teens?
NA: We believe if we teach communication and healthy relationships to teens, then they will have these skills when they go into marriage and serious relationships. We want to give them the tools to make healthy decisions and communicate needs, desires and things that are important to them.

JJ: Why do you think theater is a great educational tool?
NA: I don’t think, I know it is. It’s fun. Theater is an amazing playing field where you get to act out what you’re learning. It works on all your senses and makes you become involved in a way that when you’re sitting and listening, you just don’t get to experience. You get to create something as part of the learning process. 

JJ: What do you hope people take away from your work?
NA: All of the things I bring with me, which are our Jewish values of justice, of love, of kindness, of honesty, of accountability. I want people to understand that we are all learning all the time, and that we all make mistakes and we are not to be judged by our mistakes but how we move forward and facilitate change in our own lives. You can always learn. That’s the biggest takeaway. You should always be open to learning, because you can always benefit from it.