Sitting in a roomful of teachers and the people who love them in a Bel Air hotel on a recent Thursday afternoon, you could almost forget that Jewish educators are inexcusably underappreciated, underhonored and underpaid.
The Jewish Educator Awards luncheon, hosted by award sponsors the Milken Family Foundation (MFF) and the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) of Greater Los Angeles, is a yearly fest of pride, love and admiration for the wide swath of Jews who belong to Los Angeles' day school world.
Beyond being a chance to recognize five outstanding educators, the day is, at heart, a wider celebration of Jewish education and those who dedicate their lives to it, from the Mormon math teacher at the Orthodox boys school who pronounced "Yeshiva Gedolah" like an Eastern European zayde, to the principal of a Reform day school that has doubled in size under her leadership over the last decade.
"If we are going to assure a quality education for our children, it is absolutely essential that we have quality educators in the classrooms," said MFF executive vice president Richard Sandler. "Thank you for doing all you do for the next generation."
That thank you is backed up by a $10,000 purse, no small change for a teacher at a Jewish school (though not quite as much as the $25,000 award that goes to the 100 winners a year of MFF's National Educators Award, not restricted to Jewish day schools. But no one else is doling out such nice gifts to Jewish teachers, so whose complaining?).
The goal of the awards is not only to appreciate the specific recipients -- 75 teachers and administrators have been recognized since the award's inception in 1990 -- but to enhance the status of the profession in general. By giving teachers incentive and appreciation, and by showing the wider community that Jewish educators are not taken for granted, MFF has handed the profession a classy and dignified opportunity to pat itself on the back.
MFF does its best to make a production of the whole thing.
Leaders from across the spectrum of Los Angeles Jewry were at the luncheon, including Federation President John Fishel and other federation officials. Leonard Nimoy, who hosts a radio series for Milken's Jewish Music Archive, was present to honor Eileen Horowitz of Temple Israel of Hollywood, where he is also a member. Former Rams lineman/pop singer Rosie Greer, a MFF trustee, sat at the table with Nimoy.
But the festivities began long before the luncheon.
Over two days in October and November, members of the BJE and MFF appeared at school-wide assemblies to surprise the five educators -- Publishers Clearing House style -- with notification of the award.
A video, followed by a slide show narrated by Sandler, brought those days to life for the 275 people -- from black-hatted rabbis to women in kippot -- at the Luxe Summit Hotel Bel-Air in early December.
Rabbi Mordechai Dubin, described as the "soul of Maimonides Academy," led the school in song and dance minutes before he was tapped as the award winner, with the children screeching and cheering in his honor.
Rick Hepworth worked for 25 years to build up the secular studies at Yeshiva Gedolah, and the emotion and disbelief showed through the deep blush, set off by his yellow hair, as he became the school's first MFF Jewish Educator Award recipient.
Horowitz, head of school at Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, quipped at the luncheon that her dad always wanted her to be a famous actress, and there she was that day accepting an award on a Hollywood stage -- a bimah to be precise.
Hugs from teachers and students alike awaited Pamela Kleinman, a fifth-grade teacher at Heschel West, when she was told of the award at an outdoor assembly, where American and Israeli flags flapped in the cold morning wind coming of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Inez Tiger, a life-skills facilitator and middle school counselor at Pressman Academy who has helped dozens of pre-adolescents learn to deal with emotions, could not stop her own tears when the award was given to her.
The element of surprise found its way into the Luxe Summit as well, when Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of MFF, made an unwitting Gil Graff, executive director of the BJE, the first ever recipient of an honorary Jewish Educator Award for his years of service to the Los Angeles community.
"If you combined the wisdom of Solomon, and the patience of Job and the teaching of Hillel, you might very well end up with Dr. Gil Graff," Milken said, noting that under Graff's tenure not only the number of students, but the quality of the education, had risen dramatically.
True to form, a shocked but composed Graff was able to present off the top of his head a perfectly crafted d'var Torah, replete with quotes from that week's Torah portion, to express his gratitude for the surprise presentation.
That Graff, whose educational, academic and personal credentials stand out in the world of Jewish professionals, was honored on this day honoring Jewish education itself was only appropriate.
"I can't imagine any audience to better appreciate the brilliance of this educator who has devoted his life to the academic, moral and spiritual enrichment and growth of our children," Milken said.
He knew he was talking to an audience that gets it, because they do it, and today, at least, that was worthy of recognition.