It’s a hard-knock life for teachers, who are trying their darnedest to teach children amid decreased attention spans, increased technological gadgets, fewer resources, job insecurity and myriad other challenges.
All of which make the Milken Family Foundation Jewish Educator Awards, which include a $15,000 cash bonus for each recipient, seem a bit like a dream come true.
In show-stopping, surprise school assemblies, Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation, and Dr. Gil Graff, executive director of Builders of Jewish Education (BJE), announced the award recipients on Oct. 6 amid cheering students and faculty.
The awardees include two elementary school teachers, a high school teacher and a head of school, all of them female and from a diverse cross section of Jewish day schools: Marnie Greenwald, a first-grade teacher at Temple Emanuel Academy Day School in Beverly Hills; Hava Mirovski, a fifth-grade teacher at Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles; Lisa Feldman, head of school at Weizmann Day School in Pasadena; and Juli Shanblatt, a science and math teacher at Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Los Angeles.
Founded in 1990, the yearly awards give $15,000 and public recognition to four teachers or administrators who have demonstrated excellence in their professions, and who have worked for a minimum of seven years in Jewish day schools affiliated with the Los Angeles-based BJE.
Educators are nominated anonymously by heads of schools and BJE representatives, and final recipients are selected by a committee of professional and lay leaders in the Jewish community. Judges look for educational talent and promise, leadership and self-direction, dedication to students and innovative programming and teaching methods.
Greenwald, who has taught first grade at Temple Emanuel Academy Day School for 21 years, said she was “completely surprised, overwhelmed,” when the award was announced.
Greenwald, who holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a teaching credential from UCLA, has had contact with nearly all of the students in the school, which made it feel like it wasn’t just her award.
“It was for all of us,” she said.
At Temple Emanuel, Greenwald is known for her ability to involve her first-graders in the learning process and create “buy in.” Her lessons, which involve cooperative learning and small group conversations, create an environment in which students feel nurtured and safe to take risks, she said.
Greenwald also initiated a story-telling project in which the first-graders rewrite a fairy tale or story incorporating their own life experiences, and work on the story and illustrations for weeks with adult help, culminating in a Student Authors’ Night.
“I teach because I love it,” Greenwald said. “It’s my passion, and I feel happy every day that I get to do something that I love and earn money.”
She added: “I’m very grateful to the Milken Family Foundation that they take the time and they have the financial means to award these honors to teachers, especially at a time like the present when teachers everywhere are receiving a lot of criticism and negative press.”
Mirovski, a fifth-grade Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher at Sinai Akiba Academy, “is one of the most skillful and dedicated teachers I know,” said Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin, the school’s headmaster. “When I walk into her classroom, I see every kid actively involved, learning, enthusiastic and loving what they’re doing — and she clearly does, too.”
Mirovski, who grew up in Israel and attended university there, began at Sinai Akiba as a kindergarten teacher 11 years ago, earning a reputation for innovative projects and hands-on learning, according to the school. Three years ago, she was asked to consider a new position teaching fifth-graders, a dramatic change, as any teacher can attest.
Mirovski said she has her students use Hebrew in an active way, to encourage real learning. In one assignment she designed, her students research their family history and create a project based on a relative who immigrated to the United States, all written and presented in Hebrew.
Mirovski also was recently selected to represent Sinai Akiba Academy in DeLeT, a 13-month fellowship program through Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which provides mentoring and collaboration.
When Feldman, head of school at Weizmann Day School, learned of her award, her immediate thought was of gratitude, “Both for the recognition of more than 30 years of working in Jewish day schools in L.A., and also how great for Weizmann Day School, which is not as well known as some of the Westside schools,” she said.
“Being the only Jewish day school in the whole San Gabriel and Pomona Valley, we’re very excited for the recognition,” she said.
Feldman, who earned her bachelor’s degree in education and Judaic studies at Rutgers and her master’s degree in educational administration at American Jewish University, worked at Weizmann for eight years as the assistant head of school and is in her ninth year as head of school. Her award marks the first Jewish Educator Award for the school and is a tribute to Weizmann’s strong growth — enrollment has increased 50 percent over the last few years, and it recently opened a middle school.
She attributes this growth to partnership with parents and a strong sense of community. In addition, many parents in the school hail from CalTech and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and are attracted to Weizmann’s unique efforts to bridge science and Judaic studies.
Feldman said she is most proud of inaugurating an annual Daniel Pearl Concert, in which students from Weizmann join with students from a local Muslim school and a local Episcopalian school in singing songs of friendship and peace. The relationship between the schools broadened and now students pen-pal with one another and have attended each other’s prayer services.
Shanblatt, who is in her 13th year of teaching at Bais Yaakov School for Girls of Los Angeles, pioneered the Advanced Placement (AP) program at Bais Yaakov — it now offers AP classes in physics, calculus, history, English and psychology — and also led the development of self-study courses at the school.
She was “choked up and happy” when the award was announced, and said she was glad that her daughter, a 10th-grader at Bais Yaakov, was there to celebrate with her.
Shanblatt, an alumna of MIT and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, previously worked as a mechanical engineer in the aerospace industry and held positions at Mattel and at Independent Blue Cross in Philadelphia, but said her “fantasy career” was always teaching math to religious Jewish girls.
She currently teaches AP physics and AP calculus to the 12th grade, pre-calculus to the 11th grade and Spanish to the ninth grade. In addition, she serves as the science department coordinator and chairs the school’s WASC/BJE Accreditation Committee.
“It’s a really nice thing to encourage good teaching and to recognize it … we recognize sports and movies, so it’s nice to have an award for teaching,” she said.
The Milken Family Foundation and BJE will host the 22nd annual Jewish Educator Awards luncheon on Dec. 15 at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard hotel. For more information, visit mff.org/jea.
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