Shirley Levine is a woman with many admirers. She was the founding principal of both Abraham Joshua Heschel Day Schools in Northridge and Agoura and has been dedicated to their success for more than 25 years. Just speak with one of the many parents whose children attend one of the Heschel schools and he or she will be quick to list her talents.
"She is so extraordinary," says Ellen Smith, a parent with two children at Heschel West in Agoura. "She knows what has to be done and is tireless in accomplishing whatever is needed for our children."
On Nov. 5 at the Partnership in Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) Conference in Cambridge, Mass., Levine received unprecedented recognition for her leadership and unparalleled excellence as a Jewish educator among all educators in North America. For the first time in its history, PEJE presented an award for Distinguished Professional Leadership in the Day School World. The award was created with Levine in mind.
"This was our third conference of grantees. Ever since Heschel became a grantee, we've been trying to get Shirley to come, but this was the first year she was able to come out," says Rabbi Joshua Elkin, the director of PEJE. "We felt that it was extremely important to recognize her contributions to this school."
Though Levine was the inspiration for the award, Elkin is hoping that further opportunities for such recognition of other leaders in Jewish education will present themselves. "We may try to replicate it in the future. But that could be hard to do, because few people dedicate themselves to a school for 20-plus years." PEJE is a national initiative designed to strengthen the quality of Jewish day school education in North America. The goals of its Challenge Grant Program, in which Heschel is a participant, are to enhance the excellence of new day school initiatives and to increase universal Jewish literacy through access to quality Jewish day school education.
Levine was extremely honored by the award. "I had worked with PEJE in establishing Heschel West, so they knew my work."
But this was her first opportunity to attend a PEJE conference; her lack of attendance in the past is further evidence of her dedication to her schools.
"It's hard to get away from the schools. So I was just excited about being at the conference. They had a dinner and Rabbi Elkin was telling us about this wonderful woman who had done all these great things and I was thinking, 'I've got to meet this woman.' I was looking around trying to see who it was," said Levine. Though a complete surprise to Levine, those who know her and her work feel it was completely deserved. In the Heschel West newsletter, assistant principal Rob Anker wrote, "This recognition confirms Shirley's preeminent position as a leader not only for Heschel West, but also for all educators who aspire to excellence."