Each autumn, the Milken Family Foundation throws one of the best luncheons of the year, and it’s not the fine kosher fare at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard hotel that draws us in. This is when Gil Graff, executive director of the BJE (Builders of Jewish Education) and Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken foundation, get to present awards to a handful of Jewish educators.
Think about it — we all love kids, teachers, awards — what could be more inspired, teary and happy?
So each year the Jewish world shows up to celebrate some truly inspiring leaders in the field of education. This year’s winners were Marnie Greenwald, a first-grade teacher at Temple Emanuel Academy Day School (think of piles of adorable kids cheering in the video); Lisa Feldman, head of school at Weizmann Day School in Pasadena (same kind of imagery); Hava Mirovski, Judaic studies and Hebrew teacher at Sinai Akiba Academy (ditto); and Juli Shanblatt, the physics and calculus teacher at Bais Yaakov School for Girls (a more demure, grown-up set of enthusiastic students, but same idea). The teachers all spoke at the lunch, and if they are any indication of what’s going on in our schools, I have one word to say: Bravo.
But I was more focused on another part of the program, which is in only its second year, and which, while honored, sort of flew by in a flash. And that was the Student Essay Contest.
Two categories have been established for this new prize, one for middle-schoolers, the other for high-school students, all of whom must be enrolled at BJE-affiliated schools to enter. This year, both groups were asked to “describe an unforgettable Jewish Los Angeles moment that you experienced.” I was among the jury for the younger group, while my colleague Julie Gruenbaum Fax was one of those judging the high-school students. The winner in the latter category was Emma Maier, a 10th-grade student at Milken Community High School, who wrote a lovely piece about chanting the Amidah before her congregation at Wilshire Boulevard Temple during the High Holy Days.
My group also offered many sweet stories, most very well done, about subjects you’d mostly expect — the family simcha, the meaning of holy days — the usual Jewish topics.
Then there was Nathan Bentolila’s essay. Titled “Making a Difference,” it begins like this:
“‘Nathan, you’ve got a letter!’ I had eaten my breakfast, brushed my teeth and was about ready to leave for school when my mother became excited. I sprang from my chair and raced to the living room.”
Drama. Who can teach a kid to write such drama? Turns out, Nathan’s letter was from a senior editor of the Glencoe/McGraw-Hill publishing company, a response to a letter Nathan wrote on his concerns about how the Israel-Palestinian conflict was portrayed in a history textbook. Nathan had found that no other modern conflict was treated in the book, and he felt that Israel was described with prejudice. He was “horrified.”
In his essay, he describes his extensive Internet research and how he talked to experts, only to learn that some 70 other conflicts were going on in the world in the “modern period,” but none of them was mentioned in the book. So, he questioned, why?
The editor’s response not only came quickly, but it clearly recognized the boy’s efforts.
“Dear Nathan,” the editor wrote, “we agree with your assessments and will change both photo and extended captions in further editions with something positive and unbiased.”
OK, so this was the real deal. Nathan had a kind of Jewish moment that doesn’t occur every day. He took it upon himself to stand up for what he believes in, did his homework, fought and won his battle, then was able to describe both his effort and his achievement in vivid detail.
The power of the written word in that history book — written by adults — was overcome by a young boy’s ability to use language and knowledge with even greater authority.
I sought Nathan out at the luncheon.
He wasn’t hard to find — he was one of the youngest people in the room. When I spoke to him, he was polite, eager and clearly very proud of the award, which for each of the winning students includes a prize of $1,800 for his or her school and the ability to designate a $500 contribution to an approved charity of his or her own choice. Nathan’s school is Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, where he is learning to write with such aplomb.
In an age of texting, Facebooking and abbreviated thoughts, a time of multitasking and short attention spans, I was inspired by Nathan’s commitment to a singular notion — that he was unwilling to allow what he saw as wrong to stand. He made an effort, a big effort, to fix the book. But just as important, he also now has a story to share.
And now, I want to share both Emma Maier’s and Nathan Bentolila’s stories with you, as well. To read both essays, please visit this column at jewishjournal.com.
It’s worth it.
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