Jewish Day School Teachers Impact Students' Life Choices

Lubavitch Headquarters

March 17, 2008

Several weeks ago The New York Times featured Shimon Waronker, principal of a South Bronx High School, on its front page. Waronker, a Chabad-Lubavitcher, was profiled for his success in rehabilitating a  notoriously dangerous, failing school. Waronker credited the Lubavitcher Rebbe's inspiration in his educational values.

In the following article, asked our reporter to seek out notable alumni of Chabad-Lubavitch day schools, and consider how their schooling, and particularly their teachers, have influenced their life choices.

By Rebecca Rosenthal

Dr. Joel Wein is looking for the Lubavitch teacher who changed his life. As a youngster eager to earn a Cub Scout religion badge, he asked his Hebrew School teacher, a young Chabad-Lubavitch woman in her early twenties, for a synagogue where he could attend services. She walked him to the only Orthodox synagogue in the neighborhood. He stayed to pray, and he returned the next week, and the next.

“I was intrigued,” said Dr. Wein. “They took me in, and I found my place as a Jew.”

Now an observant Jew, Dr. Wein graduated from Harvard and MIT, married and is raising a house full of children with his wife Marjorie. All the Wein kids attend yeshiva and day school. With a single act, a young Lubavitch teacher strengthened the Jewish future for an entire family, and Dr. Wein would like the opportunity to say “thank you.”

If Jewish education forges strong links to Jewish continuity, educators are the blacksmiths. Famously unsung, extraordinarily underpaid, Jewish teachers take the goal of a strong Jewish future and make it happen day after day.

“Devotion to fulfilling the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s vision that every Jewish child deserves a quality Jewish education is the secret of the success of Lubavitch teachers,” said Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, director of the Chabad’s education office.

In Chabad-Lubavitch’s network of 140 elementary and high schools (outside of Israel where the numbers climb still higher), it’s the teachers who nurture, answer questions and provide living examples of what it means to live with Jewish teachings as a guide.
To that list, Phillip Swagel, assistant secretary of the Treasury for economic policy, would add love and warmth. As a youngster he attended Chabad’s Hebrew Academy, then in Long Beach, now in Huntington Beach, CA.

“Love for Judaism was at the center of the school,” Swagel told in a phone interview from his office in the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.. He remembers Rabbi Yitzchok Newman, Rabbis Engel, Piekarski and Schusterman for their “sense of warmth and caring for us. They pushed us to be conscientious, to give our full effort, to not just sit there, but to be engaged.”

When he tucks his three children into bed every night, and helps them recite the Shema prayer, he recalls where he first memorized the prayer: on the bus at the school’s Gan Israel day camp.

It’s no accident, leading Chabad educators say, that Swagel spoke of emotions rather than lessons or field trips or teaching methodology as having left the greatest impression on him.

Chavi Epstein, a Jewish studies teacher the Chabad-affiliated Columbia Jewish Day School in South Carolina, said effective education is in the relationship. “An essential component is to really care and really connect with students, to have a relationship with them, and be interested in different parts of their lives - not just how they are in the classroom.”

Sometimes that relationship involves the entire family. As a third grader, Dr. Ken Mukamal, now engaged in medical research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, had Rabbi Victor Kurtzman as his teacher at Hebrew Academy of Huntington Beach. A burly Scotsman with “a larger than life” personality, Rabbi Kurtzman invited the Mukamal family for Shabbat dinners.

“He helped bring my parents into the community and made them feel there was a range of people who were welcome, who brought different life experiences with them,” said Dr. Mukamal. “Rabbi Kurtzman was very dear to my family and to me.”

As a memorial to Rabbi Kurtzman, Dr. Mukumal chose to name one his sons after his teacher.

To attain that level of connection with a student, the most powerful tool is the teacher’s own spiritual state, according to Epstein.

“It is what’s going on internally that’s crucial. You have to be plugged into life,” said Epstein after a full day of teaching first through fifth grade.

“Living life on a deeper level and not just coasting through makes for an exciting lively teacher.”

A teacher’s effect lingers. Over a half-century has passed since Prof. Thomas (Shmuel) Kessner sat in Rabbi Avrohom Barnetsky’s class at United Lubavitcher Yeshivoth. Stories Rabbi Barnetsky told of his life during the Holocaust stayed with the young Kessner who grew up to be a professor of history at City University of New York’s Graduate Center. “He spoke about his memories, but you did not see bitterness and anger you’d expect from someone who had been through a tough ordeal.

Dr. Kessner, who holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University, said Rabbi Barnetsky’s gift for pedagogy influences his relationships with his students. “Trying to give students credit, even when they did not deserve it seems so modern. He built on a student’s strengths well before ‘positive reinforcement’” entered the educators’ lexicon.

“Rabbi Barnetsky taught students not only through his lessons, but in the way he carried himself in his everyday life.”

Long after the tests are marked and the report cards filed away, teachers at Chabad Lubavitch schools change lives.

From the Reporter’s Notebook:
In doing my research for this story, I was referred to an alumna of a Chabad school. She declined to be interviewed for the story because she “had not been in a temple for years.” When I mentioned this to her former principal, I expected him to sigh and cross her off the list of notable alumni. He didn’t. Instead he asked for her email address, saying he’d contact  her and  see if he could be of any help.

Once a student of Chabad, always a student of Chabad.    


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