Two area educators were among the 47 teachers chosen from around the country as recipients of the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education. They are Flora Musleah Yavelberg, the Judaic Studies chair for the upper school of Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, and Robin Wander, coordinator of the early childhood program at the JCC of Central New Jersey.
The winners were announced in June, just after schools closed, so their students will be hearing of the honor only when they return to class this month.
The awards, first established in 2000, are presented jointly by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, in collaboration with JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America, the organization committed to supporting and developing the professional skills of Jewish educators.
They are given to classroom-based teachers from Jewish early education programs, day schools, and congregational schools in recognition of the excellence of their work. Recipients must have at least three years experience in the field and teach at least six hours a week in a formal educational setting.
Nominations are made by principals or program administrators, and the winners are chosen through the area’s central education agency or the local federation. The final selection is confirmed by a national awards panel.
The winners each receive $2,000, sometimes with more added by local organizations. Half of that is a stipend to be used within two years for some form of professional development. They can use the other $1,000 as they choose.
Award winners also get a chance to connect with and learn from colleagues around North America. Instead of having a national awards seminar and ceremony, as in the past, the winners will be honored in their home communities.
They are being invited to become part of a new group, the North American Community of Practice. According to JESNA, the CoP will provide ongoing opportunities for award winners to participate in high-level professional development through webinars with a cadre of fellow educators.
'Who we are, how we learn'
Wander lived in Marlboro for 25 years with her husband and three children, before they moved recently to Long Branch. She spent 11 years as the Scotch Plains JCC’s kindergarten teacher before being appointed to her present position three years ago. In this role, she helps create and develop a combined curriculum while planning and facilitating programs for the department.
She told NJ Jewish News, “This award recognizes, not only my role, but that of the entire JCC early childhood staff. Part of our curriculum is built on the idea that being Jewish is not just holiday oriented, but being Jewish is who we are and how we learn.
“Exposing children to this philosophy, through dramatic play, stories, music, nature, and natural curiosity, coupled with Jewish values, provides children with skills to be self confident and the ability to understand Judaism at an age-appropriate level.”
The Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey conferred the nomination of Wander on behalf of the JCC of Central New Jersey, its partner agency.
Robin Brous, the JCC’s assistant executive director and head of the early childhood program, described Wander as “vibrant” and possessing “a unique ability to bring Jewish living and learning to life for young children.” In recommending her for the award, she wrote, “Robin integrates Jewish values, practices, and themes into the curriculum in a meaningful way, so that even the youngest students find connections and relevance to their lives.… Robin is passionate about her work.”
“‘Living Jewish’ has always been on the forefront of my educational philosophy,” Wander said. “When the JCC gave me the opportunity to implement this approach in the early childhood department, I found the challenge irresistible.”
“The preschool, for many, is the first place where Jewish learning and identity begin for children and their parents,” Wander said. “The challenge is to provide thought-provoking education for our staff to become knowledgeable about Judaism and their own identity so they will have a positive impact on the children they teach.”
On October 14, at its Professional Development Seminar for Religious School and Early Childhood educators, the federation will present a $1,000 check to Wander to acknowledge her achievements as an early childhood educator. According to the federation, the gift will be in conjunction with the professional development stipend awarded by the Grinspoon Foundation, the Steinhardt Foundation and JESNA.
"This is the third consecutive year that our Federation is participating in this award," federation leaders said in a statement. "We strongly encourage and promote high quality Jewish education within our community. We consider Jewish education to be a top priority of our Federation’s mission."
'A labor of love'
When Yavelberg talks with her students about Judaism and Jewish traditions, she imparts a perspective that many may find exotic. She not only has a passion for Jewish study inculcated, she said, by her father, Philadelphia-based Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah, but she also draws on her family’s background as members of the Baghdadi Jewish community in Calcutta, India.
She lived there till the family came to the United States when she was eight, and those cultural connections remain strong.
Before coming to SSDS in West Orange, where she lives, Yavelberg taught at Schechter schools in Nassau County, NY, and Skokie, Ill. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where she also received her master’s. She has three sons who are all graduates of SSDS schools.
In a letter to Harold Grinspoon, founder of his family’s foundation, Yavelberg thanked him for understanding the importance of growth for an educator, and for providing the assistance to achieve it.
Yavelberg told Grinspoon, “The work we do is truly a labor of love. At the same time, it’s wonderful for Jewish educators to be recognized for that work. The recognition and the award provide encouragement that enables us to take a deep breath and dive back into our tasks with renewed vigor. The availability of funds for further professional development helps people who are already open to continued growth to reach new goals. For me, it’s especially exciting to anticipate finding a program to attend in Israel.”
"Yavelberg was nominated by SSDSEU upper school principal Nancy Leaderman and the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life of MetroWest, which administers the award on behalf of JESNA in the local community. Partnership executive director Robert Lichtman said each year it “convenes a committee of senior educators in early childhood, congregational, and day school education to select one winner for MetroWest’s Gene and Adele (z”l) Hoffman Award for Educator Excellence, a cash award of $1,000," and this year Yavelberg was their choice, and their nominee for the Grinspoon-Steinhardt award.
In her citation, Leaderman mentioned Yavelberg’s commitment to Jewish life, as a parent of Schechter graduates, a synagogue member, and an educator. She said, “Flora has had enormous impact in our school. Two of the most important areas are in the improvement in the management and supervision of our Judaics department and in the establishment of a successful mentoring program in our school.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated on Sept. 14, 2010 to reflect the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey's participation in the nomination process of Robin Wander.