To Be Honored Is An Honor

Three Jewish educators reflect on receiving the Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Jewish Education

Last May, members of our community gathered to award the Helen Diller Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education to three exceptional educators in the Bay Area. These awards are presented as a partnership between the Federation and the Helen Diller Family Foundation. The 2019 awards were presented to Jonathan Ferris (The Brandeis School of San Francisco), Daniel Schoen Schindelman (Wilderness Torah), and Frances Wittman-Rosenzweig (Congregation Emanu-El Preschool).

The Helen Diller Family Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education were established in 2001 in order to recognize and honor educators who have made an extraordinary impact on the learners of our community. The winners each receive a $10,000 individual award, as well as a $2,500 award for the institutions in which they work.

As we prepare to open nominations for the 2020 awards, hear from last year's recipients on what receiving this award means to them:

Jonathan Ferris, The Brandeis School of San Francisco

It would have been enough to have just been nominated for the Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Jewish Education in the Day School category. There are other qualified Jewish educators at my school, and the fact that the leadership chose me from among them was a huge honor in and of itself. Over the course of my teaching career I have learned that self-confidence is a tenuous thing. We as teachers rarely know the impact we have on our students and our school community. I was nominated during a year when I wasn’t too sure of myself as an educator. It sure was timely to have my work recognized by the leadership of our school.

It would have been enough to have just won the award. In and of itself it was certainly a boost to my confidence as a teacher. However, the reflective process that I needed to undergo in order to be considered for the award became a true blessing. Most often teachers reflect on their practice in order to improve their skills. It was a needed joy to be able to reflect on my career with the goal of appreciation for how far I have come since my early days teaching.

It would have been enough just to be present with the committee to receive my award. However, at the ceremony, I was surrounded by all those who played a pivotal role in my life through the opportunities they presented and the guidance they offered. I have to admit; I was choked up by their presence.

There is no doubt that from this great honor and the process taken to earn the nomination, I can sail into a new era of teaching, invigorated with the confidence that I do make a difference in the Jewish lives of my students and their families. From this point forward, with the support of the larger Bay Area educational leadership, I feel encouraged and empowered to continually improve my knowledge and skills as a Jewish educator. I feel blessed that the students, parents, and teachers with whom I interact will benefit from my expertise to thrive in their own right. Dayeinu!

Daniel Schindelman Schoen, Wilderness Torah

Every spring, Wilderness Torah Mentors guide middle school youth through the culminating challenge of their two-year B’naiture journey. These young people are given the chance to safely tend a fire through the night by themselves. The intention: to mark the powerful and mysterious transition between childhood and adolescence.

This year, as we sang the havdalah blessings around a central fire and prepared to send out the B’naiture 2nd years, the sound of pouring rain could be heard on the tarps above us. Wet puddles formed at our feet. The unusual spring downpour brought an intense energy to the space. As I prepared to invite the youth to head out, I wondered, “Are they going to do it? It’s raining and cold, are they prepared to head out into a storm?” I watched in awe and humility as each kid stood up, stated their personal intention, and walked out alone into the rainy night.

I am struck by the times we are living in. In this chaotic climate – both ecological and cultural –- I consider my role and how I am supporting a more thriving, just, and beautiful world. Finding purpose and meaning in this context as a Jewish educator is a deep and exciting path, and it can be challenging in a culture that doesn’t place much value on this type of work. Receiving the Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Jewish Education in the Informal Education category has strengthened and revitalized my approach to being a Jewish educator. Finding myself in the company of other committed and seasoned Jewish educators, sharing in the uplifting spirit of a community rallying around the significance of Jewish education in these turbulent times - it was a truly profound experience for me. These award ceremonies aren’t just for show or ego, they can help us remember the soul at the center of our work.

Back on that unusually rainy May night in the Santa Cruz mountains, I witnessed a tremendous show of spirit. Twelve and thirteen-year-olds struggling to light fires with damp wood, some choosing to sit up in the rain without the warmth of the fire, others learning how to ask for and receive help. All of them returned with a story. It was an unforgettable night, and we are already working on how to support the next step of the journey. Over this past year, I have been supporting the manifestation of Neshama Quest – a backcountry trip for older teens marking their movement towards young adulthood. This is exciting work, and a great story to share.

I am proud to be serving my community as a Jewish educator, where the educational experiences we are creating support young people’s connection to the strong roots of tradition while they take bold steps into the unknown wilderness of our times.

Frances Wittman-Rosenzweig, Congregation Emanu-El Preschool

I was so surprised and honored to receive the Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Jewish Education for my work in the Early Childhood Education category! It really is humbling to discover that colleagues in the broader Jewish and education communities feel your work is worthy of recognition.

Every educator I know in any setting, preschool or otherwise, is out there to change the world, one student and family at a time. They engage without expectation their work will have value to those beyond their immediate sphere of influence. They are often too busy turning ideas and dreams into reality to think about recognition. In its own way, this approach to educating, which I find so common in the field of early childhood education, reminds me of the importance support has played in my career.

Over the years I’ve received encouragement to dig deeper, harder, and broader into the purpose and craft of teaching. Without this intense degree of support from fellow teachers and supervisors throughout my career, I don’t believe my work would have been noticeable to the Helen Diller Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education selection committee. This award serves to validate the belief that the value and impact of Jewish early childhood education on the lives of our youngest students and their families is immense and turns my focus to giving back to my professional community. The award causes me to think more fiercely about the need to truly listen to teachers and supervisors, as I feel I have been, so they, too, are given the chance to dig deeper.

For more information on the Helen Diller Family Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education, contact Dena Stein or call 415.512.6235.

Nominations for the 2020 awards are due February 10, 2020.

Categories: Awards, Endowment


December 04, 2019