The winner of this year’s Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Jewish Education didn’t start out to be a teacher.
In fact, Rabbi Seth Grauer of Bergenfield was studying law at Fordham University at night while working toward his ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University.
But to complete a requirement for his ordination, he taught a class at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, from which he graduated in 1996, and he enjoyed it so much that he decided to stay in Jewish education.
"I was more drawn toward teaching, and chose chinuch [Jewish education] and rabanus [the rabbinate] as a career instead of law," he said.
Rabbi Seth Grauer
Six years ago he joined Ramaz’s faculty, where he teaches Talmud in grades 10 through 1′. At the school’s Israel Guidance Office, he coordinates the visits of representatives of Israeli yeshivot and advises senior students wishing to study in Israel.
He is also responsible for the senior minyanim and the senior bet midrash program, mentors new teachers, and interviews prospective ones. In the summers he serves as the head of teen programming at Camps Morasha and Lavi. He’s also pursuing a doctoral degree in Jewish education.
And he’s only ‘9.
The Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award is given by the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York to teachers "who have made a commitment to the field of Jewish education," according to the BJE Website.
The award is open to Jewish educators from the New York City area and Suffolk and Nassau counties.
Barbara Kessel, director of administration of the BJE, said in an e-mail that Grauer was one of ‘1 candidates and was chosen for his "educational achievements and initiatives" as well as his "creativity and unique contributions."
As part of the award, Grauer will receive $’,500, of which $1,500 must be used for professional development. The rest is for personal use.
"The guidance provided by his department now rivals the finest college guidance office," said Judith Fagin, Ramaz’s dean, in a written statement. "The results of this serious and enlightened approach have, for the past several years, resulted in increasing numbers of our students taking the opportunity to participate in post-high school programs in yeshivot, universities, work-study programs, and community-based projects in Israel."
Grauer said he was "pleasantly surprised" when a member of the school’s faculty called him into his office about two months ago and told him that the school was planning to nominate him for the award.
"It’s very exciting, it’s very nice to be recognized, it’s wonderful for Ramaz, it’s important for Jewish education and a personal honor for me and my family," he said. Grauer and his wife, Leba, who is pursuing a master’s degree at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, are the parents of Ionina, 5, Yosef, 3, and Gila, 1.
His teaching philosophy, he said, can be outlined in three statements: first, give the students the basic information they need to be literate Jews; second, give them the skills so they can continue learning on their own after they finish high school; and third, instill in them "the recognition of the centrality of Torah in their lives."
Giving a child a Jewish education is the most important choice a family can make, which will determine if the person remains within Judaism, he added.
As for teachers, it’s important that they get proper mentoring and that "the administration creates an environment where they can be effective and that schools function as professional environments, like Ramaz does," he said.
Along with professionalism, salaries for Jewish educators have increased, he added, and in some cases Jewish educators can live more comfortably than in the past.
"There is a healthy competition to get into chinuch, which is important because it means teachers need to be experienced but, at the same time, there aren’t enough Jewish educators," Grauer said. "We still need more people to choose Jewish education as a career."
In his view, this field is "more fulfilling and one gets the feeling one is living life as an oved HaShem," a servant of God.
Come September, Grauer will take on another challenge: He’ll become assistant rabbi at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan while continuing his duties at Ramaz and will relocate to the Upper East Side to be near the shul.
"Rabbi Grauer’s enthusiasm and energy are inspiring and infectious," said Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, Ramaz’s headmaster.