The third-graders in Chana Zinstein’s Hebrew school class are rarely
quiet at their desks. Instead, her students buzz with excitement as they huddle over their work, sometimes individually at their desks, at other times in groups on the floor or in the hallway. They chat happily as they pore over arts and crafts projects, and their voices grow ever louder and more enthusiastic as they recite a b’rachah on a snack, sing the Shema, and count the omer during the days between Pesach and Shavuot.
Through it all, Zinstein is beaming.
“Students in my class are always moving around,” said Zinstein, who has worked in Jewish education for the past 32 years. She now teaches at the religious school of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley (Conservative), at Temple Beth El Hebrew School in Closter (Reform), and at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey (Orthodox).
|Chana Zinstein is one of 48 teachers from across the United States to win this year’s prestigious Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.|
The veteran educator recently won the prestigious Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
The national award recognizes outstanding teachers across the United States for their commitment to Jewish education. Zinstein is one of 48 award recipients from 41 communities around the country. Awardees must show exceptional achievement, be role models in Jewish education, and have taught for at least three years in formal Jewish educational classroom settings for early childhood through 12th grade. Winners also must teach at least four hours a week in a Jewish day school or other formal Jewish setting, and must have made a significant impact on students and the community.
Teaching is a labor of love for the mother, grandmother, and veteran educator, who excels at using a smart board and uses Skype to speak with her partner school in Nahariya.
“This is what I enjoy doing – helping children,” Zinstein said. “I found that this was my forte. It’s a nice feeling to know you are making an impact on a child’s learning.”
The best part of the job, she said, is seeing children’s eyes light up when something clicks in their head and the concepts she has been teaching come together for them. A mother of one of her Conservative students told Zinstein that her son regularly recited the morning prayers that he learned in Zinstein’s class. He urged his mother to join him. “He is so excited to pull out his siddur every morning and do it. It’s a beautiful two minutes we share together every day,” the woman told a proud Zinstein.
Another mother revealed that her daughter “shocked” everyone at the Pesach seder by how much she was able to recite in perfect Hebrew. Jessica Weinberger said her daughter, Jordan, age 9, not only has fun in Morah Chana’s class at the Pascack Valley Hebrew school, but she learned a lot. “My daughter can read Hebrew after one year of Hebrew school with Morah Chana,” she said. (Morah is the feminine form of the Hebrew word for teacher.)
The leader of Temple Emanuel’s Hebrew school said that when the notice came in about the award, there was no question about who the school would nominate. “We have many wonderful teachers – a fantastic faculty – but this choice was simply obvious,” said Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, adding that she and the other staff members immediately knew they would nominate Zinstein.
Kniaz said Zinstein stays late and arrives early to classes. Her devotion apparently pays off as she is among the most popular teachers in the school. “Her mastery of creative lesson planning, differentiation and classroom management – firm with a sense of humor and a smile – is complete.” She is able to teach large classes effectively, including students with special needs, Kniaz said. When class is over, she sends home an e-mail to parents describing what their children learned that day.
Zinstein says that her love of Jewish education began when she was growing up in Richmond, Va. Her family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue, although her family and most of the congregants were not observant. The Hebrew school met several times a week after public school. “I loved attending and learning all that my teachers were willing to teach me,” she said.
She became more religiously observant through NCSY, a Jewish youth group, attended Touro College, and graduated at the top of her class. Her first teaching experience was in Washington Heights at Yeshiva Samson Raphael Hirsch. Eventually, she and her husband, Yitzchock, moved to Monsey, where they live today.
She taught at Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Monsey and then began teaching at Hebrew school as well. She found that it was a very gratifying experience to teach children who knew little about their heritage, opening their eyes up to a new way of looking at their background.
“Whether a child is in a yeshivah or an afterschool setting he/she is like a song, learning and responding to a positive Jewish role model. I hope to provide an example of how a Jewish person can present and see him or herself through a Jewish lens,” she said.
The most significant contribution, she said, “has been giving the children a positive view of Judaism to take with them as they meet the challenges of the outside world.”