Few things are more gratifying than seeing your child win an international essay contest.
But for Lisa Shulman and Jay Knopf of Teaneck – whose daughter, Emily Knopf, won the Morris J. and Betty Kaplun Foundation’s annual writing contest – perhaps even more moving was the topic of Emily’s essay.
This year’s assignment, to write from your own perspective about the commandment to honor your father and mother, “took a lot of thought,” said Emily, now an eighth-grader at Yavneh Academy in Paramus. The 13-year-old – who, as grand prize winner, was awarded $1,800 – wrote the essay when she was in seventh-grade.
“Emily wrote a very personal essay,” said her mother, noting that her son, Robbie, is a former contest finalist. “To be honest, it’s thrilling to have your child write about that topic. It’s about us. She wrote about honoring parents, and in the process, she honored her parents.”
Each year, junior high and high school students are invited to write on a topic that will “encourage [them] to treasure our Jewish heritage, reflect on our Jewish values, and better understand our contribution to civilization and culture,” according to a statement on the Kaplun Foundation’s website.
This year’s essay contest was the 21st such event to be sponsored by the nonprofit philanthropic organization, founded in 1955. Emily’s essay – and those of Yavneh students Jonathan Newman and Robin Tassler, who were contest finalists – were selected from among more than 550 entries submitted by students in seventh-through ninth-grade.
Finalists were honored in June at a luncheon held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City’s Battery Park.
“It took a lot of thought to be able to make it flow,” Emily said of her essay. “I was extremely excited and shocked to win. I never won anything before.” Still, she said, “I really like writing, and maybe it’s something I should take more seriously.”
Emily said that she learned from writing her essay and reflecting on the topic that “to honor our parents is to honor what they stand for.”
As she wrote, “Sometimes we aren’t aware of how and from whom we have learned things, why we have certain values or why we behave in certain ways. Parents create an environment and by their own examples and choices teach their children without the children necessarily even being aware that they are learning. To honor one’s parents is to make the effort to acknowledge this process.”
Barbara Rubin, Yavneh’s associate principal, said the essays by finalists Newman and Tassler – who each won $750 – were touching as well, and pointed out that another student, Rebecca Chackes, had received honorable mention. She noted also that Yavneh had produced another grand prize winner about five years ago.
“It’s the principal’s essay,” she joked. “I ask that every seventh- and eighth-grader do it. But it’s the seventh- and eighth-grade English teachers who are on the front line. I can take credit for forcing everyone to do it, but not for its execution.”
Rubin said this year’s theme was “very open,” allowing students to “take their passions and interests and apply it to the topic. It expresses so much more than just a topic. It’s an opportunity for the students to share themselves.”
Longtime Yavneh teacher Karen Tannenholtz – the seventh-grade English teacher who supervised the essay writing and attended the New York awards ceremony with the finalists – described Emily, Robin, and Jonathan as “amazing writers.”
“The luncheon was lovely,” she said, adding that it was a pleasure to watch her students receive the awards. “I wanted to be there. I wanted them to see how important they are to me, and to the school.”
“It was a lot of hard work,” she said about the project, explaining that the seventh-graders worked for about a month to write essays that both addressed the topic and followed the precise specifications laid down by the foundation.
Tannenholtz said that much of the seventh-grade English curriculum is devoted to the five-paragraph essay.
“I told them to keep that structure in mind, and we talked about possible ways to go about it,” she said. “I let them choose how they wanted to express themselves.”
The prize-winning essays, she said, “didn’t need much tweaking. The work spoke for itself. I think the foundation made the right choice.”
The teacher said the contest provides a way to reinforce everything the students have learned about essay writing. In addition, “the subject matter warrants a great deal of thought. It was interesting to see how they approached it. They were all so different, all unique.”
Finalist Robin Tassler focused on the themes of love and respect.
“All our lives we rely on our parents to do everything for us but the day they stop, we must find a way to repay them for all they did for us over the years,” Robin wrote. “When we are younger, our parents do everything for us… but what do we do for them? I think the real answer to this question happens later in life after we move out and our parents are relying on us to take care of them like they did for us when we were little.” “By caring for them as they grow old and need help with things, we pay back the debt we owed them all those years growing up. This may not exactly be honor but it is love, and that is a big part of respect.”
Finalist Jonathan Newman wrote a highly personal essay, exploring “how children grow and accept responsibilities,” Rubin said, adding that “his appreciation of his parents is apparent.”
Jonathan wrote, “Parents are the base for your success in life. They teach you to live an accomplished life where you have no regrets.”
“The students felt a great deal of accomplishment in writing these essays,” Tannenholtz said. “It was a different type of subject matter than we usually approach in an English class, but we were able to bring it into our arena and the kids were excited about it. It was a wonderful way to bring out thoughts and emotions and the deep feelings they have.
“Writing provided a powerful way for them to express themselves.”
The teacher said it also was valuable to bring students together with young writers from other schools.
“It’s the sort of group event that unites everyone,” she said. “It was nice for them to see all the other schools and the other children who were finalists.”
“We were thrilled to learn that one of our students was awarded the top prize, while two others were among the six finalists,” Yavneh’s principal, Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, said. “It is a great honor for our school, and especially a credit to the mature and dynamic eighth-graders who submitted the winning essays.”
Knapp added, “At Yavneh, we encourage our students to participate in a wide range of ‘outside the classroom’ experiences and opportunities. We have found the topics in the Kaplun essay contest to be thought-provoking and consistent with our school messages.”