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Jewish educators honoured for excellence

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Rabbi Dovid Hazdan; Rabbi Menachem Mendel Popack; Hannah Ben Moshe; Isla Feldman; Darren Bass; Mazal Sacks; and Sheila Sklaar are some of the gold award winners in the inaugural Excellence Awards in Jewish Education.

More than 300 participants, supporters, graduates, nominees, and educators from around the country attended the ceremony on Sunday, 5 November, hosted by the Academy of Jewish Thought & Learning, along with the Pincus Foundation, and the South African Association for Jewish and Hebrew Professionals (SAJEP).

The ceremony celebrated graduates of advanced degrees and courses run by the academy, including Masters degrees in Jewish Education and Hebrew teaching courses.

More than 100 educators were nominated in seven categories of excellence to receive awards for their contributions to the local Jewish community, namely Excellence in Zionism and Israel Education; Experiential Jewish Education; Hebrew Teaching; Educational Leadership; Adult Education; Jewish Studies Education; and Lifetime Achievement in Jewish Education.

“At this point in time, during our crisis in Israel, who does our community turn to for inspiration, for guidance, for strength?” asked Rabbi Ramon Widmonte, the co-founder and dean of the academy, which marks its 10th anniversary. “It’s you, our educators. You give us the information, the inspiration, and the dedication to withstand the fierce storms of antisemitism, and beyond that, to stand proud.

“Someone asked me during the week, ‘What’s today for?’ It’s not about who got the most votes. It’s not about who’s most popular. It’s about two words: thank you,” Widmonte said.

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, referring to a verse from Proverbs, said, “If you want to know about the values of an individual, then the way to do it is to see what they value, what they pay tribute to, what they praise, what they acknowledge, and what they give awards to. And then, if we apply that to a community, we must ask ourselves as a community, what do we truly value? Who do we praise? Who do we give the highest levels of acknowledgement and status to within our community?”

The chief rabbi also spoke of a parsha which described Yitzchak as a na’ar, meaning a young man or youth, which he said we all want to be. “A na’ar is curious, interested, striving to change, to grow, to see the world with fresh eyes. That produces a striving for excellence and personal growth. That’s what is being celebrated today – the people who have undertaken to advance their education, taking on further studies, finding ways of self-improvement, and looking for opportunities to grow and excel.”

Stacey Dembo, the chairperson of the academy and executive director of the South African Zionist Federation, introduced the Saltzman Award for Excellence in Zionism and Israel Education. “Our community is one of the most strongly Zionistic communities in the world,” she said. “We have always placed huge importance on educating our children. And now, more than ever, education in Zionism and Israel is absolutely integral to the survival of the Jewish nation. Israel education provides a positive connection to our Jewish heritage, culture, religion, and language, as well as a sense of collective Jewish responsibility.”

The gold award for Excellence in Zionism and Israel Education was shared by Hannah Ben Moshe and Isla Feldman.

“Excellence in informal and experiential education is something that our community has been blessed with for several decades,” said Widmonte. “Programmes such as Shabbatonim and Encounter make an indelible impact on the Jewish identity of our children.”

The gold award for Excellence in Informal/Experiential Education was given to Darren Bass.

Craig Norwich gave a speech about his biggest regret, which is that he didn’t learn to speak Hebrew. “Hebrew isn’t just a language spoken by Jews,” he said. “It’s who we are as a people. It’s our history.” He thanked the Hebrew and Jewish Studies educators, saying, “The impact that you make is massive. It has far-reaching benefits and results that many students don’t realise at the time”. The Gold Award for Excellence in Hebrew Teaching was awarded to Mazal Sacks.

“One of the core areas which we focused on as an academy in our very first partnership with an overseas university was to create an educational leadership programme for Masters in Educational Leadership,” said Widmonte, introducing the Eric Samson Award for Excellence in Educational Leadership. The gold award for Excellence in Educational Leadership was given to Rabbi Hazdan.

“We’re incredibly privileged in our community to have amazing Jewish adult educators,” said Widmonte. “They are the people who take over the reins when our children graduate from school and [they] shepherd the next generation onwards.” The gold award for Excellence in Adult Education went to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Popack.

The gold award for Excellence in Jewish Studies Education was awarded to Sheila Sklaar.

Lastly, the gold award for Lifetime Achievement in Jewish Education was shared by the Wolf family and Rabbi Avraham and Rebbetzin Marcia Tanzer. “These are people who have dedicated their lives to our community’s education for decades,” said Widmonte. “They have made a massive impact within their schools, their communities, their organisations, their cities, and nationally. We’re truly indebted to them.”

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