Tamar Rabinowitz has received this year’s Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, presented by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties at their Annual Meeting on June 10. Tamar is a graduate of the first cohort of the Pardes Educators Program, an AVI CHAI-sponsored two-year teaching training program for those pursuing day school education as a definite career path, combining intensive text study at Pardes with an MJEd from Hebrew College. As she is recognized for her excellence in education and leadership, I had the opportunity to interview her about her experiences – and to wish her a hearty mazal tov, of course!
What is your background, and how did you come to be a Jewish educator?
I am originally from a village outside of Cape Town, South Africa, and I went to a Jewish day school in Cape Town. As soon as I finished high school, I went off to Israel, where I got a degree in Jewish history from Hebrew University. After completing my first degree, I took a year off which I spent in Wellington, New Zealand, and I volunteered with Jewish community there. One of the primary jobs I wanted to do was to teach. I had been involved as a Bnai Akiva madricha, but had never before taught in a formal setting. My first time in the classroom, I was terrified. I was sitting in front of a room of 5-12 year-olds, and my hands were shaking – I actually sat on them because I didn’t want them to see I was so nervous. But I loved it. Back at Hebrew University, I had been on the track to get a Master’s in Jewish history, and I changed departments to go into Jewish education. A year into it, I got a spot in the Pardes Educators Program, where I completed my Master’s. Afterwards, I came to the US to teach at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland, where I taught for seven years. I then moved to San Francisco, and I am now a Tanach teacher and mentor at JCHS of the Bay.
How did your time at the Pardes Educators Program impact your career?
It helped me immensely. It gave me an opportunity to study the background and theory of education, which I believe is very important for all educators; it allowed me to study full-time what I love to teach and study: Tanach; and the benefits continue today, as I have been very involved with the network of Pardes alumni since I graduated. One passion I have besides education and teaching excellence is mentoring. Last year, my school gave me the opportunity to provide professional development for the staff in addition to teaching. It was the first time I had that kind of responsibility. Pardes allows me to continue with this passion, as this year, I am directing the Pardes alumni teacher training program for first and second-year teachers out in the field to come back, learn, and receive mentorship. Also, Pardes provided me with a community of educators, which I can draw upon when I’m stuck. I can’t imagine what my time here in the US would have been like without the Pardes alumni network.
Tell me more about your interest in teacher mentorship.
Every novice teacher should have a mentor – not just a buddy to talk to, but someone who can help them manage the numerous components it takes to be a teacher. Every Jewish day school should provide novice teachers with this benefit so that they will stay in the field of Jewish education and grow professionally. Even veteran and expert teachers need a way to continue their development. I believe there should always be opportunities for educators to challenge themselves and have the opportunity to grow in this way.
Where does your passion for Tanach come from?
I don’t know exactly where I got the passion from – probably from my parents. Even from the time when I was a little girl and into my high school and college years, I always made an effort to set aside time to study Tanach. When I was at Hebrew University, I was also in the first cohort of Matan. Tanach is a difficult discipline; there are so many avenues by which you can enter and be intellectually engaged and challenged. I love narrative, so Tanach always spoke to me. I appreciate how in the text I can trace the development of the Israelites and their relationship with G-d, and how every generation has that struggle and has risen to it in its own ways. In that regard we’re just continuing with their tradition.
I like to teach Tanach through a skill-based lens. I want to make my students independent readers of the text. All of us have different backgrounds, so the text speaks to us in individual ways.
What are your goals for the future?
My goal is to stay optimistic in the field of education – to keep on enjoying what I do and to find avenues to grow. Being a Teacher Mentor in my school has been an amazing opportunity for me to think more about what professional development can look like. I want to keep myself always in this stage of growing.
Tamar is the third Pardes Educators Program alum to win this award. The others are Jessica Lissy (2008) and Adam Tilove (2009).
The Grinspoon-Steinhardt Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education are generously funded by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. The Awards are administered and disseminated by JESNA.