Rafi Martienko, age 21, knew he was Jewish, but had…
By Yakir Havin
Apart from the excitement of the live game show quiz at the JewQ International Championship, one woman was singled out for her outstanding contribution to Jewish education. Mrs Sarah Alevsky of Chabad of the West Side, Manhattan, was awarded Educator of the Year by CKids, a branch of Merkos 302. Following the ceremony, I called Mrs Alevsky to uncover the personality behind the award, and to learn about what made her the winning candidate for Educator of the Year.
Although most of her operations now involve Hebrew School children and other students, Mrs Alevsky did not start her educational career in this area. “My husband and I came to formal education by way of informal education.” Both Mrs Alevsky and her husband Rabbi Chayim Boruch had a keen interest in camp long before they opened Chabad Hebrew School of the West Side.
“What struck me was that in camp, the children are not just learning for doing, but also learning for living. We are always trying to apply what they learn back to their daily lives.” And that is an approach which Mrs Alevsky applies to every area of her teaching.
However, there is an inherent challenge involved in getting kids to learn in general. “We are not their first choice of where they’d like to be,” she said in reference to her Hebrew School students. “We have to make sure that the time they spend with us is not only worthwhile, but also engaging and fun.” In Alevsky’s opinion, Chabad Hebrew School educators are instinctively aware that “fun is a vehicle for learning,” and she believes that this is a large contributing factor in their worldwide success.
Reaching and teaching the community
The story of how Chabad Hebrew School of the West Side came into being mirrors that of many other Hebrew Schools in Jewish communities. The Alevskys were brought on by Chabad of the West Side’s Early Learning Center in an effort to keep the ELC’s graduates involved in the Chabad community.
“We started off with clubs once a month. But then we spoke to a few people who had sent their kids to non-Jewish schools. They wanted a Hebrew School, and that’s what we did.”
Perhaps what Mrs Alevsky is best known for is the program she created and runs called Kivun (direction). “We were approached by the Steinhardt Foundation in affiliation with Hebrew Public, and they asked us if we would consider opening an after-school program for kids attending a new Hebrew charter school in Harlem. After a meeting with the rabbis, we said yes.”
One of Alevsky’s fundamental beliefs in education is that learning should be primarily text-based. The fact that the classes are taught in innovative and fun ways by no means takes away from the text. For Kivun students, Alevsky finds it easy to stay true to the source. “Due to their Hebrew charter school grounding, there’s no need to teach them how to read Hebrew, so we can jump straight into the content.”
Sharing is caring
In her capacity as a member of the CKids Hebrew School Board, Alevsky distinguishes herself amongst other Chabad educators. The board, consisting of seven Hebrew School directors, provides centralization for many facets of Hebrew School operations, including teacher training and curriculum development (Alevsky’s personal favorite). But perhaps the most crucial element of the board’s work lies in helping each school be part of a wider picture of schools, enabling collaboration like never before.
Mrs Alevsky initially created a Facebook group to share her wealth of educational knowledge with other Hebrew School directors. The general consensus on the group, whose member numbers ballooned well into the hundreds in the first few months, was that “everyone was doing things on their own.”
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” remarked Alevsky, and this was the spark which culminated, after talks with Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, in the inception of the CKids Hebrew School Board.
Today, one of the largest activities of the board is the CKids Retreat, where Alevsky herself, among others, gives workshops on Hebrew School curriculum development and other areas of improving the quality of Chabad Hebrew Schools. Much of the credit for the Retreat, and the board’s other initiatives, goes to Mrs Alevsky for her vision in centralizing Chabad Hebrew Schools and creating a space where knowledge can be shared for the collective goal of all involved.
Credit, however, is far from Mrs Alevsky’s primary objective in her work. “I’m more of a behind the scenes person. I’m thankful for being recognized for the award, but I’d do it either way. As Hebrew School directors and educators, this is what we do, we help each other.”
Looking towards the future, Mrs Alevsky spoke as only a true educator would: “We can up the quality of Hebrew Schools. We have the spirit, the fun, the engagement, the community, the warmth, and the enthusiasm. But what we could improve is the curriculum. Where are children going with the learning, and what are they going to walk away with? That, for me, is the most important question.”
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