For Debbie Levenberg, it was the sight of artfully created trees that awoke her passion for Jewish preschool education.
Searching for a school for her then three-year-old daughter a number of years back, she walked into the one at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains.
“It was February,” she told a gathering of her fellow Jewish day school or religious school teachers at a professional development seminar. “Having only worked in public school, I was used to seeing hearts and cupids and presidents at this time of year. Instead, as I walked up and down the halls and peeked into the classrooms — I saw trees everywhere. There were pictures. They were made of branches and clay. They were made of cardboard tubes and tissue paper.
“It was Tu B’Shevat, of course, and I knew I wanted my daughter to go to this school.”
Not only did her daughter begin a Jewish journey there, Levenberg herself went on to become a Jewish educator and a pre-K lead classroom teacher in the JCC’s Early Childhood Center.
At the Oct. 18 event, she was presented with the 2012 Grinspoon/Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education for the Central NJ area.
The award is sponsored by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life in conjunction with the Jewish Education Service of North America. Since its inception in 2000, it has been presented annually to professionals in 88 communities across North America. All are selected through their federations or central agencies for Jewish education.
Each honoree is given $1,000 for professional development from the two foundations, and $1,000 from their community to use as they see fit.
Robin Brous, the JCC’s associate executive director and early childhood director, nominated Levenberg. Brous described her as “an educator who transforms her classroom by allowing children to explore, question, and wonder.” She added, “She brings learning to life in ways that are remarkable.”
The event, at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus, where the JCC is housed, was hosted by the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, an agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
About 130 educators were present. “It’s a really wonderful feeling to get this recognition from the people you work with,” said Levenberg.
Levenberg’s nomination was made through the Jewish Federation of Central NJ before its merger in July with what was United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ to form JFGMW. According to Partnership executive director Robert Lichtman, it is yet to be decided whether next year a single nominee will be named from the Greater MetroWest region, or one from each area.
The 2012 award to the former MetroWest nominee will be presented at an event in January.
Since she’s been at the Central JCC, said Levenberg, “I’ve learned about Big Ideas, how to cultivate Jewish values in our children, and how to live and learn Jewishly every day in the classroom and not just at holidays.
“I’ve grown so much both personally and professionally.”