Shari Halpern is too self-effacing to hold herself up as an example, but following in her footsteps could put her students on a path of lifelong learning — a goal championed by the organizations that have just honored her for her achievements as a teacher.
On Nov. 3, clearly a little embarrassed at being in the limelight, the religious-school teacher from Temple Har Shalom in Warren stepped up to receive the 2011 Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. The award honors individuals who “demonstrate exceptional achievement and serve as a role model in Jewish education.”
The presentation was made at the annual professional development seminar for early childhood and religious-school educators hosted by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. It took place at Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains.
Halpern was one 44 educators from 36 communities selected by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, in conjunction with JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America.
Each honoree receives $1,000 to be used for professional development from the two foundations, and another $1,000 from their community — in Halpern’s case, from the Central federation — to be used however they choose.
Halpern received her award from the person who nominated her, Sharon Friedman, the director of Har Shalom’s religious school. Halpern and her husband, Gabe, who live in Bridgewater, are also members there.
For the past 14 years Halpern has taught Hebrew and religious studies to students of various ages, run tallit-making workshops, and taught an eighth-graders’ program covering topics like substance abuse, eating disorders, dating violence, sexual responsibility, and peer pressure.
‘Inclusivity and community’
“From the moment Shari smiles, you are struck by her genuine warmth. It reaches every child, every parent, and every colleague,” Friedman said. “Her classroom is one of inclusivity and community, of excitement and joyfulness. Behavior problems simply don’t exist there. Shari is able to reach every child — from the self-starting and gifted student to the specially challenged student.”
Through her teaching, Friedman said, Halpern “has given another generation of future Jewish men and women a path to make positive and meaningful connections with their Judaism.”
In an interview the next day, Halpern told NJ Jewish News, “I’m really honored to get the award, but to be honest, I wasn’t comfortable. I’m happier doing things behind the scenes.”
But going beyond her comfort zone is what Halpern does on a regular basis. Right after the interview, she was off to volunteer at a riding school where children and adults with disabilities spend time on horseback. “I’d never ridden and I was afraid of horses,” she admitted, but she and her older daughter, Jessica, 23, decided a while ago that they wanted to engage in some kind of community service together. Jessica suggested the therapeutic riding program. Though still nervous around the big animals, Halpern said, she loves the work and relishes the amazing progress they witness.
That same mother-daughter partnership launched Halpern’s teaching career. A social worker by training, she had stopped working after the birth of Jessica and her sister, Rachel, now 21. In 1993, as a third-grader, Jessica started learning Hebrew at Har Shalom, and needed some parental help. Halpern had attended a Conservative religious school as a child but said she learned very little. Her husband, Gabe, who grew up in an Orthodox family, knew more and so he got to work with Jessica.
“I wanted to be able to kick him out of the room and be the one to work with her,” Halpern recalled. She enrolled in adult Hebrew classes at the temple, and within a year was reading fluently. Within two years, just before her 10th wedding anniversary, she had an adult bat mitzva ceremony, sharing the bima with nine other women.
Two years later, she took on a new challenge: Halpern accepted Friedman’s invitation to teach at Har Shalom’s religious school.
At the awards ceremony, Friedman said, “There has never been a program that she has not offered to plan and implement, never a lesson she hasn’t offered to lead, never a part of the religious school she hasn’t volunteered to get involved in.”
At one point, she agreed to fill in as acting vice principal — but eagerly surrendered the position as soon as a replacement was found so that she could get back to classroom teaching.