Meryl Reichman has been teaching religious education to Jewish youngsters since 1969, but if anyone thinks 40 years of that would be enough needs to hear her talk about her work.
“I love it. I don’t know how long I can continue, but I don’t want to stop,” she said, speaking during a break at the annual professional development seminar for synagogue educators hosted by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey on Oct. 15 in Scotch Plains.
At the event, Reichman received the Grinspoon/Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. The award includes $1,500 to be used for any form of professional development, and a further $1,000 provided by the federation for the recipient to use however he or she chooses.
Reichman, who teaches at the religious school at Temple Emanu-El, the Reform synagogue in Westfield, received the award from principal David Gronlun-Jacob, who had nominated her.
Over 100 teachers from synagogues of all denominations came to the Wilf Jewish Community Campus for the event, according to Central federation Jewish education director Linda Poleyeff. After a dinner and the awards ceremony, they broke up into groups for separate keynote presentations.
Jewish education consultant Treasure Cohen, who has led a number of family education events at the Jewish Community Center of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains, demonstrated techniques to use in teachings preschoolers.
She started with one of her all-time favorite methods for quieting even the noisiest room. To make her point, she urged the teachers to make a racket — and then utter the sound of the Hebrew letter she held up, shin. “Shhhh,” they all whispered. “It comes up a lot in Jewish life,” Cohen said, urging the teachers to keep the letter on hand, for saying “shalom” and “Shabbat” as well as just creating some quiet time.
Cohen also demonstrated for the educators various ways to sign shalom, circling with their hands, indicating the “completeness” implicit in hello, good-bye, and peace. Judaism places so much emphasis on the verbal, she said, it is important to come up with ways not to exclude those for whom language is a problem, including the hearing impaired.
Downstairs, in the JCC Youth Lounge, special education consultant Wendy Dratler discussed ways for religious school teachers to help children with other disabilities, like Tourette syndrome. She showed a video of a child with an uncontrollable verbal tic, and a principal making sure that his schoolmates understood his problem and made him feel accepted and included.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was an adult advocate for every child with a disability?” Dratler asked.
Children coping with handicaps can have other issues that their classmates might need help coping with, she said. For example, many have trouble understanding where their own personal space ends and another’s begins; some have temper tantrums that can frighten other kids. “I call it leveling the playground,” she said.