Making Torahs is no problem for JCC preschoolers

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

While teaching 3-year-olds about Judaism is definitely a challenge, Betsy Surtshin said that "by being enthusiastic and showing your love for it, it just kind of rubs off on them."

The preschool teacher at the Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael did that recently by making Torahs with her students.

Last summer, she and another teacher made a big Torah out of felt. The children liked it so much that Surtshin decided to allow all the children to make their own for Shavuot.

They drew pictures on butcher paper to go along with the Torah portion of the week, describing what was taking place in the pictures. Surtshin photographed everything, so the size could be decreased, and then made into a scroll.

The Torah's belt and cover were made of felt, and the children traced their own hands to make the yad, or pointer.

They did four portions that way, and "we were pretty amazed," Surtshin said. "They could recall week after week all these stories and how they fit together. They remembered the names and what everybody did."

That kind of innovation led Janet Harris to nominate Surtshin for the Helen and Sanford Diller Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education. The director of the Marin JCC's Early Childhood School did a straw poll with her staff. Everyone seemed to agree that Surtshin should be the nominee.

And apparently, those at the Jewish Community Endowment Fund agreed that Surtshin should win the prize.

Surtshin, a Napa mother of two, will receive $10,000, which she will put into a college fund. "It's all about education," she said.

The school will also receive $2,500.

Other winners include Elizabeth Sharkey, teacher at Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School in Palo Alto, and Nadav Caine, director and teacher at Peninsula Havurah High. They also were awarded $10,000 and their schools will receive $2,500.

The newly established awards were founded to pay tribute to educators who have made an impact on the youth of preschools, day schools, and congregational and community institutions. They are administered by the JCEF.

Surtshin was grateful for the recognition, although she said: "I'm no different than any of the teachers here. Janet [Harris] creates this atmosphere that is full of energy and she has so much positive influence. She's an inspiration and everybody's ideas feed off everyone else's."

As a preschool teacher, Surtshin said she was especially happy to be recognized because the prevailing attitude about early childhood educators is that they "are thought of as people who watch kids play, and it's not like that."

Surtshin has taught at the Marin JCC for four years. She has taught for 20 years total, the last 10 in schools with Jewish curricula.

At the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School, Eric Keitel nominated Sharkey, who taught sixth- and eighth-graders this year, because "she's magnificent," he said. "She has this ability to weave magic in the classroom. She can instill students with a love of literature and of Judaism," even to those students who are more math- or science-oriented.

Additionally, she has a "wonderful rapport with adolescents." Known for her ability to "seize the teachable moment, she has a positive impact on the kids and their identities as Jews," Keitel said.

Caine has been educating teens throughout the Bay Area for the past eight years, at the San Francisco and Peninsula Havurah programs, the Albert L. Schultz JCC in Palo Alto, Stanford Hillel and the Young Adult Division of the Jewish Community Federation. He also teaches adult education at Cal State Hayward.

"I accept every gig," he joked, "I teach whenever teens ask me to come teach."

In the last year, as director of Peninsula Havurah High, which met at synagogues in Los Altos Hills and Palo Alto, he has completely revamped the curriculum. Ninth-graders learned about such complex subjects as Kabbalah.

"We don't fool around," he said. "I eliminated Jewish cooking and Jewish arts and crafts. I give serious content and at same time, [we're] teen friendly and accommodate them as human beings."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."