Magical teacher wins one of four educator awards

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Growing up in a small, tight-knit Jewish community in Mexico City, Silvia Gitlin says Judaism was “always an integral part” of her life, but she never expected to make Jewish education her career. Now parents whose kids have had Gitlin as a teacher at the Oshman Family JCC Preschool say it’s tough to imagine their lives without her.

“It’s virtually impossible to put Silvia into words. She’s just magical,” says Hilary Weisfeld, whose daughters Mallory and Annie have both had Gitlin as a teacher. “She has a way of making every child feel like they’re her favorite. She gives that much time and energy and thought into every child in the classroom, and really learns what makes each one tick and how to help them grow.”

Preschool teacher Silvia Gitlin of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto is a winner of a 2013 Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

After more than 12 years as a Jewish educator, Gitlin is one of four winners of the 2013 Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, an annual award presented to outstanding pre-collegiate educators who make a meaningful impact by fostering Jewish knowledge and values in their communities. Each honoree receives $10,000 in recognition of their work; an additional $2,500 goes to the educator’s school.

These awards and others will be presented Sunday, June 2 at the Israel in the Gardens opening reception at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

The other winners are: Renee Fine, the primary fourth-grade Jewish Studies and General Studies teacher at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos; Day Schildkret, who works in teen programming for Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael; and Kenny Kahn, associate director of Camp Be’chol Lashon in Marin.

Day Schildkret

Gitlin, who is in her early 50s, emigrated to the United States in 1982 and earned an MA in architecture from UCLA; soon after, she married her husband and the two headed to the Bay Area.  It was only after having three children and volunteering in their Jewish day schools that she realized education was her true calling. “I

quickly realized how passionately I felt about teaching children the love of learning,” she says, “and the importance of passing on Jewish values and traditions.”

Since earning her teaching credential, Gitlin has worked for the Palo Alto Unified District as both an ESL and Spanish teacher, and has also taught kindergarten through fifth grade at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. She’s an adjunct faculty member at Foothill College, where she’s been teaching parenting skills and healthy habits in English and Spanish to low-income parents, and she has taught in a tuition-free kindergarten readiness program for low-income children as well.

Renee Fine

At T’enna, the preschool at the OFJCC, Gitlin mentors new faculty and serves on a committee that helps to improve communication between staff, faculty and parents. But her work with children every day is what gives her “an overwhelming sense of joy,” she says. She’s known for innovative projects that blend Jewish learning with history, math, science and language arts: One year during Passover, children expressed interest in the Egyptian pyramids, so Gitlin challenged them to think three-dimensionally and plan, sketch and build geometrical figures.

“I believe my job as a Jewish educator is to help families teach their kids to love knowledge and learning, but also to appreciate their Jewish heritage,” she says. “I know that I can’t solve all of my students’ probl-ems … but knowing that I have done all I can to help them lay a strong foundation for the rest of their education is tremendously rewarding.”

The other winners are all teachers who, according to their peers, go above and beyond in their communities.

Kenny Kahn

Renee Fine, the Diller Award winner in the day school category, chose to become a Jew nearly 30 years ago, and has worked in Jewish education ever since. She’s been teaching at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos since 1999, incorporating Jewish learning into general studies as a fourth-grade teacher.

Day Schildkret, the award winner in the community education category, previously worked in New York as a Broadway director and TV producer. He now directs the Tri-Valley/Tri-Cities Midrasha and also heads up teen programming at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, where he is known for leading memorable fire circles. 

Kenny Kahn, the award winner in the informal education category, puts his personal experiences of growing up African American and Jewish into his work as the associate director of Camp Be’chol Lashon in Wett Marin, where he aims to educate children on the multiplicity of Jewish identities, communities and cultures that exist worldwide.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.