Educators with verve, pizzazz receive Diller awards

Jewish educator Judy Massarano got the word via Post-it note.

Her supervisor passed the sticky yellow square to her, on which was written, “You won. Mazal tov!” To which a confused Massarano replied, “What did I win?”

Ora Gittelson-David

The answer: a 2015 Diller education award, one of four given annually to Bay Area Jewish educators who “strive to instill Jewish values in our young people and make learning a dynamic experience,” according to the Helen Diller Family Foundation.

The official name of the awards is the Helen Diller Family Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education, and Massarano, 51, won in the category of congregation or community school educator. She works at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

The other winners are Ora Gittelson-David (Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, Palo Alto); Ariela Ronay-Jinich (Urban Adamah, Berkeley); and Nur Katz (JCC of the East Bay). Each receives a $10,000 prize, with their respective institutions receiving $2,500.

Nur Katz

Massarano, whose 30-year teaching career includes a long stint at Oakland Hebrew Day School, was recognized for her work with Jewish learners of all ages, in particular those who attend Ketzev, Netivot Shalom’s successful 2-year-old after-school program for K-5 kids.

“My experiences have shaped me into the educator I am,” the Los Angeles native said. “Time spent in different settings has made me think a lot about making Jewish education work for children who have limited time to devote to it. It’s an honor to the synagogue to be noticed for something new.”

Ronay-Jinich, 31, who won in the category of informal education, serves as director of youth and family programs at Urban Adamah, an urban farm and Jewish education center in Berkeley. The Mexico City–born educator said she strives to bring Jewish learning back into the fabric of daily life.

Tying together Jewish connections to agriculture, the seasons, the outdoors, holidays and Shabbat, she has devised classes for both kids and adults. In one, she guides people through all the steps of making pita, from wheat stalk to breadbasket. In another, participants build a mini-sukkah out of mud, leaves and other materials found at Urban Adamah.

Judy Massarano

“It’s an experience of wilderness on a farm,” she said. ”When you teach outside, the reality is already there. You have all the props and learning moments you need.”

Katz, a native of Israel, came to the Bay Area in 2000 and almost immediately began working in the early childhood education program at the JCC East Bay in Berkeley. She leads the Kitat Alon classes for 3-year-olds and has learned getting to know her students is more important than lesson plan content.

“Working as a pre-school teacher there are a lot of layers,” Katz said. “The curriculum starts with the relationship. In preschool we create experience. It’s a very rich environment.”

For example, to teach kids about Israel and mitzvot, she uses the example of the pomegranate, the seeds of which are “caring deeds.” A pomegranate poster tallies the good deeds her young students do over the year.

“I am very passionate about the Judaism we bring here,” she added. “It’s more focused on the seasons and our connections to the world, so it’s a wonderful bridge for people.”

Ariela Ronay-Jinich (right) teaches kids about farming at Urban Adamah in Berkeley.

Gittelson-David teaches Jewish studies at Gideon Hausner, and also coordinates the annual 8th-grade Israel trip and two school-wide community service days, during which students do hands-on social justice work. She also created a program in which her students tutor younger public school children.

The daughter of two Jewish educators, Gittelson-David said 19 years of living in Israel, where she was a social worker, have helped her create a more stimulating learning environment.

“A sense of caring about the others and wanting to make the world a better place is something I bring to the classroom,” she said. “It motivates me to look for programs and experiences as opportunities for students to not only look inside themselves but also look outward to the community around them.”

The awards will be presented in a ceremony later this year.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.