Irene Resnikoff
Irene Resnikoff

A life devoted to Jewish teaching earns her Diller’s new award

According to her official bio, Bay Area Jewish educator Irene Resnikoff has been teaching for 55 years. Not entirely true. Resnikoff, 74, started even earlier, at age 11, charging neighborhood kids a quarter to enroll in her backyard ad hoc nursery school.

After decades of teaching multiple generations of Bay Area Jews in all kinds of settings, Resnikoff has been named the recipient of the inaugural Diller Prize for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement. It’s the top line at this year’s Diller Educator Awards, organized by the Helen Diller Family Foundation and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.

She will accept her award, which comes with a $30,000 prize plus $6,000 to be donated to an education nonprofit of her choice, at a virtual event on Sept. 30. This year’s other winners are Lilach Mousseiri, a teacher at Chai Preschool in San Mateo; Jamie Zimmer, a middle school Jewish studies teacher at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos; Heather Howe, a teacher of third- and fourth-graders at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette; and Meg Adler, assistant director of Jewish life and learning at Camp Tawonga.

Diller Educator Awards committee chair Karen Perlman Kaufman noted in a release that all of the winners “exhibited a deep commitment to their learners, their learners’ families, their institutions and the community.” She added that “we are thrilled to have selected the first ever recipient” of the lifetime achievement award and said  Resnikoff’s “creativity, dedication and impact will leave an imprint on Bay Area Jewish education for generations to come.”

For Resnikoff, the recognition means a great deal.

When she got word of the award, “I was very surprised and very honored,” she said. “Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with amazing colleagues. I believe in working as a team and have always tried to create situations in which we work together and learn from each other. Whatever I have accomplished is the result of that teamwork.”

Her resume includes long stints as a teacher at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley (the Reform synagogue she attended growing up), the now-closed Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, and at her alma mater, Berkeley High School, where she taught Hebrew. Resnikoff also ran the former East Bay Jewish Federation’s lauded Kulanu program, which encouraged non-affiliated Jewish families to deepen their Jewish connections. She served for many years as the director of family education at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael and is currently the senior educator at Edah Berkeley, a pioneering Jewish after-school program.

In a field that traditionally has left many parents and educators lamenting that too few kids enjoy their Jewish education, Resnikoff has been consistently successful. How’d she do it?

“As a teacher, I was very interested in finding the kids where they are and not assuming they would love Hebrew school,” she said. “I made a huge effort to engage the kids for whom this was difficult or not meaningful. I tried to find meaningful and fun ways to work with them.”

A Berkeley native who was among Beth El’s first cohort of b’not mitzvah, Resnikoff grew up in an active Jewish home. Her father, Ernie Alexander, was a lay leader for several East Bay Jewish institutions, such as Midrasha, Lehrhaus Judaica and Beth El. Her mother, Fran Alexander, was a leader of her Hadassah chapter. Early on, Resnikoff was smitten by Jewish culture, ritual and the Hebrew language.

“I went to public school, and I loved identifying as the Jewish kid,” she recalled. “I loved to share my matzah.”

Her involvement with Young Judaea sparked a deeper interest in Hebrew and Zionism. As a teen, she helped teach at Beth El’s Sunday school, and after high school, she lived in Israel for a year, cementing her command of the language. She later graduated from UC Berkeley, obtained a teaching credential and began her long career as an educator.

She made aliyah after marrying Joel Resnikoff and taught in Israel for six years. She is also an author, having co-written one of the most popular Biblical Hebrew self-teaching books, “The First Hebrew Primer,” first published in 1992.

Resnikoff and her husband belong to Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, where she has served as president and as a board member. Their adult children have followed in mama’s footsteps, with both their daughters now school teachers, one son a rabbi and teacher at a yeshiva in New York and another son studying in Israel on a Fulbright scholarship.

That would be enough nachas for any one person, but Resnikoff said she still runs into former students of hers, many now well into adulthood, who remember her with fondness and gratitude.

She said she plans to donate her $6,000 bonus prize to Studio 70, the parent nonprofit of the Edah program she serves today.

Everything Resnikoff does goes back to her deep love of Judaism, Jewish history, the Jewish people and the Hebrew that binds them together.

“It’s kind of a miracle that the ancient language is alive,” she said.

The Diller Educator Awards will be presented online at 4 p.m. Sept. 30. The event is free. Keynote address by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York. For info and registration visit Diller Educator Awards Virtual Celebration | Jewish Community Federation (

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.