Three local educators are recipients of a newly established award in memory of three of the Washington Jewish community’s master educators.
MollyBeth Rushfield, a lower school teacher at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, was the inaugural recipient of the Avi West Jewish Education Award.
An anonymous gift made possible awards for Debra Beland Ackerman, the director of education and youth activities at Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, and Sharon Freundel, managing director of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, according to The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Each will receive $5,000.
Rushfield has been an educator for more than three decades. In addition to teaching, she leads dance groups, serves as a director and teacher at camps, and tutors students in preparation for their b’nai mitzvah.
Rushfield says her classroom is unique, designed to fit the needs of every student. Over the years, Rushfield has experimented with adding cooking lessons into the curriculum and replacing chairs with yoga balls.
Rushfield’s playful experimentation is similar to that of Avi West, according to West’s daughter, Liron West Silbert. West, who died in 2021, worked in the region’s Jewish education institutions for more than 40 years. He worked for the Board of Jewish Education, the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, and the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.
“Avi was one of my mentors and someone I really looked up to when I was young a educator,” Rushfield said, adding that she looked up to “his smile and happiness and eagerness to spread joy.”
Liron West Silbert was a member of the committee that chose the recipients. Silbert thought Rushfield was a great choice because of her “love for education and spirit. She disseminates information with costumes and skits and creativity. It’s all what my dad used to do.”
Ackerman was awarded in the memory of Barry Krasner, who spent more than two decades as the education director of the Consolidated Religious School, a consortium of five Montgomery County synagogues, and later had roles in a succession of local Jewish education agencies. Krasner died in 2022.
Ackerman said she learned she had won from a friend who sat on the awards committee.“To be associated with Barry Krasner, who was a mentor and a friend, made the phone call really meaningful,” Ackerman said.
Ackerman has worked in education in Conservative and Reform congregations, in the JCC movement and at Jewish camps. She currently serves as the chair of the Education Directors Council of Northern Virginia.
She said she hopes to use the $5,000 prize to attend a year-long program through the Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. The program focuses on theory and practices for educators, which Ackerman hopes she can pass on to the Washington community.
“Judaism is centered in the world of education,” Ackerman said. “We have to learn how to be Jewish.”
Freundel’s award is in memory of Shulamith Reich Elster. Elster, who died last February, was the head of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and a founder of Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax. She was a chief education officer of the Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education, executive director of Hillel of Greater Washington, as well as the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.
“Shulamith was an out of the box thinker,” Freundel said, “She looked around and said, ‘What do we need to do to strengthen Jewish education?’ After she calculated that, she figured out how she could make it into reality.”
Freundel was spiritual guidance counselor of the Upper School at the Berman Hebrew Academy. And, most recently, director of Jewish life at the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital.
The Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, which Freundel leads, is a national organization whose mission is to catalyze radical improvement in Jewish day schools, she said.
“We want to challenge day schools to achieve their mandate of optimizing student internalization of Jewish wisdom, identity and decision making,” Freundel said.
(The Jewish Education Innovation Challenge was initiated and is incubated by the Mayberg Foundation. Louis and Manette Mayberg, trustees of the Mayberg Foundation, are members of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.)
“When a child gets a bad grade in Judaic studies, they may feel like they’re being graded on what kind of Jew they are,” Freundel said. “They may feel so much pressure that when they graduate from day school, they never want to open a Jewish book again. What a tragedy that would be.” ■
Molly Zatman is a freelance writer.