February 22, 2020
Photos courtesy of Milken Family Foundation

Honoring Local Heroes of Jewish Education

When she was young, Fanny Koyman never thought about pursuing a career in day-school education. And, accordingly, she certainly never imagined she would one day be honored for her excellence in teaching.

But three decades after joining the staff at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, Koyman — now the lead Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher for the school’s transitional kindergarten and kindergarten classes — recently stood on the stage of the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel ballroom to accept the award. 

“Thirty years have gone by at Heschel Day School and I realize the reason and the lesson my great-grandfather and grandfather passed down to me,” Koyman said.  “Every day we pass on the sacred Hebrew language that unites our Jewish people to our children so that they can continue the tradition.” 

Koyman is one of four local day-school educators to be honored with the 29th Annual Jewish Educator Awards (JEA). The other honorees are Florette Benhamou, a first-grade teacher at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills; Rabbi Shimon Abramczik, a Judaic studies teacher and dean of students at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA) in Pico-Robertson; and Patty Tanner, a K-6 math coordinator and sixth-grade general studies teacher at Wise School in Bel-Air. The awards were presented at a luncheon in December.

“Overcome with such strong feelings upon seeing his son, Jacob recited the Shema. Doing so, Abramczik said, was an act of passion that could inform how educators ought to approach their work.” 

The granddaughter of a rabbi, Koyman was born in Fez, Morocco, where her mother was a stenographer for the king and her father owned a tire factory. In 1969, when she was in first grade, her family moved to Israel. 

Inspired by her grandfather and his passion for Jewish law, Koyman enrolled in the pre-law program at Tel Aviv University. But in 1986 she put those plans on hold when she moved to Los Angeles with her husband so he could pursue his studies. Koyman took a job as a Hebrew tutor for the son of Heschel Day School’s head of  Hebrew and Judaic studies, Luisa Latham.

Fanny Koyman, the lead Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher for transitional kindergarten and kindergarten at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School.
Photos courtesy of Milken Family Foundation

Latham encouraged Koyman to continue her studies, and while pursuing a degree at UCLA in psychology, Koyman became a teacher’s assistant at Heschel. In 1992, she began teaching the school’s first transitional kindergarten class. She has been on the school’s faculty ever since.

The Milken Family Foundation (MFF), a private Santa Monica-based organization focused on supporting education and medical research, in 1990 began giving the annual award to four outstanding teachers, administrators or other education professionals from Jewish day schools across Los Angeles. To date, 133 educators have received the award, which includes a $15,000 prize.

The MFF selected the 2018 winners from a pool of more than 1,000 educators from 37 Builders of Jewish Education (BJE)-accredited day schools, which submitted candidates for consideration. An MFF committee narrowed the list of nominees to about a dozen finalists. BJE then sent its staff members to the schools to observe the teachers in their classrooms before the four winners were chosen.

“Part of the reason we are doing this is to drive home the fact that a teacher is respected and kids should consider education as a profession, that a teacher can make a difference.”
— Richard Sandler

To be eligible for the awards, an educator must work at least 15 hours per week at the K-12 level and have worked a minimum of seven years at a BJE-affiliated school. Nominees are judged on their educational talent, leadership skills and commitment to their students. They must also show potential for greater contributions to the teaching profession, their community and society beyond their current positions.

In addition to recognizing top educators, the awards are intended to make a career in teaching more attractive to young people, who tend to think of teaching as a one-way ticket to being overworked and underpaid, said MFF Executive Vice President Richard Sandler. 

“Part of the reason we are doing this is to drive home the fact that a teacher is respected and kids should consider education as a profession, that a teacher can make a difference,” Sandler said. “Every one of us can talk about that special one, two or three teachers that affected us.”

Sandler is a member of the committee that decides the winners. Each year, he and BJE Executive Director Gil Graff announce the winners during surprise assemblies at the winners’ schools. 

“One of the things you find about great teachers and great principals is they don’t expect to be honored,” Sandler said. “They just realize this is what they do, they know why they do it, and they get their recognition from the fact that they get to work with kids. They see kids grow and the difference they make in people’s lives.”

Patty Tanner, the K-6 math coordinator for Wise School in Los Angeles.

Wise School’s Tanner attested to Sandler’s remarks when she accepted her award, noting that many of her former students continue to correspond with her and tell her the impact she had on them. A former buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue before becoming a teacher 30 years ago, Tanner said that even though teaching may not pay as well as other careers, the legacy she leaves her students makes up for the difference in financial compensation.

“At Saks, you are dealing with numbers and sales,” she told the Journal. “You are dealing with people here. You are interacting with people and their lives and what can be better.”

Sandler said the most memorable JEA winners are those like Koyman and Tanner, who discuss what motivates them in the classroom. “They consider it a privilege that they have the opportunity to teach,” he said. “They talk about the people in their lives who inspired them, how the students energize them every day.”

During her acceptance speech, Koyman spoke about how she used technology and experiential education to help her students learn Hebrew and Judaic studies. She designed imaginary trips to Israel by having her students create pretend passports and board mock El Al flights. They then visit stations simulating the Israel experience, including sampling fresh produce at The Shuk marketplace, and experimenting with floating eggs in salt water like in the Dead Sea. She also has brought 3D printing into the classroom, allowing students to make mezuzot they designed themselves.

“Judaism was the foundation that supported me throughout my life, and it is the same foundation I pass on to all our Jewish children,” Koyman said to the awards gathering. “Looking at where I am, I see how my past influenced my future and brought me to where I am today.”

Abramczik, the only rabbi among the latest winners, said he begins every school day at YULA with an optional 7:30 a.m. Talmud study session for students. Abramczik began teaching at YULA 12 years ago after earning his degree in Talmudic Letters at Yeshivat Bais Yisroel in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Shimon Abramczik, dean of students at YULA Boys High School.

Abramczik is also the Israel guidance counselor for seniors, helping them plan their upcoming gap years in Israel. He accompanies them on trips to Israel, where they visit yeshivot, and his students are also frequent guests at his Shabbat table. 

At the awards ceremony, Abramczik discussed the week’s Torah portion, which followed the reunion between the patriarch Jacob and his estranged son, Joseph, after 22 years.

Overcome with such strong feelings upon seeing his son, Jacob recited the Shema. Doing so, Abramczik said, was an act of passion that could inform how educators ought to approach their work. 

“We’re all educators,” he said. “People are always watching us. Let’s be passionate about it. If we show passion, that’s what makes a difference.”

The other award recipient, Benhamou, has been teaching at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy for nearly 30 years. The daughter of Jewish immigrants from Myanmar (then known as Burma) and Kolkata, India (then known as Calcutta), Benhamou begins each school day with a morning meeting where students sit on a rug, greet each other, play games and have open discussions.

Florette Benhamou, a first-grade teacher at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy

Benhamou subscribes to the teaching model called Responsive Classroom, which emphasizes that classrooms be inclusive and safe learning spaces. Throughout the day, Benhamou said, she makes a conscious effort to smile at her students and make eye contact with them so that they feel a sense of belonging. 

“[First-grade is] the most rewarding grade, “ she told the Journal, “as you get to see the most growth.” 

After accepting her award, Benhamou returned to her table where her father, Sassoon Ezra, was seated. He stood, placed his hands on Benhamou’s head and blessed her. Though his words were inaudible over the applause, the gesture befitted a day celebrating the passage of Jewish knowledge from one generation to the next.