December 12, 2018

Milken honors educators

We are planting seeds — not me, but all of us.”

With those words of hope offered to her fellow teachers, Lidia Turner, a seventh- and eighth-grade Hebrew teacher at the David Saperstein Middle School of Milken Community High School, accepted the Milken Family Foundation’s 2012 Jewish Educator Award during an assembly at her school on Sept. 21.

Turner is one of four teachers this year who will be honored — along with winners of the foundation’s student essay contest — during an invitation-only luncheon at the Luxe Hotel in Bel Air on Dec. 13. 

The other winners of the Jewish Educator Award are Rabbi Usher Klein, a ninth-grade yeshiva rebbe at Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok; Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, executive director at Maimonides Academy; and Mary Itri, a fifth-grade general studies teacher at Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School.

The annual prize, which comes with an unrestricted $15,000 cash award, recognizes outstanding teachers, administrators and other education professionals in the Greater Los Angeles area who work at day schools affiliated with BJE – Builders of Jewish Education. The award was established in 1990.

“We only give four of these awards every year to recognize excellence, and the reason we do that is not only to honor those that get the award but to honor the teaching profession in general,” said Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation.

As part of the foundation’s mission of leading advances in education, the award recognizes outstanding Jewish day school educators while increasing public support for them and raising awareness of their contributions to the community and society. The cash award also encourages able, caring and creative people to choose a career in education, according to the foundation’s Web site. 

The award recognizes a cross-section of elementary- and secondary-school educators from across the Jewish spectrum. The foundation works in cooperation with BJE, the central agency for Jewish education in Los Angeles, in identifying winners, who have received a total of more than $1.2 million to date.

Itri, who describes her teaching as high-energy, nurturing and compassionate, has taught at Stephen S. Wise in Bel Air for more than 25 years — directing the school’s spring musical for the last 15 years. She continues to hone her skills by participating in professional development workshops, she said.

Klein is one of the founders of Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok, a boys’ yeshiva school in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood that has a waiting list of students. He teaches Talmud and keeps his home open for students to visit for study sessions and Shabbat meals. 

When Kupfer became executive director in 1984 of Maimonides Academy, an Orthodox Sephardic day school in West Hollywood, the school had 184 pupils. Now it has grown to 520 students and operates at capacity. Kupfer says that character development is an “integral part of the fabric of the school.” He is responsible for the institution’s financial health, working with board members and lay leaders to fundraise. 

Turner, who says her instruction is interactive and musical — she plays guitar during class — has been teaching for 36 years, including 18 years at Milken. Additionally, she co-created the Nofim program, a middle- and high-school experiential curriculum that focuses on Israeli history and culture. 

Aside from their unique teaching and leadership styles, each educator brings a unique personal background to the classroom. Itri, for example, is Catholic, but she said she feels a “kinship and comradeship” with Stephen Wise’s community, as the values and beliefs of Judaism and Catholicism are “aligned with one another.” 

Kupfer’s background is Ashkenazi, but he admires the academy’s commitment to preserving Sephardi life. 

“To see it flourishing and developing and to see people trying to hold on to tradition and culture in such a special way meant a lot to me,” he said. 

Turner was born in Uruguay, and one of her first teaching jobs was at a high school there where she was a former student. As a child, she wrote in her diary that her goal was to become a Hebrew teacher one day. 

In September, foundation representatives visited the teachers’ schools to announce the winners during surprise assemblies. Itri was caught completely off-guard. 

“I’m still jumping for joy and going over the moon about it. I never dreamt it was me,” she said.

Because Kupfer is executive director at his school, it was particularly difficult to keep the winner under wraps. In his case, BJE and the foundation came up with a ruse, telling Kupfer there was an urgent matter that needed his attention. Then, a faculty member led him into the assembly hall where cameras, students, faculty and applause were waiting. 

“I was overwhelmed … to be recognized and applauded is always a tremendous feeling of worth and accomplishment,” he said.

The winners said that they had expected educators other than themselves to be honored. Before her name was announced, Turner looked at those around her, wondering who might be this year’s recipient. 

“I was looking around the room, looking for who it could be,” Turner said. “I wasn’t thinking about me. I was thinking about so many professionals that we have around us, and so many of them deserve an award like this.”