December 14, 2018

Rabbi wins big for education innovation

Rabbi Yisroel Boruch Sufrin, head of school at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, has been awarded a $36,000 grant  — plus $5,000 for his school — from a New York foundation that supports Jewish education.

On May 19, the Covenant Foundation announced Sufrin as one of three national winners of its prestigious Covenant Award. 

Although he feels very grateful for the award — which he may use as he sees fit, while the school must fund ideas and projects that innovate the field of Jewish education — Sufrin said he has yet to decide what he will do with it. 

“I don’t know yet. I haven’t given it a thought. The whole thing is still sinking in,” Sufrin told the Journal. “It’s nice to be recognized so generously, and I’m sure we’ll figure something out.”

Sufrin has been involved in Jewish education formally for 30 years, but, informally, “for most of my life,” he said, 

“I was born into a family that was involved in education. I assisted in running youth groups and Shabbat and sort of went through the ranks of informal education in the form of youth groups and camps,” he said. “I worked at the Hebrew Academy of Miami Beach, and then I moved to L.A. over 10 years ago, in 2003, to work at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy.”

There he’s become an influential and charismatic educational leader, according to Dawn Kreisberg, the school’s early childhood education director, who nominated Sufrin for the award. 

“I nominated him because he represents authentic Jewish educational leadership,” she told the Journal. “His vision and his commitment to quality education, his love for children, and his dedication to his staff and community is exemplary. He’s been a role model who inspires both teachers and students. Rabbi Sufrin researches and implements new, innovative academic programs for students.”

Miriam Heller Stern, dean at the Graduate Center for Education at American Jewish University and a Harkham Hillel parent, praised the school and its head in a press release from the Covenant Foundation. 

“Hillel has become a place where children can truly experience the joy of being practicing Jews, learning Jews, and part of a caring, nonjudgmental Jewish community,” she said. “Rabbi Sufrin is driven by a genuine love of children and a dedication to nurturing their curiosity, passion, goodness and uniqueness as individuals. He honors every child as a human being.”

Harkham Hillel, an Orthodox Jewish school of 580 students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, has changed and modernized under Sufrin’s leadership, evolving to better serve students in the modern world. 

“We’ve actually done a pretty thorough overhaul,” he said. “We’ve addressed almost every area that’s possible to address in a school without changing the essence of it, which is a strong sense of commitment to building a positive educational environment. The challenge was to take an institution that was set in its ways and get it to refocus and reach out to a generation going into the 21st century.”

Sufrin said he and his colleagues started off with a strategic plan and a clear vision. They overhauled the math curriculum, the writing program and the Judaic studies curriculum, enhanced the science program, adding pre-engineering and a focus on science, math and technology, and worked on a community-building program.

“We overhauled most of our curriculum to give it a focus on what we call a child-centered curriculum. The focus is on outcomes and what students can do, as opposed to meeting certain objectives,” Sufrin said. 

His achievements did not go unnoticed. After being nominated for the Covenant Award, he was put in a pool of 150 other nominees from across the country before being selected as one of only three winners. Alison Kur of Massachusetts and Rebecca Schorsch of Illinois were the other recipients.

According to the foundation’s executive director, Harlene Appelman, the selection is “an academic and peer-review process” in which nominations are read by peer reviewers across the country, who “rank them in terms of excellence, innovation and creativity,” among other factors. Twenty nominees were invited to submit a portfolio of their work, and about a dozen finalists were visited by staff before the winners were chosen.

Sufrin earned the prize, Appelman said, because “he is incredibly innovative, super generous of spirit, a star teacher. … We watched him interact with kids, faculty, parents, and in every case he just displayed a huge amount of empathy and interest. He’s also very keen on 21st-century education. Technology doesn’t frighten him. In fact, he embraces it.”

He also embraces the connection between Judaism and education. “The process of education is the mainstay of the Jewish religion, in terms of its survival,” Sufrin said. “What the next generation takes with them is a set of values with a divine message and purpose.” 

As for his philosophy on education, Sufrin said, “The simpler the philosophy, the more profound it is: Create a positive learning environment and focus on allowing the students to connect to what we want them to accomplish and you will succeed.”