Press Releases


September 24, 2012

$15,000 Jewish Educator Awards Surprise Four Jewish Day School Educators

Milken Family Foundation continues tradition of honoring excellence in education

SANTA MONICA, CA (Sept. 24) – This morning, Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, Head of School at Maimonides Academy and Rabbi Usher Klein, a ninth-grade yeshiva rebbe at Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok, were caught by complete surprise when, during schoolwide assemblies, they were named Jewish Educator Award (JEA) recipients for 2012. Leading the unexpected presentations was Milken Family Foundation Executive Vice President, Richard Sandler, who also serves as Chairman of the Board of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation. BJE Executive Director Dr. Gil Graff also officiated. Two 2012 JEA recipients, Mary Itri from Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School and Lidia Turner from Saperstein Middle School of Milken Community High School, were honored on September 21st.

The JEA program was established in 1990 by the Milken Family Foundation, in cooperation with BJE, as an adjunct to the Foundation’s National Educator Awards program. Each year the program gives public recognition and unrestricted $15,000 cash awards to teachers, administrators and other education professionals in the Greater Los Angeles area who have made significant contributions to excellence in education in day schools affiliated with BJE.

“The Jewish Educator Awards call upon others in the profession to emulate the high standards of those we honor today – educators whose intelligence, scholarship, creativity and compassion help guide children to greater success, while preserving the heritage that gives meaning to that success,” said Mr. Sandler.

As a general studies teacher for 26 years at Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School, Mary Itri, who teaches 4th – 6th graders, has influenced generations of students. She embodies the school’s mission of recognizing each child’s unique gifts, nurturing creativity, encouraging individual development, and inspiring a love of learning. A consummate educator, Mrs. Itri possesses a deep understanding of high-level pedagogical practices, knowledge of curriculum and differentiation, and outstanding classroom management skills. She has served as a grade-level chairperson and mentored both Delet Fellows and student teachers. Colleagues look to her as a leader and role model.

Each year she directs the school’s Spring Musical which is widely recognized for its extraordinary level of professionalism. From spending her summer breaks selecting and adapting the play to building community partners who help ensure a successful outcome, Ms. Itri is the driving force behind the entire production. Not only does she use this opportunity to instruct students about self-confidence and oral presentations, she weaves in Judaic values of Tsniut or modesty, as she teaches, and models, the importance of humility.

As the iconic ninth-grade yeshiva rebbe at Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok, Rabbi Usher Klein spent seven years at YULA, where he solidified an Advanced Gemara track before founding Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok in 2006. For incoming students, the opportunity to anchor a high school career with Rabbi Klein as the ninth-grade rebbe is a primary reason for the school’s waiting list of students from a variety of yeshivas. A gifted pedagogue, Rabbi Klein gives students the basic textual and conceptual skills to confidently navigate the often daunting Talmudic texts. His energetic presentation and genuine respect for students is known to transform even those who previously dreaded Talmudic study into students eager to delve deeper into learning. Rabbi Klein’s home is open 24/7 to students. They always have a place for Shabbat meals and the Friday night Oneg Shabbat which is frequently hosted in the Klein home.

Rabbi Klein’s influence extends beyond his high school students. He teaches Talmud to adults every afternoon in the Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok Beit Midrash and presents adult Talmud classes two nights a week at YOLA. As a trained and certified sofer (scribe), he is often called upon to check a mezuzah or correct a sefer Torah, and he is a sought-after speaker in many Pico-Robertson area congregations. He refuses remuneration for all of these important services, even as he enriches the life of the community.

When Rabbi Baruch Kupfer was recruited as executive director of Maimonides Academy in 1984, the school had 184 pupils. Today, Maimonides is at capacity with 520 students from ages three through eighth grade and Rabbi Kupfer presides as head of school. While Maimonides teaches Sephardic heritage, more than half the school’s population is not Sephardic. Under his leadership, the school’s culture of excellence is characterized by highly qualified educators who continually improve thanks to professional development opportunities, ongoing refinements to the instructional program and an array of arts and enrichment programs. The school endeavors to reach and teach the individual child, regardless of where they are on the learning spectrum.

Understanding the importance of home and family on students, Rabbi Kupfer personally conducts adult education seminars in Jewish texts for Maimonides parents. In the community, he represents the yeshiva cluster of schools on the BJE committee focused on building day school operational capacity. Baruch, “blessed,” is aptly descriptive of the contributions of Rabbi Kupfer to Jewish day school education in Los Angeles.

With a guitar always at the ready, Lidia Turner infuses music into her Israel and Hebrew curriculum as a way of incorporating the students’ senses into their learning at Saperstein Middle School of Milken Community High School. A dynamic teacher who makes Hebrew relevant, meaningful and engaging, Ms. Turner maintains a close pulse on the emotional and academic well-being of each of her students and is skilled at supporting students in meeting her high standards. A master teacher from whom other educators hone their teaching skills, she leads Israel education and programming for faculty and students alike.

The heart of her work has been the visioning and implementation of the Nofim Israel Education Program. In partnership with Rachel Korazim, she developed the Nofim lab in the middle school to bring Israel to life on campus. Rich with primary source texts on Israeli history and culture, the lab bridges the geographic divide in an experiential, multi-media setting. Under Ms. Turner’s leadership, cohorts of faculty travel to Israel to advance their professional development, studying with Israeli scholars, historians and artists.

The Award recipients are selected by a committee of educators, professional and lay leaders from the Jewish community who have a long-standing concern for and involvement with education in Jewish schools. To be eligible for consideration, educators must teach a minimum of 15 hours per week at the kindergarten through 12th grade level; they must have been teaching for a minimum of seven years in a BJE-affiliated school; and they must hold a class "A" or higher scale rating (for Judaic teachers) or a state teaching credential (for general studies teachers).

The criteria considered for the selection of Jewish Educator Award recipients include:

  • Exceptional educational talent and promise, as demonstrated by outstanding practices in the classroom, school and community.
  • Evidence of originality, dedication and capacity for leadership and self-direction.
  • Commitment to influencing policies that affect children, their families and schools.
  • Strong long-range potential for even greater contribution to children, the profession and society.
  • Distinguished achievement in developing innovative educational curricula, programs and/or teaching methods.
  • Outstanding ability to instill in students character and self-confidence.
  • Outstanding ability to develop Jewish children's understanding of the connections between their religion, their classroom activities, and their activities beyond the classroom.
  • Commitment to professional development and excellence and the continuing Judaic and/or secular study necessary for it.
  • Personal involvement in responding to the needs of the Jewish and secular communities.
  • Criteria for administrators also include outstanding ability to attract, support and motivate committed education professionals.

Recipients, together with their families and community leaders, will be honored during an awards luncheon in Los Angeles on December 13, 2012.