Traditional Torah Training in a Progressive School

by R. Wineberg - S. LOUIS, MO

November 27, 2002

Six year old Simon Handmaker of St. Louis, Mo, is getting the best of both worlds, claims his father, Billy Handmaker. A father of two and headmaster of Crossroads, a private elementary school that prides itself on integrating the latest advances in education into the curriculum, Billy Handmaker has found a place for his son’s Jewish education that meets that criteria as well: Chabad of St. Louis’ newly established Spirit of Sinai Jewish Learning Center, an “entirely new, innovative concept in after-school Jewish education,” says Mrs. Shiffy Landa, director of the school and a successful educator with two decades of experience in and out of the classroom.

The center’s approach to education is based on the theory of Multiple Intelligences, developed in the 80’s by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner. Combined with the vibrancy of traditional Judaism, and small teacher-student ratios, the method—a very hands-on approach focuses on the individual strengths or ‘intelligences’ of each child—has been garnering rave reviews from parents and students, like Billy Handmaker, who is thrilled with his son’s enthusiasm for Hebrew School and the sheer amount of knowledge he has retained.

Last week, about 300 community members and supporters gathered at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis for the “Lamplighter Award Celebration,” the city’s first Chabad fundraising dinner, celebrating the opening of the Spirit of Sinai, and the recently established Chabad on Campus, serving students at local colleges, including Washington University and others. (see archives 7/31/2002). The dinner’s theme, “Lamplighters,” was based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s call to act as lamplighters in the effort to spread Judaism to every corner of the world.

Co-chaired by Pam & Neil Lazaroff and Lisa & Dugie Baron, the dinner honored community members David & Jill Mogil and Isaac & Isabel Boniuk, presenting them with a silver menorah and the “Lamplighter Award” for their longstanding devotion and support of Chabad activities in the city.

Comedian Rueven Russel emceed the event and entertained the audience with anecdotes from his own return to Judaism, made possible, he said, by “lamplighters,” Chabad Lubavitch representatives in different cities who illuminated for him his path of return.

Samantha Shanker, a seven year-old student at Spirit of Sinai, addressed the crowd telling them about her experience at the school. “Hebrew school this year isn’t boring for me,” she told them. “Instead of just listening to the teacher, we have a lot of stuff to do, and we learn about Judaism that way. Spirit of Sinai has really made me love being Jewish.”

The school expects steady growth in the years to come, but will always keep classes small, says Shiffy Landa. “The results we have been achieving using active learning instead of passive, and close teacher-student relationships that allow the teacher to work with the child using their strengths, have been outstanding,” she says, pointing to the example of a five year old student who learned to read Hebrew before she learned English, over a short period of only several months at the school.

Jill Mogil, honored at the dinner along with her husband, says Chabad’s success with the dinner and with the community, in 23 years of service, is due in a large part to their “open, non judgmental warmth toward every person.” Involved with the Landa’s since their arrival in the city in 1980, Jill points to Chabad’s contributions to her family and the community at large. “They have truly brought Judaism alive to so many people in St. Louis.”

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