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Teaneck rabbi wins prestigious teaching award

Mishnah and music” trip nicely off the tongue, and the iMishnah project at the Ramaz School, which combines these two elements, is just one of the reasons that the school’s Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz has won a Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

The award honors outstanding classroom-based teachers working in formal Jewish education settings throughout North America. Schiowitz, a Teaneck resident and religious leader of Cong. Shaare Tefillah there, has been teaching at Ramaz for six years, where he is the rosh beit hamidrash at the upper school.

He began the iMishnah project two years ago after reading an article in The Jewish Standard about a similar endeavor. “The iMishnah project enables students to connect to the words of the Torah/Mishnah through a medium other than the traditional, cognitive one,” Schiowitz said.

When the corresponding biblical/Mishnaic passages are studied in class, the songs are played. The fact that members of a peer group composed the melodies creates real excitement in the class, he said, and the genre and style of the texts belong to the students, giving them ownership of and connecting them directly to the texts, hence the name ‘iMishna.’”

Schiowitz has put together extensive resource materials for the entire Talmud faculty to use in the preparation and presentation of subject matter, said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Ramaz’s principal and the senior rabbi at Cong. Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.

“These sources and resources have become a staple and a model for other teachers who wish to make their own contributions and have thus enhanced the sense of collaboration within the department,” Lookstein said. “Additionally, Rabbi Schiowitz has shared this material with colleagues in other schools on a Website he developed, allowing all teachers from all schools to share. In this way, he has created a broader network of sharing that has impacted faculty in other schools.”

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Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz

It is Schiowitz’s hope that his iMishna project will eventually spread to other schools, he said.

As part of the award Schiowitz will receive $1,500 to be put toward professional development. His colleagues at Ramaz had high praise for the rabbi’s work, which they agreed deserved the recognition.

“Rabbi Schiowitz is an extraordinarily energetic and creative teacher,” said Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, upper school headmaster. “He is one of those rare young men who emerges from having spent years in the bet midrash as a fine scholar and talmid chacham (Talmud scholar), yet is able to relate to teenagers in a meaningful way about their own world and worldview.”

Schiowitz also is “always on the lookout to try something new or present something in an innovative way,” he said. “Whether it’s bringing Talmud manuscripts to class via the Internet or taking advantage of Web 2.0 for collaboration with colleagues around the world or having the school band record mishnayot to music, he is at the cutting edge of using technology toward the furtherance of Torah education.”

Schiowitz also offers a “minicourse” to senior boys on the Jewish approaches to relationships and marriage. Beyond the iMishna program, Schiowitz created a Torah journal for holidays that consists of divrei torah written by students and faculty, and arranged for rabbis of the synagogues where Ramaz students attend to offer a “lunch and learn” session at the school.

He also helps coordinate a kollel program where rabbinical students from Yeshiva University and undergraduates from Stern College spend time in Ramaz Talmud classes. He also serves both as a group adviser and a “yoetz,” a religious adviser for the junior class.

The programs that Schiowitz has developed are “wide-ranging and extremely valuable to the school and its faculty and student body,” Lookstein said.

Schiowitz noted a “confluence” between his work with the school and Shaare Tefillah. Adult learners can offer more challenges, he said, but the younger students have a “freshness” that he finds exciting.

Shaare Tefillah was created a little more than six years ago with a handful of families, and has grown to include more than 60. “It’s really at the beginning still,” Schiowitz said. “It’s exciting to be there from the beginning and see how it develops and grows.”

 
 
 
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