Community Blog For Hebrew College Mother-Daughter Alumnae & Jewish Educators, Jewish Literacy is a Family Value
“You shall teach them diligently to your children.”
Amidst the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, 95-year-old Mildred (“Millie”) Levitt `49 and her daughter Sheryl Schwartz `78 are finding some joy in the birth of their new great-grandson/ grandson, Benjamin. After all, teaching the next generation about Judaism is their life’s work.
Millie (pictured below, right with Benjamin) taught for over 40 years, with stints teaching religious school, Hebrew language, and Torah at multiple schools (the longest stint being Congregation Mishkan Tefila). In addition to her work with schools and congregations, she spent countless hours with the young people in her life, instilling in the next generation a love of Jewish learning and culture. Millie credits her years commuting to Hebrew College Prozdor on Crawford Street (and later on Hawes Street when the College moved in 1952) as the origin of her love of Jewish learning. “I couldn’t wait to get to Hebrew College after finishing my regular school day. I loved Hebrew School. It was where all my friends were. We spoke only Hebrew from the minute we walked in the door. At the time, Camp Yavneh was part of Hebrew College, so I went there too and loved it. Those were wonderful years of lifelong friendships and Jewish learning,” she said. So, when Millie had the chance to supplement her Simmons undergraduate education with Hebrew College’s Jewish education program, she jumped at the chance, earning both a BA from Simmons and a BA in Jewish Education from Hebrew College.
Sheryl, who enjoyed a long career teaching religious school and Hebrew School at Newton-area shuls Temple Mishkan Tefila and Temple Emeth, credits her mom as her inspiration. “I learned so much about Judaism and teaching from my mom,” said Sheryl. She proudly recalls that her mom took the full course load at both schools as a “double load kid.” (Read our story about Hebrew College’s “double load kids.”) Sheryl recalls, “I grew up in a very Jewish home, where Jewish literacy was rooted in everything we did. Mom’s motto was ‘You shall teach them diligently to your children.’ And she did.” Sheryl remembers growing up enjoying her mom’s stories and lessons and attending Prozdor with her brothers. Years later, when she had children of her own, her mom held special teaching sessions at her home each Shabbat for her two daughters and some of their friends. “The kids all went to Hebrew School, but this was something extra Mom wanted to give her grandchildren and their friends. She taught them Israeli dancing, discussed the weekly parsha in ways they could relate to, and more,” Sheryl recalled. “It was a labor of love.” Her daughters went on to attend Camp Yavneh and graduate from Hebrew College Prozdor. (Pictured top: Four generations gathered at Millie’s 95th birthday party. L-r, Sheryl, her daughters Aviva—holding her daughter Emmy—Arielle, and Millie.)
Like her mom, Sheryl also earned undergraduate degrees from Simmons and Hebrew College and was one of the first to complete a new double major program implemented by the two institutions. “I am so grateful to Marty Rabinowitz, the Hebrew College registrar at the time, who helped me navigate the two systems. It was a challenging experience, but so worth it.” Sheryl said she is also indebted to her Hebrew College mentor, Rose Bronstein, who guided her and “taught me the sage advice of חיובי לפני שלילי “chiuvi, l’fnai shli’li.” Positive before negative—lead with praise. She’d say, whenever you are teaching and have a student who may need help or is falling behind, always approach it with the positive. Say, ‘Your comprehension is great. You’re participating in the class, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a little bit more detail when you’re writing?’ Reinforce the positive first. I carried that advice with me throughout my career—and my life.”
At one point in their careers, mother and daughter were both working Temple Mishkan Tefila’s religious school, teaching in adjacent rooms. “It was such fun,” said Sheryl. “If Mom needed some music for a lesson, I’d join her class to sing some prayers and songs.” (In addition to being a seasoned teacher, Sheryl is also a cantorial soloist and trained soprano.) “And if I needed Torah commentary, Mom would come into my class to share stories and commentary on the parsha in a way that the kids understand. She was gifted at it.”
Millie’s love for Hebrew College extends beyond Hebrew school and her formal degree program. As an active alumna, she chaired the Hebrew College Alumni Association, was an active member of the College’s former Women’s Association—chairing their annual balls in the years when the Association held yearly events to raise scholarships for students to attend Camp Yavneh. “Ask anyone from that time. They all remember that Millie Levitt chaired those wonderful galas,” Sheryl recalled. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Sheryl also was an active member of Hebrew Colleges Alumni Association, serving as financial secretary, and,,like her mother, served on the College’s Board of Overseers.
“My late Dad Al, z”l and my husband Joseph were both incredibly supportive of my Mom and me and our involvement with Hebrew College, Camp Yavneh and our mother/daughter teaching team”!” said Sheryl. For their deep connection and devotion to Hebrew College and Jewish education, both mother and daughter were awarded Hebrew College’s prestigious Sidney Hillson Award. Perhaps the description accompanying Sheryl’s 2004 award best encapsulates Hebrew College’s gratitude for their work and support:
“Through a life devoted to Jewish practice and the highest ideals of Jewish tradition, Sheryl Levitt Schwartz has become a living role model for the children who have been privileged to call her morah… Whether she’s teaching about the Jewish holidays and festivals, or Hebrew Bible, Ms. Schwartz never fails to convey her love of Judaism and how Jewish practices have enriched her life, with a gift for storytelling and musical talent…she is proud to continue another family tradition. Ms. Schwartz’s mother, Mildred Levitt, a 1949 Hebrew College graduate and longtime teacher at Mishkan Tefila, received the Sidney Hillson Award from Hebrew College in 1995.”
“My mom was a pioneer. As an educator. As an event chairperson. And most of all, as a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother,” said Sheryl. “Little Emmy and Benjamin are so lucky!”
Today, Hebrew College offers a Master in Jewish Education degree, graduate-level certificates, and professional development offerings for Jewish educators through MaTaRoT: Hebrew College Center for Jewish Professional Learning & Leadership.