By David Zenlea

Nearly 3000 students attended Federation-supported day schools last year. The schools cater to different segments and age groups within the community, yet they share the mission of nurturing children in a Jewish environment. Last year they faced the same challenge: restoring normalcy after years of pandemic-impacted learning. 

We gathered educators to talk about the joys and challenges from the past year, their hopes going forward and their shared zeal for Jewish learning. From left to right in the photo above we spoke to: Lissie Rothstein, Director of Special Education and Support Services, Yeshiva Beth Yehudah; Chana Steinmetz, Preschool Director, Yeshiva Darchei Torah; Rabbi Ari Ellis, 3rd-grade Judaics teacher, Farber Hebrew Day School; Rebecca Strobehn, Rabbinics instructor, Frankel Jewish Academy; and Phreddy Nosanwisch, Judaics teacher, Hillel Day School. 

“The younger kids didn’t know how to be in school” 

Rabbi Ari Ellis
Rabbi Ari Ellis

Rabbi Ari Ellis: I’ve taught third, fourth, and fifth grade the last couple of years. The younger kids didn’t know how to be in school. The first graders had not ever eaten in the lunch room with the other. Things like, where you get a fork, and where are bentchers for Birkat HaMazon [grace after meals]—parts of our daily routine—those things were new to them. 

Chana Steinmetz: In terms of coming out of the pandemic, I think little children were least impacted. There was no big academic gap. Now, our kindergartners who went to first grade, there was [a gap] because they missed out on instruction—even though we did it by phone and with packets. Parents had multiple children, and it wasn’t always easy for them to be next to every child.  

Healing trauma—and not just from the pandemic  

Lissie Rothstein
Lissie Rothstein

Lissie Rothstein: One of the things that we’re looking at is trauma informed teaching—and not just having to do with the pandemic. We live in a society where children are impacted by things that maybe 25 years ago, they were not—even children in whose homes the internet is not a major feature. When a teacher walks into a classroom, and say she has 20 students, probably at least four or five children have been impacted by something that could look like trauma. Not something that we would find on the ACES interview, but just a sort of a trauma. A teacher needs to walk into a classroom really prepared to use language and feelings and allow all children to feel that sense of belonging to allow their brains to be ready to and open to learning. 

“There’s nothing like being in relationship” 

Phreddy Nosanwisch
Phreddy Nosanwisch

Phreddy Nosanwisch: I have so many friends who do remote work now. There’s nothing like being in a relationship with peers—talking about poetry with an English teacher, practicing Hebrew with a colleague; everybody shares the same passion. Then I get the kids, a radically connecting relationship. Even with a mask it was so special to be in the room learning with people. Moshe Rabbeinu had to wear a mask to be around people. But he was still there amongst them. 

Rebecca Strobehn: I think that the transitions of the last couple years have made me aware, more than ever, how the sort of socio-emotional atmosphere of high school is as if not more important than the academic learning. To bring back some of those things that are so core to the school culture and to Jewish culture in the school feels really good. 

Rebecca Strobehn
Rebecca Strobehn

A full spirit weekend, full school assemblies; the Shabbatons were all full, everyone wanted to be a part of it. The energy and the joy around the school dances and prom and graduation—all these things where we couldn’t do any of these things before. Or the all-school Hallel, where we shove ourselves maniacally into the porch of the JCC. The freedom to have that community, to have that energy, and to let high schoolers be high schoolers. I’ve never appreciated that before in the way that I appreciate it now. 

Rabbi Ellis: Those routines of just being in school are so nice. [This year we brought] parents back for programs on Yom Ha’Atzmaut—we davened together, said Hallel. It was really beautiful. 

A common Jewish foundation 

Lissie Rothstein: We are a community school for the Orthodox community and have been in existence for over 100 years. We [today] have about 1500 students and are servicing about 23 percent of them in our special education department. I really look through the lens of, How are we reaching all of them and allowing them to access the same Jewish education as their peers?  

Chana Steinmetz
Chana Steinmetz

Chana Steinmetz: I think that for all of us here, when you ask what we’re doing in each of our communities, we see ourselves as preparing the future. This is the formal beginning, when they come to school. We give them the positive feelings for Torah, for Hashem, for klal Yisrael [the whole Jewish people]. That’s a foundation. 

Phreddy Nosanwisch: Hillel is a very diverse school—not everybody is going for the same reason. Even kids within one family. So what am I trying to do? Hillel has this motto that I love: Mind, Body, and Soul, Better Together. I recall from Chassidut there’s a concept that the soul has five levels…three are housed in the body and that two higher levels go beyond. I think for our kids, who can go in so many different ways and are going to be so many different people—not just from each other, but even in their own lifetimes—if I can connect them to those parts of their soul that came from their ancestors, from their community, that’s what I hope to do.  

Rebecca Strobehn: Frankel is a community school—we serve a wide spectrum of students. We have courses that serve students who have almost no Jewish background and not a whole lot of Jewish content at home to students who grew up in the modern Orthodox world who have lots of Jewish content and lots of Jewish education. 

We are trying to give students who are 100 percent immersed in the modern world as many rich, authentic, and dynamic access points as possible into Jewish tradition, Jewish history, and Jewish life. We want to help each of the students, no matter where they come from, find a comfortable, meaningful, and authentic place for themselves in the Jewish community, both during high school and moving forward. 

Rabbi Ellis: Farber (called Akiva when I first moved here) is a modern Orthodox religious Zionist school. My wife works here, my kids went here. Farber feels like a family. I love seeing my students at Shul on Shabbat or walking through the neighborhood or at One Stop. 

About our participants

Lissie Rothstein, Director of Special Education and Support Services, Yeshiva Beth Yehudah 
“I have a degree in cognitive impairments and learning disabilities and a master’s in autism education and emotional impairments. About ten years ago, I was approached by Yeshiva Beth Yehudah—I was teaching at Wayne State in the Early Childhood Special Education Department and had also done 14 years in public schools—because they felt a lot of their students were not making it in the regular classes. I did some consulting for them, and then the head of school offered me a new position as director. I retired from public schools at that point, although I continued to work with the Federation and with Friendship Circle. I love working in my community, and I love being able to effect change where it really makes a difference.” 

Chana Steinmetz, Preschool Director, Yeshiva Darchei Torah 
“I moved to Detroit 24 years ago and came to Darchei Torah 12 years ago. Preschool is so nice, because it’s where they start. Darchei is in one building, so I get to see the kids as they grow. I’m very, very passionate about what I do. I think all of us as educators, we just want to see our children growing from little through big with feelings of Yiddishkeit, and that love. 

Rabbi Ari Ellis, 3rd-grade Judaics teacher, Farber Hebrew Day School 
I’m originally from California and I was the Rabbi of a shul in Winnipeg, Canada, a small community. I always wanted to be a teacher, and as a family, we wanted community. That’s what brought us to Detroit. My wife works here at Farber, my kids went here. My wife’s mother, who retired and moved to Detroit, even she works here now part time. One of the things we hear a lot is that Farber feels like family. As an out-of-towner with no family here, that’s one of the things that I love. 

Rebecca Strobehn, Rabbinics instructor, Frankel Jewish Academy  
“I grew up in this community—graduated from Hillel Day School and the Frankel Jewish Academy. I then got my education degree at Jewish Theological Seminary and also got a master’s in Jewish history. I’ve always loved learning Torah. But the moment I realized I wanted to do this all the time was during a year-long fellowship at Hadar in New York. That’s when I thought, “I really want to spend a lot of time learning about this and building community around it.”  

Phreddy Nosanwisch, Judaics teacher, Hillel Day School  
“Yiddishkeit found me in my 30s and it just changed my life for the better. Once I saw it, I couldn’t give it up. I went to Jewish Theological Seminary’s education school and was supposed to do my student teaching in New York. The day I went for my interview, I stopped in a grocery store and the shelves were bare, and [someone] said, “Did you hear the first case of COVID has been reported in New York.” Within a couple of months it became clear that if we came here to Michigan, I’d be able to do my student teaching in person. I just fell in love with Hillel and didn’t want to leave.”