2021 Lainer and Smotrich Religious School Award Winners

BJE Honors Religious School Educators

Like educators in so many settings, teachers and administrators in part-time religious schools rose to the challenges of this year in a huge way, pivoting overnight to digital platforms, and often providing critical emotional support to students overwhelmed by the pandemic. It is BJE’s great privilege to honor six of these educators.

BJE’s Smotrich Award is given annually to “up and coming” religious school educators – two individuals who have completed two to four years of teaching. Winning teachers receive a $1,000 prize, and the school receives a $500 prize. BJE’s Lainer Award is presented annually to three veteran educators – those who have been in the field at least five years.  Winning educators receive a $2,500 prize. The awards are made possible through the generosity of the Smotrich Family Foundation and an endowment at BJE established by the Simha and Sara Lainer Foundation.

Recipients are chosen from among nominations submitted by BJE-affiliated part-time religious school programs. Read what nominators said about this year’s awardees:

Maggie Boyles, Sinai Temple

“Maggie is a bright, engaging and thoughtful human, which translates into her classroom as a teacher who deeply cares about her students. We need teachers right now who are both high tech and high touch. It is what our kids need and want. Maggie has both of those in spades. She is caring. She listens. She connects. It is clear she is an elite teacher with a bright future ahead.”

Hannah Jannol, Temple Akiba

“Hannah thinks out of the box for activities that work in the classroom and has transitioned beautifully to zoom. She utilizes technology to her advantage to plan fun, interactive lessons. Hannah has used creative writing as a way to engage her students in connection with their own Judaism and the world around them. Her caring manner has given her students the confidence they need to succeed. Hannah goes above and beyond ….” 

Heidi Birnbaum, Temple Etz Chaim

“Heidi is a fantastic, talented teacher, whether in-person or in her ZoomRoom, to actively teach Judaism, and because of this innate ability, she brings Judaism to life. Her students are mesmerized as she tells stories, explains concepts, and creatively piques each student's interest in the day's topic. Students especially enjoy the "extras" that she offers. Heidi is one of those special teachers who genuinely makes a difference. Both her current and previous students treasure and embrace their Religious School experience because of her. To say she is an amazing teacher would be an understatement." 

Judy Soffer, Temple Aliyah

“Judy is not only an exceptional teacher, but she is also an outstanding human being, one that our students can look to as a Jewish role model. She is always looking to add to her skills and to grow as an educator. In many ways, what she has done this year is merely a continuation of what she has done in years past. Judy has always tried to keep her teaching fresh and relevant to her students. All in all, Judy Soffer is the kind of teacher that people treasure.”

Rabbi Adam Lutz, Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills and Rabbi Rebecca Yussman, Temple Menorah (Jointly Recognized)

“Rabbis Lutz and Yussman played fundamental roles in the Religious Schools Educators Network’s (RSEN) efforts to support part time Jewish schools as they were forced to go online. Together, they conceived, developed, and taught more than 10 sessions over five months to their fellow educators on such topics as: working with the intricacies of Zoom, Padlet, Google Classroom, and other useful online tools and Platforms. These rabbis were incredibly generous with their time, preparing materials for each session, teaching for an hour a week, and following up with individuals who had questions – all as volunteers.

When it became clear that the education directors needed additional help in preparing teachers to use them (online tools and Platforms), Rabbis Lutz and Yussman worked with the BJE staff to make short, accessible instructional videos for religious school teachers, teaching them the basics of how to use each tool and platform. This resource was utilized by teachers in over a dozen schools in the Fall of 2020; and many educators viewed these resources as essential in making their online programs successful in a Zoom-fatigued world.”