(New York Jewish Week) — When the fire alarm went off at Hebrew Language Academy in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, most of the students knew the routine: They lined up behind their teacher and got ready to calmly leave the building. They were familiar with the mandatory fire drills, a regular part of American school life.
But for some of the children — recent arrivals from Ukraine — the drill was a frightening experience. They crouched on the floor and put their hands over their heads. “We had students that thought it was an alarm or an explosion and they took cover as we were leaving the building,” said Daniella Steinberg, the head of the school.
The Hebrew Language Academy, one of three Hebrew charter schools in New York, accepted more than 60 Ukrainian students at the start of the 2022-2023 school year. The refugee children are adjusting to not one but two new languages — English and Hebrew — and to a whole new way of life, far from the devastating war that has engulfed their home country.
The initiative was started at the end of the last school year by Valerie Khaytina, chief external officer at Hebrew Public, the national movement of Hebrew charter schools, who is herself a Ukrainian with ties to a family fleeing the war-torn country. She was looking for a way to help her acquaintances and others who had to flee Ukraine since the start of the war, so she promoted the school on social media groups geared towards refugees.
Lesya Rybchynsky and her twins, Stefania and Mykola, were the first Ukrainians to enroll at the school. When, halfway through the semester, the family moved to Forest Hills, Queens, and then to Ukrainian Village — an immigrant enclave near Manhattan’s Washington Square Park — they insisted on staying at the school. “No Mommy, we don’t want to leave school,” Rybchynsky remembered them telling her.
Rybchynsky shared her positive experience on social media. “This school is the best,” she said. “They helped my children with everything. With food, clothing, computers.” Her posts on social media brought in a wave of other Ukrainian families that had just come to New York and were looking for a school.
“Even today, we had a new student register,” Steinberg said when she spoke to the New York Jewish Week in October. “As soon as they come, we take them.”
Since then, the school has enrolled several new families and is still accepting students.
To make sure they were prepared for the new students and their needs, the school had to make some structural changes: Nina Henig, special education teacher and a native Russian speaker, was promoted to a new role as the director of the multilingual learners department. She was thrilled to take the job.
Most of the Ukrainian children did not come to the school speaking English. However, many of them speak multiple languages, and have some knowledge of the English alphabet — “sometimes more than you would expect,” said Michael Moore, English teacher and founder of the multilingual learners department.
Henig and Moore pull the students out of their regular classes at least once a day to work with them in small groups. “A lot of it is just survival English, initially,” said Moore. “You’d have to be there. It involves a lot of body language.”
The American students at the school, from kindergarteners to eighth-graders, have been a big help in supporting their Ukrainian classmates. “There’s been no sort of culture shock on either side,” said Moore.
Two older students even volunteered to help the new children with their classwork during lunch. “We’re really, really proud of our kids,” said Steinberg. She recalls seeing the students trying to communicate with each other through Google Translate while waiting for the bus. “It’s been a really beautiful thing to watch.”
But English is not the only new language the Ukrainian students are learning: The charter school also teaches modern Hebrew. Opened in 2009, the Brooklyn school was the first established by the Hebrew Charter School Center (now known as Hebrew Public), a network founded by hedge funder Michael Steinhardt and others (in an effort that predated accusations that Steinhardt propositioned and made sexually inappropriate remarks to women in his role as a philanthropist).
As schools that are publicly funded but privately managed, the Hebrew charters do not provide religious instruction but teach Hebrew language and also offer instruction about Israeli history and culture. The school was diverse even before the influx of Ukrainian children: In 2021, 70% of its 600 students were Black, 20 percent were white and 8 percent were Hispanic and other.
“It kind of gives everybody an opportunity to jump in together,” said Steinberg. “Definitely levels the playing field a little for many.”
In many ways, Henig has been the main point of contact for the Ukrainian students and their families. When the school bell rings, the Ukrainian students run up to her and tell her with excited voices about their day in Ukrainian or Russian (about 68% of Ukrainians speak Ukrainian as a first language, and about 30% of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language) — with one exception: a little boy who is scared of the school bus and usually gets nervous and quiet at the end of the school day. He and his sister have been living in a shelter in the Bronx and have had to commute three hours every day to get to the school. Their mother does not feel comfortable sharing their names.
“They are not living in good conditions,” said Henig. The family has since moved in with friends because they were not able to stay at the shelter any longer.
Henig has been trying to assist wherever possible and started collecting clothing donations for them. At the end of the school day, she picks the boy up at his classroom, takes him by the hand and leads him downstairs. In the hall leading to the buses, he stands in his oversized shirt that matches the dark circles under his eyes and waits for his sister to get out of class. But when the other Ukrainian students show up, his face lights up.
Helping the students adjust to their new environment is not an easy process. “I think the greatest challenge is the trauma that they have experienced,” said Steinberg.
Such trauma can be triggered in everyday situations, like a mandatory fire drill. The teachers had a faculty meeting with an expert on post-traumatic stress and tried to prepare the Ukrainian students by explaining the drill to them beforehand, but some of them still went down to the floor and put their hands over their heads.
“It kind of breaks our hearts,” said Steinberg. “Things that we can’t fix overnight and things that we feel a little bit powerless over and sad for them.” Professional expertise was needed. The school decided to hire a social worker from Ukraine to provide at-risk counseling and other emotional support to the Ukrainian children, three days a week.
With all the stress and trauma that the children have been through over the last months, it is a rewarding experience to see them opening up to their new environment. “I was worried that they wouldn’t be happy. But they are and they are excited to come to school,” said Steinberg. “It’s just the kids starting to feel comfortable, starting to speak English, starting to talk to us, where at the beginning they were so afraid. Those are the moments we’re trying to hold on to.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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