After 46 Years, Teacher to Turn In Her No. 2 Pencils

When Eastern European Jews arriving in Israel after the War of Independence in 1948 needed volunteers to help them learn to read the new language, Zehava Blackman said she was first in line. "I always loved to teach," said the now 75-year-old. "Even as a young girl, I would teach the younger ones, whatever their level, whatever they needed to learn."

And though Blackman will officially retire as a Hebrew-school teacher at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park this month, she said she will not stop doing what she loves: teaching young children.

Blackman was just a high school student, living in a suburb of Haifa, when the refugees landed on the shores of her city. Shortly afterward, Blackman enrolled in the army, and was offered the chance to attend college courses in the evenings. She earned a degree in teaching, and immediately got a job in Haifa.

But when her brother invited her to visit him in the United States – a place she had never seen before – she jumped at the opportunity. Her summer visit turned into a year, after she met the head of Jewish education in South Jersey, who convinced her to teach at Temple Beth Shalom in Haddonfield, N.J.

"They didn't have a single good Hebrew-school teacher then," recalled Blackman. "I agreed to do it for one year."

But her stay was extended even further – and continues all the way through until today – when Blackman met her husband, and the two wound up settling in the Philadelphia area.

While Blackman didn't wish to give up her Israeli citzenship – she went back to visit almost every other summer – in the early 1960s, she gained her U.S. citizenship, thus remaining a product of both countries.

She jumped from school to school before being hired by Beth Sholom in Elkins Park. That was 46 years ago.

During that time, Blackman taught mainly alef students – the 8-year-olds – but dabbled in classrooms up through Hebrew High School. In addition, for 18 years she taught first- and second-graders at the Solomon Schechter Day School, now the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Day School. She retired from that in 1998.

The Elkins Park resident described herself as a "very hands-on teacher" who loves to sing songs with her students, do projects or help them produce plays.

"I teach everything like it is a game," said the mother of two and grandmother of two. "In the old days, Hebrew school used to be very boring. I make it lively."

To help her students learn beginner vocabulary, about 20 years ago, Blackman began drawing stick figures to coincide with Hebrew words; she then photocopied the pages for her young charges.

After awhile, the book grew in scope and popularity, and she was put in contact with a New York publisher to have it printed. About six years ago, the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education published that book, Sefer T'munot: Learning Hebrew Through Pictures, in addition to a teacher's guide to go with it. Now, Blackman said, schools throughout the Philadelphia area use it, with ACAJE receiving the proceeds from sales.

Blackman said now that she is retiring from Beth Sholom, she plans to go back to visit family who still live in Israel – something she was unable to do at her leisure over the course of the academic year.

But, she added, she still can't give up teaching. In her spare time, she said that she will visit Hebrew schools in the area and continue to educate the young on various holidays, prayers or mitzvot using techniques she has mastered over the years.

Leaving the classroom will be hard for her – and, she surmised, also pretty tough on the kids.

"My students all love me!" declared Blackman. "It's hard to find good teachers these days."



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