As a recent recipient of the prestigious Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, one would be surprised to hear that Chana Zinstein actually grew up unobservant.
The Richmond, Virginia native’s family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue, although they and many of the congregants were not observant. It was only as a junior-high-schooler that Zinstein got involved with Junior NCSY and started attending their weekly meetings and Shabbatons. She rose through the ranks rapidly, starting out as an NCSY-er and advancing to become the Richmond Chapter’s treasurer, Atlantic Seaboard’s Regional Educational Secretary, and eventually the NCSY National Recording secretary. “If it wasn’t for NCSY, I wouldn’t be frum [Orthodox] today,” says Zinstein. “I was very close with my advisor, Dr. David Luchins, who is now a dean and professor at Touro College. He was extremely influential in my transition to Orthodoxy.”
As a recipient, Zinstein is one of 48 outstanding teachers from 41 communities across the United States to receive this award for her commitment to Jewish education. “I’ve gotten a very positive response since receiving this award. It’s nice to be recognized for all the hard work that I do and to know that my colleagues feel that it’s an honor I deserve,” says Zinstein. Although winners must teach at least four hours a week in a Jewish day school, Zinstein over qualifies by teaching in 3—a Reform school, a Conservative school, and 1st grade boys in a Yeshiva day school. Awardees must show exceptional achievement, be role models in Jewish education, and have taught in formal Jewish educational classroom settings for early childhood through 12th grade.
Zinstein recalls when the mother of one of her Conservative 3rd grade boys came up to her beaming with pride and relayed to her that her son washes negel vasser, says “Modeh Ani,” and makes sure to open up a siddur and say 2-3 Birchos Hashachar every morning because of what he learned in her class. Besides for that rewarding, warm feeling a Jewish educator gets from knowing they had a positive impact on another individual’s life, this also further affirms Zinstein’s merit as a Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award recipient, since awardees must have made a significant impact on their students and the community at large. She may practice formal education, but Zinstein says that it was NCSY’s informal Jewish programming that made her the impressive educator she is today.