When Lea Winkler was an undergraduate at Brandeis University, she volunteered at a public school. During a literature conversation with some of her students, one used the word mensch to describe a character in a book.
“Here was a real moment that presented itself, and I thought there was so much I could do to expand on it and that concept then and there,” she said. “But it wasn’t the right setting for me to do so.”
A small story, she said, but it reflects her driving passion to help students find and explore Jewish meaning, lessons, and relevance in the greater world.
“That’s why I am at home at a Jewish day school,” she said. “I can bring all the pieces together and draw lessons that I can’t elsewhere. I love being with kids and introducing them to those ‘aha’ moments and together, with them, connecting the dots.”
Winkler, who received the Covenant Foundation’s 2015 Pomegranate Prize for promise and potential as a young Jewish educator, is in a particularly sweet spot to do just that.
As a third-grade general studies teacher at Epstein Hillel School, a pluralistic Jewish day school in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Winkler boldly incorporates Jewish themes into her class. She also works systematically to make the traditional dividing line between general and Jewish studies more porous at the school and as a model for others.
Step into her classroom and one hears her students calling her Morah Lea, a sign not only of affection but also of her representation as a Jewish leader and role model. One day, during a reading unit focused on friendship, Winkler introduced art to tease out faith-based lessons on it. Another day, the science theme was light, and she included a Jewish text perspective on the concept.
“I see Jewish connections in everything that I teach, and I plan for that integration with great thought and purpose,” said Winkler, who joined Epstein Hillel (then Cohen Hillel Academy) full time in 2010. She started at the school after receiving her Master of Arts degree in Teaching/Elementary Education through the Delet program at Brandeis.
“So, even though I am not actively teaching Judaics, students see me as an active participant as I make connections and talk about my own experiences inside and outside of school.”
Her vision to remove traditional silos extends beyond her own classroom and into the school itself. She serves on Epstein Hillel’s J-Team, a group of educators dedicated to developing and planning education and programming that is focused on Jewish life.
“Lea has become the model of a teacher-leader here,” said Amy Gold, Head of School at Epstein Hillel, which enrolls 66 students in grades K to 8. “We don’t want children to have secular and Jewish parts of their day. Judaism is very deep with Lea, and she embodies that integration as an objective in our school.”
Winkler is also fiercely devoted to STEM education and has been a force for incorporating and strengthening it both within Epstein Hillel and across the field. She has headed the school’s STEM committee since 2011, works with teachers one-on-one to increase educator competencies with STEM, and is involved in a consortium of Jewish day schools in the Boston area that is working to make the region a center of innovative and successful STEM education.
“We are getting kids to question and test things out, figuring out the puzzle and trying and retrying,” she said. “Beyond the project at hand, this is how they and all of us need to look at and think about the world around us.”
Winkler received the Pomegranate Prize just five years after joining Epstein Hillel as a general studies teacher (preceded by working there as a Delet intern for one year). The Prize, she said, “reaffirmed me as a Jewish educator and my value to my own community and the broader field.”
Three years of professional exposures with her fellow Pomegranate Prize recipients, along with a diverse and expansive group of Jewish educators and experts across the wide communal spectrum, has left her with a deeper perspective on common issues and a wider network for support, consultation, and growth.
“It has been and continues to be interesting and useful to hear about challenges and successes in other institutions, like synagogues, that are structured differently from my setting in a Jewish day school,” Winkler said. “But finding similarities and approaches that we can integrate is immensely valuable. Our objectives are the same.”
With the resources afforded to Pomegranate Prize recipients, Winkler set out on a path of both personal and professional development that she said might not have been possible, at least within such a short period of time, without the support of The Covenant Foundation.
One of her biggest steps was returning to Brandeis for its graduate-level Teacher Leadership Program and earning her second masters degree, this one, a Master of Arts in May 2018.
“I had taken on more leadership roles in my school and even in the community, but I hadn’t always felt confident,” she said. “This (program) gave me the time to really build facilitation skills and a knowledge base and better standing both in and out of the classroom.”
Winkler spent part of this past summer at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel, increasing her familiarity with Jewish text, and learning how to teach it to her students. She has also attended National Science Teachers Association conferences to enhance her capabilities with STEM education and to support her sustained efforts in that realm at Epstein Hillel.
Reflecting on her strides and growth as an educator, now in her tenth year at Epstein Hillel, and acknowledging the honor of the Pomegranate Prize and its accompanying support, Winkler said she feels more empowered than ever to make an impact on her community and the field.
“I don’t see myself moving out of the classroom,” she said. “What I do see is continuously expanding what I am doing, improving how I am doing it, and being very reflective on my practice as an educator.”