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View from the Outside

Michal Eisikowitz

What’s it like to work in a frum school, when you’re not Orthodox — or even Jewish? Educators share their take on our schools and our students, and what the experience taught them

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

When Mary Ann Farrior, a Protestant Christian originally fromNorth Carolina, signed a contract with Torah Academy of Philadelphia, she never fathomed the impact the school would eventually have on her perception of Jews — and overall life values.

“The years atTorahAcademywere some of the best of my life,” the veteran history and English teacher says unequivocally. “Even once I moved back to my little Southern town to work in the county schools, in my heart I felt Jewish. For several months I found it hard to wear pants in the classroom — I felt like I was wearing pajamas!”

Mrs. Farrior — who now runs a K-12 program for gifted students in the South — is one of many non-Jewish or non-Orthodox educators who have become intimately acquainted with the Orthodox population, thanks to years of teaching in its schools. Particularly in out-of-town communities, where frum, qualified teachers may be harder to come by, these instructors — of all denominations — abound.

For many, the experience is positive; for others, less so. Whatever the impact, these men and women — with their fresh, impartial outlook — can offer unique insight into the strengths and weaknesses of our community, enabling us to become better ambassadors for His Name.


Landing in a Frum School

What’s a nice Christian girl doing in a Bais Yaakov, or a die-hard liberal in a beis medrash? For many such teachers, their initial landing on frum planets was the result of practical or financial considerations.

“I’d been teaching in the public school system for over two decades,” says Aaron Polkes, a resident ofPlainview,New York, with a master’s in education and political science who identifies as a cultural Jew. “I was looking for some supplementary income, and the yeshivah jobs, with their late-afternoon hours, gave me the opportunity to work after public school classes.”

Dr. Maureen Malowany — a Catholic-raised British Columbian with a BA in anthropology who ultimately converted to Judaism — had recently moved toMontrealand was seeking a social studies teaching position. After seeing an ad for Bais Yaakov ofMontreal, and being deeply impressed at her interview by the school’s principal, Rabbi Aisenstark, she happily took the job.

“The concept of an all-girls school wasn’t foreign to me,” Dr. Malowany says; she herself attended a girls’ convent for high school. “Though I had never met observant Jews before, when I walked in, I felt very much at home — the teachers were warm and caring, and religion, family values, and ethics were part of the curriculum.”

Robbyn Argilagos, a former Christian who later converted, was brought in to teach writing atMemphis’sMargolinHebrewAcademy— a midyear instructor switch for an exceptionally rowdy class of boys.

For Robbyn, coming into close contact with frum Jews for the first time, was an eye-opener — and myth-buster: she’d been familiar with the classic church stereotype that Jews were the “unchosen” people, piety-boasters who engaged in impossible-to-keep religious practices only out of obligation, without any feeling or heart. Through actual interactions with religious Jews, however, she began to identify many of the errant assumptions inherent in her church upbringing.

“When I walked through the halls and heard the early morning prayers sung out loud by boys ages three to eighteen, I realized that there was a sanctity here; this was a sacred space,” Robbyn remembers. “Something inside me responded to this close and vibrant Jewish community with a deep, personal joy, and it was a happiness I’d never experienced before, a recognition of something I didn’t know existed but profoundly loved.”


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