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From Russia to Mazel, a Changing View on Education

By Anna Khavulya []
Anna Khavulya

Like most new parents, by the time my son was born I had already planned his life out up until middle school.   Okay, maybe I wasn’t like all first time parents, I was probably a bit more extreme.  I wrote down a list of activities I wanted my son to be involved in each year for the first ten years of his life. On Sundays, I allocated 3 hours for Hebrew School, because I was certain that he would go to public school (one of the best in the city, of course). Although my husband graduated from yeshiva, and I attended yeshiva for a short period of time, I didn't feel comfortable raising my son in that kind of environment.  We were observant by "secular standards,” but not even close for "orthodox standards".
All this changed after we found Mazel Day School, a Jewish Day School in Brooklyn. I chose Mazel for the very simple reason that it was a warm, nurturing preschool with strong academics. After a bad experience the previous year at a secular daycare, I figured this would be a good change.  For two years I planned that he would learn about Jewish traditions and enjoy his preschool years, then off he would go into public school.  There was only one minor hiccup in this brilliant plan of mine, by the time he was finishing Pre-K at Mazel Day School I couldn't imagine my son anywhere else, even after he was accepted into an excellent public school.
What surprised me the most wasn't that I was changing the yellow brick road that I had laid out for him, even though that was incredibly astonishing to me.  Don't all good Jewish mothers pave a road for their sons up to, and including, the day they get married, with a degree from MIT on the way? I thought my plans were so solid that I would never change them. However,  what I encountered in this school, the community and the values, the challenged what I thought would the best way to raise my children.
I had never experienced a real sense of community until I enrolled my son at Mazel. The strength and depth of our community became evident in the aftermath of the SuperStorm Sandy. Mazel suffered tremendous damage after the storm. Devastated but not defeated, parents quickly mobilized to help clean up the school to ensure that the students could continue learning despite the destruction. At the same time, Mazel parents and educators joined together to meet the needs of the community by organizing food and clothing drives.
The school’s commitment to instill the values of caring for the community can be also seen outside of natural disasters.  From a very early age, the students learn to care for the needy. The two year olds learn to place pennies into the Tzedakah, or charity boxes and the older students pay regular visits to seniors. When a student has a new baby sibling at home, all the students in their class celebrate together and send their classmate home with heartfelt congratulations.  When my second son was born (this one will be attending Harvard) I was very concerned about jealousy from my first son.  Instead my eldest son came home from school extremely proud to be a big brother.  I believe that the celebratory environment of the classroom and the enthusiasm of his fellow students have contributed to the close-knit relationship between my two children.
The school feels like a big family that cares for one  another, one that rejoices together during happy times and helps during challenging ones.   When my son’s teacher was getting married, she invited the entire class to the wedding. The children also learned to care for someone suffering through a tragedy. When a teacher's father became ill, the students wrote the father letters wishing him health, all out of the love and empathy they felt for their teacher. They wished him ice-cream, games, hugs, and anything else that four years old find important, hoping to make him feel better. I have been moved by these countless examples of how the school actualizes its mission to “cultivate within our students the ability to be good students, good friends, and good people, providing a secure foundation which prepares children to thrive in a complex and changing world.” They mean what they say. These are values that the school lives by.
I have also found a community with the other parents and educators. For the first time, I felt comfortable asking educators honest questions about Jewish life or parenting. I felt that whatever issue or concern I had with my son, the director and teachers were on my team resolving it with me. We were partners in raising my children. The parents of the school are now my good friends, those that I will keep no matter what school our kids end up in.
While my son is the one who is officially getting a "Jewish education" in our family, it is through my children that I am now on my own Jewish journey. I am slowly becoming a different person. I feel happier and more at ease with who I am.  And you are probably wondering, whether I think my children will attend MIT and Harvard? For many Russian parents like me, strong academics are a huge priority, and we feel like our children are being academically prepared for that path at Mazel.  However, no matter where my sons decide to go to college, I know they will go as strong individuals with a strong sense of understanding the importance of respecting and valuing others. They received this strong foundation from Mazel Day School and no amount of planning could have predicted the amount of gratitude I feel towards the school.

Anna Khavulya is a marketing director at Moonbeam Capital Investments, developing marketing strategies and tactics for over  50 properties, with a focus on 5 malls, across the US.  Mrs. Khavulya has an MBA and BS  from NYU Stern School of Business.  She is passionate about progressive children's educationand her ambition is to have her two sons attend Monster University. Anna is a participant in Parent To Parent, a Jewish Education Project initiative that empowers day school parents to share their experiences and personal reflections via online blogs.