These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] Focus on Rochel Czopnik

Posted on January 24, 2013 by The Director of Digital Media

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Rochel Joanna Czopnik (Year '05, PEP '07) shares
the story of how she ended up back in Poland after
graduating from the Pardes Educators Program (PEP):

Rochel taught at the Shoshana S. Cardin (high) School in Baltimore from 2007-2011. She currently teaches at the Lauder-Morasha school in Warsaw.

After graduating from PEP, I was scared and quite anxious about my first job. I moved to Baltimore and for the first time was to live in the US for a long period of time. I was lucky to get a job at such a small school with only about 60 students. I was welcomed with open arms and very quickly felt “at home”. I gained more confidence with each year, and the trust I had from the school’s administration let me truly develop my personal style. I taught mostly Bible, but I also taught some ancient Jewish history and Shoah. I could develop my own curricula (I am most proud of my Prophets and Jewish Historiography classes) and had a lot of freedom to try new, exciting things. I learned from talented educators and deepened my skills and knowledge—not just about Judaism, but also about American history and culture.

But the good times came to an end, when the school’s board could no longer afford my position – we all know what a blow private Jewish education suffered when the Recession arrived. With a lot of regret on both sides we had to part ways. I was truly devastated; I couldn’t even dream of finding a better place. The sad moment was sweetened by a true shower of good words not only from fellow colleagues, but also from parents and students. Thanks to them, I could leave the school knowing I did the best job I could and that people appreciated my efforts.

In the end I had to make the difficult decision to go back home to Poland. It was not an easy resolution (and not just because of the huge library I had to ship there), but I felt it was all for the best: at least I could be close to my family, who at the time I hadn’t seen for over three years.

The first year back in Poland was a difficult one. My hometown was not exactly overflowing with job offers for Jewish educators. I started to work as an English tutor, also doing some occasional translation jobs and slowly building connections within the Jewish community in Poland. After over seven years of living abroad I had to readjust to life in Poland; my Polish had gotten a bit rusty, I couldn’t “feel” the food prices, I went back to using Joanna as my name, and I had no idea what my future would bring. I was pretty sure that the only way to find a decent job related to my skills and knowledge would be to emigrate again.

And then, suddenly, everything changed. I went to a Jewish camp organized by the Lauder Foundation where I reconnected with a lot of old friends. I was also told that there might be a job opening in the Polish-Jewish school in Warsaw. I went for the job interview—and got the position!

Now I am the Jewish Culture teacher at the Lauder-Morasha school in Warsaw. I had to pack and move within just a few days, and my first day at work was less than a week after the interview. To say it was a jump into deep waters would be quite the understatement! Everything was new, and I had to learn it all at once. In addition to regular classes, I was also asked to lead “Shabbat time,” a special Shabbat ceremony on Friday with a dvar torah and a song (which seems to be the most difficult task, as anyone who has ever heard me singing would agree). I also work on putting together textbooks for the upper grades.

The teaching is quite different; I have only 40 minutes per week, and my students are both Jewish and non-Jewish with very few from traditional Jewish homes. I need to be careful to use language that does not make any student feel uncomfortable, so phrases like “in our tradition” can’t be used. I teach first through ninth grades. Sometimes I go from teaching the oldest directly to the youngest, which is really challenging. There is much more paperwork than in America, too: filling class logs with each lesson’s topic, internet and paper grade books—Polish schools, even private ones, are much more strictly regulated than American schools. But, to my amazement, I am allowed to print unlimited color copies! My worksheets have never looked so nice.

A big challenge for me is the limited time that I have with students. I can’t plan big art projects, and I can’t get into long discussions with the thought that we can use the next class to catch up. I can also forget about in-depth text study or regular havruta learning. I feel that the students can’t remember anything after a week, so I start with a review and hardly have any time left for teaching new material. I am still finding my way around the new situation, but I feel optimistic and quite confident in my skills and knowledge.

The move to Warsaw itself was also a huge change—it might still be Eastern Europe, but it is the capital after all. I enjoy learning about the city and its many cultural and social options. I am reconnecting with old friends from the Jewish community and am surprised how much the Jewish community has grown. I was teaching at the Limmud Polska conference about two months ago and couldn’t believe that there were almost a thousand Polish Jews in one place! This is a real sign of renewal and gives me hope that I can be useful here and give back to the community. As I’m writing this text I am on the train on my way to Białystok (about 250km northeast from Warsaw), where once or twice a month I lead Shabbat and teach about Judaism to a small group of locals who are rediscovering their Jewish roots.

But the biggest surprise is my new “title.” Thanks to the little ones from the preschool with whom I have “Shabbat time,” I became “Pani Szabat” (Mrs. Shabbat). That’s what they call me! I dare you not to smile when a three-year-old calls out, “Good morning, Mrs. Shabbat!” in the middle of the hallway…