Celebrating the contributions of women is the primary goal of Women’s History Month in March. While some think that only people in powerful positions can make a lasting impact, the Herald spoke to four women, a pair of mother/daughter educators, who believe that through their deeds, they have contributed to making their students’ lives better.
Established in 1981 by Congress and first proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, the marking of women’s history began as a week and was expanded five years later.
In the beginning
After she became an educator, Sharona Arbeit realized how much of an influence her mother, Marcelle Lowell, had on her. “Mom did things that were so cutting edge, the methodology she used to keep the kids calm and engage the children,” Arbeit said as she sat next to her mother on a couch in Lowell’s seventh-floor apartment in the Kew Gardens Atria. “She came in, put on some classical music, had us listen, close our eyes and draw a picture of what the music sounded like.”
Arbeit, 59, the director of Children’s Services for the JCC of the Greater Five Towns for the past seven years, said this educational tool is used today, and though both her and her mother didn’t intend to be teachers they ended up sharing memories of working in the same field.
Naomi Lippman, now an administrator, is the general studies principal at the Hebrew Academy for the Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR), where her daughter Hannah is a kindergarten teacher.
Naomi’s career has spanned 30 years, but realized she wanted to become an educator when she was still a student. “Even when I was an adolescent, I was a successful student,” Naomi said. “People came to me for help, asking if I would tutor the elementary children in my community.”
Teaching has become a family profession, as Naomi’s mother and two of her aunts were teachers also. “They were all very successful, dedicated elementary teachers,” Naomi said. “I remember sitting with my aunts while they worked. They were so enthusiastic about creating their lesson plans, so engaged in it. Now Hannah is the third generation in teaching.”
Lowell, 87, grew up in Brooklyn, graduated from Brooklyn College and got married. “I was interested in a law degree, teaching was a matter of convenience,” she said with some regret.
Teaching at yeshivas in Borough Park and Queens prior to having children and then subbing later on at the schools her kids attended, Lowell and her husband, Harold, an accountant, who died nearly a decade ago, impressed upon their two children the need for education.
Arbeit credits her family, and her mother in particular, for having a creative gene that helps her create educational programs. She points to her younger sister, Sandy, though not a professional educator, Arbeit said her sibling can teach anyone to play mah jong. “She’s very talented, very creative,” Lowell said about her eldest daughter.
Changing career paths
Arbeit, who grew up in Queens and on Long Island, was 19 and attending New York University as a drama and communications major, that summer was she worked as a drama counselor and met her husband, Roy. Following their marriage and prior to having their three children, who are now out of the house, Arbeit worked in advertising and marketing. She and Roy have been married for nearly 39 years and have lived in Woodmere for 20.
She began teaching traditions and culture at Young Israel of Forest Hills part-time in 1985. She helped develop the Judaic Studies curriculum and gained confidence and knowledge through the help of a mentor. “That’s how I got into curriculum development,” Arbeit said. “Integrating curriculum is like putting a puzzle together, ELA, math, social studies and science; all those skills together in one seamless lesson, I love being able to do that.”
When Naomi learned that Hannah wanted to become an educator, she was thrilled, but on the other hand, it’s hard work, Naomi said. “It’s not an easy profession,” she said. “Education today has been given responsibility for things that were once parental responsibilities. It’s an underrated and underestimated profession, where society doesn’t have a full appreciation of how much intellectual energy, effort, planning and research goes into teaching.”
Hannah originally wanted to pursue a career in the hotel and spa management industry prior to college, but after taking her first education class at Queens College, she changed her mind. “I’d tried a few courses but liked education more,” she said. “My professors made a difference. Education just felt natural to me.”
Hannah has been an educator for three years now, recently completing her master’s degree program at Touro College as a double major in Regular and Special Education. “I was lucky to be teaching while I was in school,” Hannah said. “This is my first year as a head teacher.”
Living at home while attending college, Hannah saw her mother at work firsthand. “Seeing my mother come home from a day at work, glowing because she had spent a day working with students and helping them, has been very motivating to want to pursue a career in education,” she said. “My mom supported everything I ever wanted to do. Being in education has been better for me, as I’m lucky to have a mentor of my own.”
Offering their advice
It is the women in her family, along with the HAFTR school community, who have reinforced Naomi’s perspective on education and her role in the field. “I actually view education as one of the fields that has historically welcomed and valued women as professionals and has facilitated their growth and ascension to the highest positions of leadership,” Naomi said.
Naomi’s advice for future women educators is to find a mentor they look up to for guidance. “Teaching is a challenging profession,” Naomi said. “Because of the nature of the work, spending a great deal of the professional day in classes with students, often without interaction with other adults, I would urge beginning teachers to identify a mentor and colleagues who can serve as a supportive professional community with whom they can brainstorm, problem-solve and reflect about their practice.”
Hannah’s advice is simple. “You have to have interpersonal skills,” she said.
Whether teaching Jewish traditions, kids how to swim as she did at summer camps or running the myriad JCC programs, Arbeit said she realized she was doing what her mother did. “It’s kind of comforting I do something we can share,” she said.
With an eye to future family history that can be written by women, Arbeit said that young women today should take advantage of the ample opportunities open to them. “Any young woman should not hold herself back, if she has a dream or a talent for something just do it; don’t let anybody stand in your way.”