For most people, taking on the role of wife and mother of three young children by age 26 is enough of a project— looking for extracurriculars is hardly on the menu. For Gillie Shanowitz, it’s just the start of her day. Aside from full-time motherhood and wife-of-a-rabbi responsibilities, Gillie spends her days running one of Manhattan’s most talked about Hebrew school programs.
The New York Hebrew School at The Chabad Center for Jewish Discovery is nestled into the heart of the trendy Chelsea neighborhood known for sky high rents and $2,500 per square foot condos but manages to be an open-minded and affordable Jewish education oasis for secular and observant parents alike. For anyone who has ever looked into supplemental Jewish education before, it’s obvious that being inclusive of all levels of Judaism is no small task, and Mrs. Shanowitz manages to do so with complete and seamless grace.
“Each mitzvah one does connects us to Hashem. Labels are for clothes- there’s no Jew more important or significant than another. We all have a Jewish soul and no one person is more ‘Jewish’ than another. Every mitzvah is important to grow the connection between us and G-d. We’re not measuring or comparing. When it comes to Hebrew school the goal is to educate every single child to know who they are as Jews, and be able to make their own connection with G-d through Torah to make the world a better place,” Gillie shares.
Her commitment to the concept of inclusion instead of labels runs deep, and with my own eyes I’ve seen the full spectrum of young Jewish minds learning on any given Tuesday afternoon. I’ve seen children toss their remaining cheeseburgers before entering the building, children of converted parents, children of orthodox families, and children who fall at every level in between— and none of it matters to the Shanowitz family.
“When asked to summarize the Torah on one foot, Rabbi Hillel said the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisroel, love our fellow Jew. The rest is commentary.” She continued, “The Rebbe taught us one who knows an alef has the responsibility to teach an alef, which is very empowering to each and every Jew that they have the responsibility and ability to contribute to the growth of Judasim around them.”
Gillie herself is just as interesting and inspiring as the philosophy behind the school she spearheads. Her father, Dr. Lawrence Resnick, was the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s private doctor until he passed away. Her mother, Molly Sidi Resnick, grew up as a secular Jew in Israel and was a producer at NBC and PBS. Her mother later reconnected with her Judaism at Chabad in Brazil. As the youngest of three children and only girl, Gillie herself grew up orthodox and became much more connected to the Chabad movement after the passing of the Rebbe. She studied in Israel for a year, and then followed the Chabad internship path of enhancing Jewish communities around the world. Her travels as a young woman took her from Brazil to Lithuania, France to Sweden, South Africa to Canada, and all over the states. From the age of 14 Gillie has been in a leadership role in Jewish education, and a dozen years later she’s showing New York City just how skilled she is.
“In 2012 I got a call from Rabbi Naftali and Sorie Rottensreich at Preschool of the Arts. They had a variety of temporary women for a while, but they were looking for a more permanent team.”
Rabbi Mendy, Gillie’s husband, and Gillie were quickly asked to become a more permanent fixture at the school. Three years later enrollment has tripled.
“If you don’t know who you are, how do you have a sense of pride in who you are? Every Tuesday it its own project— 2 hours each time, 30 times in a year. That’s 60 hours of Judaism a year to give students a strong Jewish education and a sense of pride. We try to make each holiday a hands on experience. I just published The Jewish Heroes Workbook for Hebrew schools across the country to use. I want to give Jewish children an idea of what true heroism is, and give real Jewish role models for the students to apply to themselves.”
Her goals stretch beyond the Hebrew school classroom though, and Gillie understands that the role of Jewish mom is possibly the most important of all when it comes to raising strong, Jewish leaders of the future.
“G-d gave us women the merit and responsibility of having children, which includes educating them. Education starts at home. That is first and foremost the spirituality of a mom. Every moment of your day you have the opportunity of connecting to G-d just by being a mom and educating your kids. We should appreciate our roles as Jewish mothers and women. Children see our priorities and what’s important to us. I tell moms to find one small thing at a time— put a mezuzah on your child’s bedroom door, put some coins in the charity box, or make the Jewish holidays special in your home. Light shabbat candles even if the rest of shabbat isn’t something you observe. Each mitzvah stands alone. Empower each other. Just wear the hat of a Jewish mother even a few minutes of the day.”