50 years a teacher

March 2018
Wendy Schneider

Nothing makes Fay Schmerling happier than knowing that she made a difference in one of her students’ lives. After 50 years of teaching at Beth Jacob’s Hebrew School, that works out to a lot of happy moments. Schmerling began her teaching career in 1964 with Beth Jacob’s first after-school class of eighteen 10-year-old girls. Amy Back was among them. 
“Fay was wonderful. She was so enthusiastic,” said Back. “Even though we had gone to Sunday school for so many years (before that) we really didn’t know a lot because we were so misbehaved ... but Fay inspired us,  and all of a sudden we were really reading Hebrew and really getting into the stories she told us.”
 More than 50 years later, Schmerling has lost none of that enthusiasm as she continues to inspire a new generation of Beth Jacob students, among them children of former students. Schmerling’s solid teaching skills and steadfast commitment to her students have remained a constant over five decades that have seen a great many changes in the school. Not least of the changes is a marked decrease in the amount of classroom time. In the past Schmerling was teaching Hebrew reading skills to Kindergarten and Grade One students three times a week, but today’s demographic realities have her teaching two combined classes for 30 minutes a week. If that sounds easy, think again. 
“I plan my lessons awfully carefully. I only have a short time with them ... so I go from activity to activity to see if I can get the children  to work with me,” said Schmerling. That Schmerling still manages to impart Hebrew reading skills to her students despite these challenges is a credit to her teaching skills, says Beth Jacob education director Rina Rodak. 
“I think that Fay’s style of teaching has been the secret to her longevity. She’s very firm in her expectations and the kids really respect that. They know exactly what is going to happen in her class each and every week, and they really look forward to being with her and learning from her,” said Rodak. 
Schmerling herself attributes much of her success to her practice of assigning homework. 
 “Young children are very excited to have homework but the parents have to help,” said Schmerling. “It shows the child that this is important for them too.” In cases where parents don’t know Hebrew, homework gives children an opportunity to teach their parents. That, says Schmerling, is just as valuable. “It makes them feel important.”
Daniella Khayutin is a case in point.  Khayutin, a 17 year old high school student, is the first Canadian-born member of her Russian immigrant family. At the age of five, she began begging her parents to find her a Hebrew teacher so that she could better communicate with her grandfather, who lived in Israel.  After making some inquiries, her father Eugene was told that Beth Jacob’s Fay Schmerling was the person to talk to. Would his daughter be able to study at the school, he asked Schmerling, despite their not being synagogue members.  Of course, was Schmerling’s response, and so began a relationship that continued right through to Khayutin’s Bat Mitzvah and continues to this day.
“Fay taught me how to read and sing in Hebrew, but not only that — she taught me that I could love someone outside of my family,” said Khayutin. “She was my role model basically growing up. She was caring of everyone, no matter what situation, and an accepting human ... There aren’t many of those nowadays and she’s definitely a special person.”

Beth Jacob Synagogue is honouring Fay Schmerling on Saturday, May 5 at a special Shabbat service followed by a festive kiddush in her honour. Past and current students and their families are encouraged to attend. For more information call 905-522.1351 or email school@bethjacobsynagogue.ca.