Thursday, May 19, 2022

I always picture Sari smiling. For twelve years, no matter the place or circumstance, whenever I saw Sari, she would smile at me. I first met Sari Shalmon in March of 2008. My husband and I were in the process of making a big life decision about where to settle with our family and I was spending the day observing at a school, RPRY. Rabbi Shraga Gross, then principal of RPRY, and his administrative assistant, Honey Wisotsky, ferried me around the building from class to class. One of those classes was Sari Shalmon’s science class, where she welcomed me warmly. Several months later, when my family and I moved to Highland Park, she again was friendly and kind.

As a new family in the school with four young children (and a brand new teacher in the school to boot) I was surprised and touched that this experienced middle school teacher was consistently reaching out to me to make sure that I was okay. Did I need anything picked up while shopping? Did we need a ride home? Just remember that she had to go out of her way to reach out to me, as my oldest child was only in second grade and I was teaching in early childhood, so it was purposeful on her part.

A couple of years later, I had transitioned from the lower school to providing in-class support to middle school students, and I began the adventure of essentially being a “student” in Sari’s science classes. My first order of business was to teach myself the science, as I had not learned all of the things that Sari was teaching her seventh and eighth grade classes. Then, I had to collaborate with her and figure out how to support students who struggled in her sophisticated and challenging classes. Time and again, I witnessed her kindness, her brilliance and her creativity.

When it came to teaching science, Sari had a growth mindset. In the twelve years I knew her in science class, she changed every year. She not only changed curricula, she would adjust her teaching style and the entire structure of her classes—all in service of finding ways to get students to engage in science. This required many intensive hours of new preparation—and yet Sari did it with joie de vivre. She never rested on her laurels and did not rely on her depth of expertise.

I marvelled at how she had certain themes to which she returned over and over. One of her major themes was, “Ma rabu maasecha Hashem.” She always explained scientific phenomena through a Torah lens. She often had those words spread across her bulletin board. Sari also always had certain themes related to the scientific process, the engineering design process and form following function that she reiterated across multiple scientific domains.

In her twenty-six years at RPRY, Sari was at the vanguard of science education in yeshivot and day schools. She pioneered and innovated new approaches to teaching science, engineering and computer coding. Through her involvement in the earliest years at CIJE, she not only taught hundreds of children, she helped shepherd the next generation of science teachers in yeshivot.

Sari worked so hard to cultivate warm relationships with her students and she wanted to be emotionally resonant. When I think of Sari, I am reminded of Yosef HaTzadik in these last couple of parshiot, who is probably the character in the Torah most frequently described as being overcome with emotion and crying. Sari, in the privacy of my office, would often be overcome by her concerns for her students, and she would cry for them. She knew intuitively that so much of human communication is nonverbal and she tried to convey her love, often framing it to the students as putting on her “Ema” hat. In subsequent years, there were many students who returned to visit from high school and beyond who were so thankful and appreciative, although they would admit that in middle school they didn’t always realize how beneficial Mrs. Shalmon’s class was going to be for their future.

I loved talking to Sari. For close to ten years, Sari and I spoke almost daily in school about one topic or another. Sari loved to share about her children and her husband. She was so proud of them and they were clearly the center of her universe. I could never hear enough about Uri or Shira. She always spoke worshipfully about Doron. It was so beautiful watching Sari and Doron co-teach the computer coding unit together. Sari told me she just didn’t feel confident enough with this unit and wanted Doron to do it with her. It was a win-win for everyone—the kids loved it and they were an incredible team.

We would also swap allergy stories and advice about all sorts of topics. I remember how nervous and concerned I was about transitioning from teaching to administration. I was particularly worried about how teachers who were older, more experienced or had been in the school even longer than me would accept me. I should not have been surprised, but Sari immediately gave me so much support. Again, she didn’t have to do that at all, but my change in role did not change her chesed or her kindness, and did not affect our relationship. We always ended every conversation by saying, “I love you.” When I think of that now, I feel so comforted that we expressed our feelings so openly and that Sari knew how much she was loved, how much she was valued and what a big difference she made in so many of our lives.

Sari was always giving and always welcoming. I think of the Emily Dickinson poem that encapsulates how she approached each and every person and her self-abnegation. “My river runs to thee:/Blue sea, wilt welcome me?/ My river waits reply./Oh sea, look graciously!/I’ll fetch the brooks/From spotted nooks,-/Say, sea,/Take me!”

Tehai nishmata tzerurah b’tzeror hachaim.

Chana Luchins is the principal of General Studies at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, NJ.

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