New Milford—It was only last April when the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County (SSDS) lost a star alumnus, Stephanie Prezant, 22, to a fatal hiking accident. The dynamic college senior had many passions, including a love of Israel. During her lifetime, she would frequently engage others and encourage them to visit and experience the land just as she had. A year after her tragic, untimely death, a scholarship was established in her memory to fund the annual eighth grade trip to Israel. This year, the entire graduating class at SSDS would travel to Israel for a hands-on tour with the Jewish Lens Project.
The Jewish Lens (TJL) provides experiential Jewish educational programming, engaging young adults in the exploration of Jewish values, identity and tradition while discovering the diversity and unity of Klal Yisrael (Jewish Peoplehood). TJL couples the emotional impact of photography with more traditional text-based learning, empowering participants to strengthen their link to Judaism and express it through photography. On the evening of Wednesday May 22, students presented the photographs from their recent trip, with attached explanatory and meaningful Judaic text, before an audience that included the Prezant family.
Elana and Jeffrey Prezant, Stephanie’s parents, took away a photograph captured by eighth grader Yoni Ferbank of a newly blossomed rose emerging from ancient Jerusalem stone. Knowing about Stephanie and the scholarship in her name, students like Yoni poured their emotions into the project, which was evident in a presentation that reflected artistic depth and a mature understanding of symbolism.
For Yoni Ferbank, it was not only emotional, but personal: “I used the words ‘Baruch osseh beraishit. baruch omer v’osseh” (Blessed is the Creator of Genesis, blessed is he who speaks and creates) with my photo,” he explained. “No matter what it is that God has created, whether it’s ancient bricks that may not appear so attractive, or a beautiful, colorful new rose, He created it all. When I presented it to Elana Prezant, I had just found out that my mom has known her for a long time. Finding out about that personal connection between our families, it was really touching to speak with her and to give her this photo.”
Another eighth grader, Ian Silverstein showed the audience a picture he had captured of a eucalyptus tree with a Magen David (star of David) carved into its trunk.
“I chose the saying ‘etz chaim hee la’machazikinm bah’, he explained (which translates to “She is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it), “because the tree represents the Jewish nation, and the star carved into the Jewish nation represents God.”
Mashie Kopelowitz, an SSDS administrator who is referred to as “CEO of the annual Israel encounter,” described the night as a “culmination of who we are as a school, our relationship with Israel, and how we teach the love of Israel.
“The Prezant family wanted a meaningful way to honor their daughter’s memory and her experience at SSDS,” she said. “The opportunity of such a scholarship ensures that every eighth grader is able to go on this (annual, 12 day) trip.” Kopelowitz explained that the Jewish Lens Project exposes students to role models and experts.
“Zion Ozeri, its founder, comes from an artistic point of view. His method teaches students to explore and capture what is meaningful to them. This method connects them to tefillah and biblical text. The students opened their prayer books and found a prayer that connected to their pictures and in turn, to their own identities.”
While the eighth grade students were in Israel this past April, supervising faculty members videotaped and photographed their activities so that everyone back in the U.S. could follow their experience through video, music and blogs.
“They did an amazing job,” said Kopelowitz, “They were movie makers, videographers, photographers and through social media, teachers back in the U.S. felt they were in Israel. The trip to Israel and the May 22 presentation at SSDS really honored Stephanie’s memory. The scholarship established in her name will help to ensure that future eighth grade classes experience what this group did, and return with the same love of Israel.”
It is a fitting scholarship for a young woman who continually encouraged those she met to follow in her footsteps. Although they will never have the opportunity to meet their inspiration, future eighth grade classes will be honoring Stephanie’s memory and what she considered important through a trip they will never forget. Ian Silverstein said that working with the Jewish Lens Project made this an especially significant trip for him because he was focused on capturing important images he would always remember. He and Yoni Ferbank agreed that “teenagers take a lot of pictures anyway,” but that having a project with a focus helped them to hone in and be discerning. The select images they captured made impressions they could take away for a lifetime.
Shira Hirschman Weiss is a writer in Bergen County.
By Shira Hirschman Weiss