By Stacey Dresner
LONGMEADOW – As the new Israeli shlichim chosen by the Jewish Agency to work at Heritage Academy in Longmeadow, longtime educators Yaniv and Shirley Makhanian are a living bridge between the Jewish day school and Israel, sharing their love of Israel and their Judaic knowledge.
The Makhanians are doing what the Jewish Agency for Israel sets out to do with these important emissaries, and that is to “increase Jewish awareness, knowledge, and pride; to bridge the gap between Jews of different backgrounds and Israel; and to promote an understanding of Israel and its ideals.”
The Makhanians succeed Tali and Yehuda Edry, who served the community for more than 10 years before returning to their native Israel last year.
Since arriving in August, the Makhanians and their three children have settled in at Heritage Academy and in the local Jewish community. Shirley is now a Judaic Studies teacher at Heritage, using her experience as a reading specialist to work with the lower grades, and Yaniv leads the Beit Midrash and teaches 4th, 5th and middle school Judaic studies.
Members of Congregation B’nai Torah, Yaniv is also serving as youth director at the synagogue.
The couple sat down last month with the Jewish Ledger (and Rachel Wesley, director of Judaic Studies, who acted as translator) to discuss their backgrounds as educators and what made them want to become shlichim.
“We love teaching and education and kids,” Yaniv said.
And that love of teaching came early in life for Shirley.
Born in Atlit, a suburb of Haifa, she was the second of eight children born into a “big and close family.” Raised Modern Orthodox, she says her home was “an open house, with lots of hospitality.” Her father worked in construction and her mother was a housewife.
Shirley knew she wanted to be a teacher from the time she was a very small child.
“I remember when I was around six years old and I used to teach my girlfriends, pretending to be a teacher,” she said. “It’s something in you, either you have it or you don’t.”
She attended a women’s teachers college in Tel Aviv and specialized in special education for children with special needs. She also became a reading specialist and worked during college as a mentor to young girls.
After college she taught in several schools in Israel, depending one where the couple lived, including middle school, special education, and reading specialist with first and second graders.
Her 14 years of teaching and her background with youth was something that stood out to Rachel Wesley, director of Judaic Studies at Heritage.
“Something that caught me when I read her biography was that she was a mentor for girls coming from low social economic background and new immigrants,” Wesley said.
Yaniv is a native of Ra’anana. His father was born in Persia and arrived in Israel when he was three years old. His father is a butcher in a supermarket and his mother, Varda, a native of Israel, is a preschool teacher, but at one time was touched by fame — she was a well-known singer in one of the popular Israeli Army bands during the 1960s and ‘70s.
Yaniv served in the IDF, working in a Classified Intelligence Unit, and now is in the reserves 30 days a year in a combatant Armor Regiment. For several years he has served as a volunteer medic in Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency medical services.
After his army training, he went to college and got a degree in education. His specialty is special education (ADD/ADHD), didactic and behavioral diagnosis. He was a substitute teacher and also served as cantor at his synagogue. He said he has been singing in synagogue since he was 13.
“That is my pleasure,” he said.
Becoming a shlichim was a “longtime process,” Yaniv said.
After applying online with the Jewish Agency and filling out questionnaires, the two were interviewed.
“The million dollar question is ‘Why would you like to do that?’” Yaniv laughed.
Indeed, why move from Israel to come to Longmeadow? Wesley said she had asked them when they were being interviewed.
“They were established, living in a nice community. She is a very respected teacher in her workplace and had a good job…why do you want to leave everything and come here?” Wesley had asked them.
The answer was two-fold, they explained – they wanted to give back to the Jewish community, and they wanted to experience the Jews of the Diaspora. “I was always wondering, ‘What is going on in the Diaspora? What is going on over that big ocean?’
“We wanted to experience the Jews in a different community outside Israel,” Shirley said. “You hear about the Jews in American communities. We wanted to see, we wanted to feel and be a part. We knew our purpose here was to give. We wanted to be a part of the community, in a place where we could contribute and give.”
“Our thinking is, if you have something to grant to other people, do it. The world needs it,” Yaniv explained. “In the same breath, we came to get from this community, to learn from them.”
The Makhanians are now settled in Longmeadow with their three children – fifth-grader Elai and second-grader Hadas, both students at Heritage Academy, and two-year-old Tamar.
Wesley said the Makhanians are a good fit.
“After the Edrys we were looking for a couple that could replace Tali and Yehuda, that would cover first grade to middle school and we wanted them to specialize in Judaics and special education because our vision is to differentiate and to give to each student here whatever they need to make success,” she said. “And we wanted to bring again emissaries — teachers originally from Israel — in which Hebrew is their first language. It is part of language acquisition that the kids listen to the real native Hebrew.”
She added that it was the Makhanians’ “creativity and passion” that stands out the most, from teaching the children about Jewish holidays, to aid in their learning of modern Hebrew to introducing Israeli hip-hop music.
“They help to bring Israeli culture to the school,” Wesley said, “working on many programs to inspire Jewsh life every day and implement Jewish living in a fun and active way.”
CAP: Yaniv and Shirley Makhanian with their children, Elai, Hadas and Tamar.