By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Growing up in Lynbrook, L.I., Judye Fox always knew she wanted to teach. She started pursuing her dream at Congregation Beth David while still in high school, then went on to earn a dual BA in Hebrew Letters and Comparative Literature from the Columbia University-Jewish Theological Seminary joint program. Two masters degrees followed – in Jewish Education, from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and in Secondary Education-English, from C.W. Post College of Long Island University. Fox, still in her 20s, was soon hired as the principal of a synagogue school in Port Chester, N.Y.
“The rabbi asked, ‘Why do you do this?’ and I said, ‘I want to change the world,’” Fox recalls. When the rabbi suggested that the aspiration might be a little arrogant, Fox replied, “If you change the way you teach children, you change the world, even if it’s one child at a time.”
That was in the mid-’70s, when “experimentation” was the watchword of the American educational world. “In the area of synagogue schools, there was a real openness to trying new things,” Fox says. “I thought, ‘I can try anything here and they’ll actually let me.’”
The philosophy of using education to effect change is what Fox brought to The Emanuel Synagogue Torat Hayim religious school in West Hartford in 1983, when she and her husband moved to the community from Rocky Hill and she took on the head teacher position.
After 32 years – 20 as religious school director – Fox is retiring. She leaves in her wake a robust educational program for all comers: typical children and those with special needs, as well as adults, parents, and families.
“When I first started teaching at the Emanuel, there were two things that were important to me,” Fox says. “I really do believe that every single child deserves a Jewish education and that it’s the congregation’s responsibility to provide it to them.”
The second prong to a vibrant synagogue community is family education, a relatively new trend when Fox became Torat Hayim director in 1994, but so critical that she made major curricular changes to engage that population.
“Judye was a pioneer in Jewish family education in West Hartford,” says Francene Weingast, then a fellow family educator and later an Emanuel staff member. “When a congregant offered to fund an inter-generational program, Judye transformed the entire school and curriculum into a family-based model,” bringing parents in for a monthly learning session so that they could engage with their children’s religious school education.
Fox also transformed the fledgling Torat Hayim resource room into an innovative learning center and destination for students with special needs and their families, learning as she went.
“I had parents come to me and say, ‘This is my child. Can you teach him?’” she says. “I didn’t and don’t have a special education degree, but I was guided by the feeling that children can learn somehow. We would discuss goals and put together an individual program. The early parents who worked with us were pioneers and we were saying, ‘We’ll figure this out’ and we did.”
A hallmark of the program was mainstreaming every child into the religious school and larger synagogue community.
Beth Katten brought her kindergarten-aged son, Gary – who is diagnosed with autism – to the program 15 years ago.
“I was told about The Emanuel’s resource room by Carolyn Topol, who I met through other special-needs families,” Katten recalls. “Carolyn raved about the Emanuel and their program for those with special needs, which her son was a part of. We met with Judye and Faye Mannheim and were very impressed by their willingness to learn all they could to teach Gary the best way possible.”
The Kattens hoped that their son would learn about his Jewish heritage and celebrate his bar mitzvah. After eight years of individualized education, Gary was called to the Torah, leading much of the Shabbat morning service as a bar mitzvah, along with his family.
During Fox’s tenure, The Emanuel also started a support group for families of children with special needs and began hosting hosts meetings of the community-based USY Shelanu chapter for teens with special needs. She recently hired an older teen and young adult as office aides.
“I think The Emanuel can go further in that direction and that it’s something other synagogues can do,” she says.
As Fox prepares to leave Torat Hayim, Emanuel president Ira Henowitz praises her for an “unwavering focus on excellence, creativity, and inclusion for all students.”
“Judye is a forward-thinking, innovative educational leader of commitment, dedication, and integrity who has touched the lives of hundreds of Jewish students and families,” he says. “We will very much miss her approachable, caring, personable manner and passion for Jewish learning that connects with all ages and abilities. We will also miss her key day-to-day, thoughtful involvement in The Emanuel’s mission to be a leading and inspiring sacred community of quality lifelong Jewish learning.”
Fox and her husband, Fred, will stay in West Hartford. She plans to spend time in Israel and with her year-old grandson in California. Then, she says, “we’ll see.”
She will be honored at a retirement celebration on Sunday, May 3 at 4 p.m. at The Emanuel Synagogue, 160 Mohegan Drive, West Hartford. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (860) 236-1275. n
CAP: Judye Fox with two of her students.