Mrs. Chani Okonov, a Chabad emissary to Brighton Beach, New York and co-founder of the Mazel Day School, was selected as one of the five exceptional and highly innovative Jewish educators who will receive the 3rd annual Jewish Education Project Young Pioneers Award. In a small celebration on Monday, April 6, Okonov had the opportunity to meet her fellow awardees, who come from institutions across educational settings throughout Greater New York.
The award celebrates forward thinking educators who are redefining how Judaism is taught, learned, and lived. Okonov is being recognized for her innovative leadership as co-founder of Mazel Day School, a growing day school in South Brooklyn catering primarily to Russian-speaking Jewish families and their unique academic needs.
Under her leadership, the school has grown from just three children in 2002, to 14 classes and more than 170 students today. Known for its warm environment and child-centered approach, Mazel also maintains high standards in professionalism, academic achievement and engaging learning experiences.
Gennady Favel, an active board member of the school, explains how in little over a decade Okonov created an engaged, close-knit community of parents, teachers and children. “Through their children, parents of Mazel students are learning more about Jewish life and values,” Favel says. “This acts as a catalyst which enables parents to explore more deeply what Jewish identity and practice means for them as a family.”
This groundbreaking initiative has led to a fundamental shift in the way that Russian-Jewish parents think about Jewish education. Although nearly twenty percent of New York’s Jews are either first or second generation immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Russian-speaking Jews have been disengaged from Jewish life for decades (while living in the Former Soviet Union and even after immigrating to USA).
While living in Brighton Beach and working with the local Jewish community, Okonov saw that maintaining the status quo meant that “Russian Jews could be fully assimilated in less than one generation, unless their Jewish identity is revived.”
Creating a Jewish day school experience that would re-engage this demographic has been Okonov's vision ever since. Together with her husband, Chabad emissary Rabbi Avermel Okonov, the couple established the school under the auspices of the F.R.E.E. organization (a grassroots institution founded by emigres from the Soviet Union).
In recognition of her innovative approach to Jewish education, Okonov along with four other recipients will be recognized at a celebration to benefit The Jewish Education Project held at the New York Academy of Medicine on May 21st and will receive a $360 professional development stipend.
“Founding Mazel Day School has been an endeavor filled with much faith and hope in the power of rebirth and revitalization within an entire community,” said Okonov. “This Jewish Education Project Young Pioneers Award is a meaningful symbol of recognition for our work thus far, as well as of the awesome potential of future achievements within the Russian-speaking Jewish community.”