Toni Vurgaftman, 23, is the vibrant lead teacher in the older toddler classroom at the Bais Yaakov Early Learning Center. She was recently awarded the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education’s Educator Award.
“I was very touched because I always do chesed expecting nothing but self-gratification in return,” Vurgaftman said.
Her parents are from Ukraine, and she still participates in Slavic culture with RAJE led by Rabbi Gavriel Horan, ACHIM led by Rabbi Paysach Diskind, and ARIEL led by Rabbi Velvel Belinsky.
In addition, she enjoys volunteer work for the Jewish Caring Network. She also interned at the Office of the Public Defender while studying at Towson University.
She lives in Pikesville with her family and brothers Ben, 18, and Eli, 11.
Tell us about your job.
When I first began working in Bais Yaakov, I was excited to be going back to my old middle school where my eighth grade class graduation picture still hangs.
I began using my mother’s teaching materials and utilizing what she has taught me from her 20-year career: how to make learning not only meaningful but interactive.
Children first learn how to never give up when they are learning how to walk or ride a bike for the first time. They teach us to sing and dance in the rain while wearing our favorite rain boots. While I am teaching them, they are also teaching me how to be a better person. Education is a mutual process between a teacher and a child.
I had a boy last year that would dress up for Shabbos every day of the week. He taught me that every day should be special, and we should dress to impress.
When I was teaching my students about messiah, I mentioned that when he comes no one will be hungry. A little boy piped up and said, “I’m not hungry, I got Cheerios!” He showed us that often the big problems we face can be fixed with simple solutions.
One of my favorite quotes is “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”
Tell me about your quarantine experience.
Every Monday I make sure to put out a video reading a story with some props, like a big Clifford toy or a little baby Moshe. I also love to sing songs and do whatever I can to make someone smile.
When I was in the classroom, I wished that there was a secret camera like on that TV show “What Would You Do?” [to see my energy], and now I can make a video of me doing what I love.
Something that really touched me was when one of my students sent me a picture of himself watching my video on his tablet.
What do you do with the Jewish Caring Network volunteer work?
In the classroom and at home, I am always looking to use all my resources, talents, and skills. I can make origami birds, do a handstand, bake cookies, and build a pretty impressive tower out of Legos. My brothers have taught me how to play with trains, cars, and build, and I am so grateful that those skills are now coming into play.
Similarly, I love using my car to help people, whether picking up something from the store for them for JCN or dropping off some yummy Dougie’s for them.
Hashem created all of us to be different so that we can fit together like puzzle pieces to make the world a better place.
What’s on your bucket list?
I hope to go rock climbing, bicycle riding, swimming, bury my feet in the sand, and lay down on the grass while star gazing. I also want to fly to Hawaii, jog down the Great Wall of China, and hike through the Amazon rainforest. I think I should make a lesson in Chinese when I get back from my trip.
What does your Jewish identity mean to you?
My Jewish identity means that I always try to better myself and help others in any way that I can. I need to realize that every minute of my life should be spent serving Hashem. When Abraham died, it is written in the Torah that he lived every second of his 175 years on Earth. In the classroom, we must always strive to be a present to the kids and not just present.