Education director who kept the faith is now passing it on


By Hannah Seligson

Growing up in the Ukraine, Alex Tanskiy was never allowed to discuss Judaism, fearing anti-Semitic repercussions. Now, 20 years later, he has made a long journey to Greenwich Village as the new director of education at the Village Temple. Tanskiy’s journey toward a career in Jewish education started while he was still living in the Ukraine. “I got into Judaism through Hebrew. I got a book and realized that it was not that hard,” he said.

Knowing full well the danger that was involved in even owning a Hebrew book (Tanskiy had friends who were thrown out of college for possession of Hebrew literature) he continued to study. During the 1970s and ’80s, Jewish education was forbidden in the Ukraine, and consequently there were no religious schools where one could explore the positive sides of being Jewish. This, however, was a formative experience in shaping Tanskiy’s deep desire to help young Jews positively identify with Judaism.

As things became more open in the Ukraine in terms of Jewish expression, Tanskiy joined a class of prospective immigrants to Israel. Once in Israel, he said, “I got more involved and interested in becoming a Hebrew teacher.” In fact, Tanskiy became so proficient in Hebrew he was able to open an independent Hebrew school, where both children and adults explored their heritage.

Tanskiy’s new position as the educational director at the Village Temple, at 33 E. 12th St., while less physically arduous than his time in the Soviet army, will nonetheless have its own challenges. As educational director, Tanskiy has to get young children excited about Judaism, or as he sees it, “to show them it’s cool to be Jewish in the Village.”

To do this, Tanskiy believes in implementing “informal educational techniques, such as games and other recreational activities, which will help to give kids another dimension of Judaism.” He is faced with the somewhat daunting task of presenting Jewish education in a way that is not “boring” to young kids. Tanskiy’s main goal is to change the perception that religious school is just a required stepping stone for a bar/batmitzvah, the customary Jewish coming-of-age ceremony.

Tanskiy also sees his role as helping students understand the duplicity of their identity as both Jews and Americans. “The challenge,” he said, is to make kids realize that it is possible to be American and Jewish. “If they realize it is possible to be American and Jewish, they will continue the traditions.” When asked how you achieve that goal, he replied simply with “positive feelings about religious school.”