It’s hard to believe that Stephanie and Josh Bilenker arrived in Stamford as recently as 2006. Given their robust and unceasing commitment to our local Jewish community, one would think this year’s Celebration Dinner Guests of Honor were Stamford born and bred.
Consider the Bilenkers’ long and diverse list of Jewish communal activities.
As a couple, the Bilenkers spent two years as chairs of Super Sunday, the main fundraiser of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien. In addition, Stephanie sat on the Board of the UJF Young Leadership Division for several years, during which time she chaired Young Leadership events and, in 2014, she participated in a UJF mission to Cuba delivering toiletries and medicines to the Cuban Jewish community. Stephanie also served on the Stamford JCC’s Center Women’s Committee for several years, volunteering to work on various events that raised money for the community at large.
At Congregation Agudath Sholom, where they are members, Stephanie and Josh chaired two annual dinners, and Stephanie served as a volunteer for many Young Families events. Most recently, Stephanie chaired a food drive for Jewish Family Service. As a family, the Bilenkers were a host family for Tzahal Sholom, as well as for the JCC Maccabi Games, when they were held in Stamford. Besides all that, they are active supporters of other local and national Jewish causes, including the Anti-Defamation League, Friends of the IDF, and the Friendship Circle.
The Bilenker’s attachment to BCHA runs deep and strong — with good reason. Three good reasons, to be exact. The Bilenkers oldest son, Dean, graduated in 2015 and is now a first-year student at the University of Chicago. Middle son Justin is a 2018 Bi-Cultural alum, now a junior at Stamford’s Academy of Information, Technology and Engineering. And youngest son Evan is currently a BCHA 8th-grader.
Is it any wonder then that the Bilenkers continue to give generously of themselves to their beloved BCHA? They served as journal chairs of two highly successful BCHA Celebration Dinners; and Stephanie has been an ever-present volunteer in different capacities -- e.g., as a classroom rep., and a member of both the annual dinner and dinner journal committees.
A native of Miami Beach, Florida, Stephanie met Josh, who hails from Beachwood, Ohio, while the two were students at Princeton University. The couple became engaged while living and working in New York City, then took off for Baltimore — Stephanie to study law and Josh to study medicine. After stints in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., they relocated to Stamford when Josh took a job in New York City.
Stephanie, whose practice was focused until recently on labor and employment issues, is currently retraining to work in the field of disability law. And Josh, after a career in clinical medicine, the FDA and healthcare investing, is now focused on discovering novel cancer drugs and testing them in clinical trials. Two of these medicines have received FDA approval.
So, no, Stephanie and Josh are not Stamford born and bred. But they have formed an unbreakable bond with our community, and they continue to manifest their lasting love for ‘klal Yisrael’ and their strong commitment to Jewish education every day. For those reasons, we are grateful for the opportunity to honor them at the Bi-Cultural 2021 Annual Celebration Dinner.
For Nicole and Jonathan Makovsky — recipients of our 2021 BCHA Celebration Dinner Young Leadership Award — Stamford is the perfect community.
“You get the best of both worlds: The benefits of living in a New York City suburb with the relaxed feel of a New England town,” say Jonathan, who is originally from Miami, Florida, and Nicole, a native of Memphis, Tennessee.
And because they love Stamford, the Makovskys are whole-heartedly invested in the city’s flourishing Jewish community. To spread the community’s good vibes and help it grow, Nicole and Jonathan are continually stepping up to take on more and more leadership roles.
At Congregation Agudath Sholom, where they are members, Nicole sits on the Board of Directors and is the Co-Chair of the Mikvah Committee, while Jonathan works to strengthen the Orthodox congregation through his work on the shul’s Membership Committee.
And then, of course, there are the couple’s strong ties to Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy, where their daughter, Mackenzie, attends third grade, and their son, Austin, will be enrolled in the fall of 2021.
Jonathan, who professionally is a real estate broker and developer, promotes BCHA, as well as Stamford’s Jewish life, to prospective families as one of our school’s dedicated group of Ambassadors.
Nicole is in her fourth year as a BCHA Pre-K teacher — a job she considers much more than just a job.
“I give it my everything as I am very passionate about what I do,” she says, adding, “I love what I do so I dive in one hundred percent.”
And just what it is she loves about being a part of the BCHA faculty and family?
“I love being a part of the community school,” she explains. “Knowing and seeing many of the families throughout the community on weekends connects us all in a special way outside and inside the classroom.
And then, of course, there is the school itself.
Says Nicole: “The energy in the school is positive, uplifting, encouraging, and enthusiastic from the top administrators all the way down to the student body.”
Doris Zelinsky knows a lot about business. And much of what she knows she learned from two brothers by the name of Marvin and Murray Lender, whose now legendary family enterprise, Lenders Bagels, she joined in 1979.
But Doris, who enjoyed a long and energizing career in business, learned much more than how to market the best frozen bagels ever from the brothers’ Lender. More importantly for Doris, Marvin and Murray exemplified the values of being strong contributors to one’s community through volunteer work and tzedakah.
Clearly, it was a lesson well learned. Because Doris has spent the last several decades giving of herself --- of her time, energy, efforts, and support -- to Connecticut’s Jewish communities. And she isn’t done yet.
A first-generation American, Doris Zelinsky is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who rebuilt their lives and grew their family in New York City. A member of the first Yale University class to admit women, following her graduation in 1971, she gave back to the community by becoming a teacher at Ezra Academy and the Beth El-Keser Israel Hebrew School, both in Greater New Haven.
Doris and her husband, Ed, whom she met while both were students at Yale, had grown to love New Haven, and so they set up stakes and remained in the Elm City even after Doris began graduate work at Princeton. With Ed at Yale Law, Doris commuted by Trailways bus between Princeton and New Haven. Ultimately, the Zelinsky’s raised their four children -- Jacoba, Joshua, Aaron, and Nathaniel -- in their New Haven home.
Over the years, Doris has earned a well-deserved reputation for pouring her heart and soul into projects and causes that elevate Jewish life in Connecticut. Given her parents’ experience, it is no wonder that preserving the memory of the Holocaust is the focus of much of her volunteer efforts.
“My most poignant tzedakah has been my work as the volunteer president of Greater New Haven Holocaust Memory,” she says, referring to the non-profit organization that oversees the New Haven Holocaust Memorial, the first such memorial in the United States to be erected on public land.
But it was about 15 years ago that Doris Zelinsky received a phone call that would change the trajectory of Jewish life in Connecticut.
On the line was a local Jewish woman who shared her dream of creating a vibrant Jewish high school in Connecticut and asked for Doris’ support. Despite the fact that her own four children were grown and therefore would not be able to benefit from this educational opportunity, Doris was taken by the idea. She agreed to come on board and use her lifelong business skills to help fund and found the new high school.
In 2010, thanks to the leadership efforts of Doris and several others, the Jewish High School of Connecticut opened in Bridgeport. In 2018, after moving to Stamford several years prior, the high school merged with Bi-Cultural Day School to form Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy -- Connecticut’s first comprehensive Jewish school for students in pre-K through twelfth grade. An educational institution rooted in Jewish values. A place to grow tomorrow’s Jewish community leaders.
Which doesn’t mean Doris Zelinsky is resting on her laurels. Not Doris. Instead, her involvement in ensuring the health and vibrancy of the school continues to this day. And with her help, Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy will continue to thrive as a center of Jewish educational life in Connecticut.
At Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy, we work hard every day to instill in all of our students a strong spiritual connection and a deep love for the State of Israel. Because we believe that Israel is the tie that binds; the bridge that brings us together as a people, that strengthens our Jewish identity and instills in us a profound sense of pride in our magnificent heritage.
Perhaps for that reason, over the past few years we have watched with great joy as so many of our graduates have chosen to help protect our brothers and sisters in Israel and show their unwavering support for the Jewish state by volunteering to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. We say to them all “Yasher Koach!”
This year at our Celebration Dinner, we present the BCHA Alumni Award to the eight BCHA graduates listed below, who are currently serving in the IDF. In so doing, we honor not only them, but all the BCHA grads, past and previous, who previously volunteered to serve in the IDF… and all those who will volunteer to serve when their turn comes.
Our Alumni Award winners are:
Mia Brenner -- A 2015 Lower School graduate from Stamford, Mia started her army service training in Jerusalem this past fall.
Ella Feuerstein -- A member of the Upper School class of 2019, Ella is currently serving in the military police in East Jerusalem.
Judy Fogel -- An alum of the Lower School class of 2014, Judy is working in the IDF’s “Kishrei Chutz” (foreign relations). She is from Stamford.
Nathan Haron -- A 2015 graduate of the Lower School, Nathan is currently serving in the Nachal Brigade near Arad. A resident of Stamford, Nathan is the son of BCHA Principal Rachel Haron.
Nathan Links -- Nathan is currently serving in the Givati Brigade in the Negev. A resident of Stamford, he is the son of 2021 Celebration Dinner Chairs Vered and Mark Links.
Meital Wiederhorn -- A 2014 Lower School graduate, Meital is currently serving in Bislamach Brigade, where she is responsible for training Infantry Corps squad commanders and platoon sergeants. A resident of Westport, she is the daughter of BCHA faculty member Morah Riki Wiederhorn.
Maya Wiener -- A 2015 Lower School graduate, Maya is currently serving in an engineering combat unit in Tze'elim. She is from Ridgefield.
Michal Yaari -- A member of BCHA Lower class of 2015, Michal is serving in the Sherut Leumi (national service) program in Herzliya, where she is helping people with disabilities. She is from Zichron Ya’akov, Israel.
For Jacqueline Herman, serving as Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy’s Head of School has never been just a job. It is a passion.
A passion for guiding students and helping them grow intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and physically.
A passion for education that she not only felt…but that is continually reflected in the curious minds and confident smiles of the hundreds of children who have passed through the school’s doors.
It is no wonder then that, in announcing “our beloved Jackie’s” intention to retire at the end of this academic year after 10 years at the helm of Bi-Cultural the school’s president, David Pikoff, and chairman of the board, Bob Zitter, noted that “Under Jackie’s stewardship for the past 10 years, BCHA has developed and thrived as a school known for its warmth and academic excellence.”
To celebrate all she has done and all she has meant to Bi-Cultural (prior to being appointed Head of School, Jackie served two years on the BCHA faculty), it seems fitting that Jackie be honored with the inaugural Walter Shuchatowitz Award for Excellence in Education — named, appropriately, for the founder and first principal of our school who first invited Jackie to join the BCHA faculty.
Over the course of her 34 years’ career as a devoted educator, both in the classroom and as an administrator, Jackie has distinguished herself as a strong advocate for educating the ‘whole’ child by providing them with individualized and differentiated instruction, and instilling in them a love of inquiry and learning.
Among her many achievements at Bi-Cultural, Jackie created a culture of excellence and led the process which resulted in the school’s designation as a U.S. Department of Education 2017 National Blue Ribbon. She also played a key role in the successful 2018 merger of Bi-Cultural’s Lower School with the Jewish High School of Connecticut, thus creating the state’s first comprehensive pre-K through grade 12 Jewish educational institution.
Jackie’s proven track record in building strong programs and developing exceptional faculty is evident not only in her work at Bi-Cultural, but was also evident at the City School District of New Rochelle, New York, and at Trinity Elementary School of Communication Arts and Technology, where she previously served as principal. Prior to becoming a school administrator, Jackie was a special education and general studies teacher and a reading specialist.
Active in communal affairs in her personal life, Jackie has also been a strong advocate for instilling in young people a sense of commitment and responsibility towards their communities, and building and strengthening their leadership skills through civic involvement. As Head of School, she serves as an effective liaison between the school and community agencies, institutions and funders, which, in turn, serves to enhance the integration of the school into the fabric of the community.
Though she is leaving, Jackie’s ties to BCHA—as well as those of her husband, David, will no doubt continue to run deep.
The parents of two sets of twins, their older sons, Douglas and Nathaniel, are proud graduates of the BCHA Upper School, class of 2020, and are currently students at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. In January 2021, Douglas took a temporary leave from UConn to fulfill his dream of serving in the Israel Defense Force as part of the Mahal-IDF volunteer program. The younger Herman twins, Benjamin and Olivia, are currently students in Bi-Cultural’s 8th grade class.