Our Stories

Finding the Right Words: Remembering Jenessa Schwartz z”l

By Cindy Schlesinger, Jewish LearningWorks’ Board Member

In the spring of 2016 I went on a tour of Yavneh Day School. The moment that I walked into room 200 I knew that there was something special about the teacher, Jenessa Schwartz. The students were actively annotating Megillat Esther and learning lots of interesting vocabulary words – I’ve rarely seen such a high level of engagement in a Middle School ELA classroom, on a sacred text. That first impression certainly did last. It became immediately clear that this was no ordinary learning space, and that the space was inspired.

I was lucky to be able to work with Jenessa for the next six years and to call her my friend. I had the honor of being in her orbit when she shared the impossible news of her diagnosis, and to work with her as she decided to live and thrive in spite of it. Equal to the immediate power I sensed from her as a teacher, I had the privilege of being a daily witness to her humble humanity and inordinate strength as a mother, a friend, a committed Jew, and a cancer thriver.

In her final post on her blog, My Colon Cancer: semicolon, not full stop, Jenessa wrote, “I have no control over what is happening to my body, but I do have control over what is happening to me…I’m bloodied, I’m bruised, but no one can say I lost my battle with cancer. I get to choose how things end, and that sounds like winning to me.” On November 1st, surrounded by her family, Jenessa said goodbye.

The irony is not lost on me that I can’t find the right words to convey even a fraction of Jenessa’s impact. She was a warrior, exceptional educator, loving mother and daughter, and always the coolest person in the room. She inspired her students (and colleagues) to take risks, to try new things, and to be better people. (Please note the correct usage of the Oxford comma.) She expertly created a safe space in her classroom where her students flourished and found their own love of literature, musical theater, and of course, grammar.

While her gifts were acknowledged daily by her students, in 2022 the whole community celebrated Jenessa as the winner of the Ruby Award for excellence in Jewish youth education and engagement. By organizing a day of learning, Jewish LearningWorks found the perfect way to honor Jenessa. As a lifelong learner herself, Jenessa loved grappling with text. She was able to mold words and ideas like clay in the hands of a master sculptor, creating tangible learning moments that were both beautiful and permanent for students and colleagues alike.

Jenessa was a master at finding the exact right text that added meaning and depth to a lesson or moment. I don’t share her talent, but keep thinking about Pirkei Avot 1:7, which tells us to find for ourselves a teacher and acquire for ourselves a friend. It’s a bit like magic when those are the same person. For so many of us, Jenessa was our teacher, colleague, and friend. I will miss my friend deeply, but I will always continue to learn from her.