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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

(Courtesy of Ma’ayanot) What do our genes say about us? Now we are able to find out, but do we want to? The continually improving technology of DNA testing impacts science, health, history, ethics and law. At Ma’ayanot’s Day of Big Ideas on February 2, Esther Slomnicki, beloved teacher of biology, AP biology and anatomy, will give the keynote speech, “Knowledge and Privacy in Conflict: DNA Testing.” She will explain the science behind DNA testing, including how companies such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe mathematically compute ancestry and place of origin. Some DNA testing companies focus more on geneology, and others include health information as well. DNA testing technology offers the promise of vast knowledge and also raises privacy concerns; there is a possibility of finding out surprising information that can emotionally impact a family, or of genetic or health information being shared with government or insurance agencies.

The Day of Big Ideas, an annual tradition at Ma’ayanot for the past 11 years, is a “celebration of the liberal arts and sciences. It honors Ma’ayanot’s outlook that liberal arts and sciences are essential contributors to an educated and empathetic personality, and are also a way to understand God’s universe and grow closer to Hashem,” explained Associate Principal Tamar Appel. At a keynote speech followed by breakout sessions, Ma’ayanot faculty explore topics in sciences and humanities together with the community. Each year, one or more sessions integrate liberal arts and sciences with Jewish texts and values.

“We are proud of what our teachers have to offer—both the content they teach and their engaging way of conveying information. The Day of Big Ideas is an opportunity for our stellar faculty to share their knowledge with the broader community,” said Appel. At Ma’ayanot, Slomnicki is beloved for her erudition, clarity, passion for her subject and connection with her students. Said Appel, “Mrs. Slomnicki is an outstanding educator, and this is a great opportunity for the community to learn from her.”

A native of West Hempstead, Slomnicki comes from a “science family,” with six out of seven immediate family members working in health care, science or science education. Slomnicki is a graduate of SKA, attended MMY for seminary and majored in biology at Queens College. After a year of research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and two years teaching at Lawrence-Woodmere academy, Slomnicki found her professional home at Ma’ayanot. This is her 15th year teaching biology and AP biology, and she enthusiastically affirms, “I love it as much as I did my first year.”

Slomnicki’s area of expertise is biology, but she sees a religious dimension to her learning and teaching as well. “Learning biology enhances my connection to Hashem and Judaism. The intricacies of a process such as cellular respiration help me appreciate the laws of nature that God put into place—ma rabu ma’asecha Hashem,” she said. In addition, she said, “Although I never give actual halachic guidance, I do enjoy learning about halachic issues that arise with modern scientific techniques such as assisted reproductive technology and gene editing (CRISPR), and sharing an exploration of the issues with my classes and sometimes in lectures for the community.”

Slomnicki’s devotion to her students is evident to both her students and her colleagues. “I am constantly inspired by my students, from the students who ask thoughtful and deep questions, to the students who continue to try in any class and do not get discouraged, to the students who are facing life challenges but still come to school and persevere and do their work.” About teaching at Ma’ayanot, Slomnicki added, “I have such respect for my colleagues and administrators. Students are lucky to have the chance to learn from people who put so much thought into preparing high-quality lessons.”

Mrs. Slomnicki also has an excellent relationship with her students. “I enjoy my students, and they respond well to that and appreciate it.” Every year, she shares a post-AP celebration with her AP biology class, often hosting them in her home, and she invited all her freshman classes to an “open house” last Shavuot afternoon. “I was so gratified when, on the school shabbaton one year, an alumna whom I remembered as a quiet student told me that she was studying for a degree in a health-care field because of my ninth-grade biology class. She told me that she felt, ‘This is a subject I like, a subject I can succeed in,’ and it really influenced her career path.” Slomnicki noted, “Even if a teacher does not necessarily see the results of her teaching immediately, one never truly knows how she has impacted a student.” It gives her much nachas to see her students succeeding and achieving in their chosen fields.

Ma’ayanot thanks the Brodsky family for their generous sponsorship of the Day of Big Ideas in loving memory of Bernie and Bernice Kramer, grandparents of Molly Brodsky, Ma’ayanot class of 2013. After Slomnicki’s keynote address, Appel, STEAM mentor Dr. Duncan Bell, math teacher Dina Klapper, English chair Samantha Kur and AP calculus teacher Dr. Sofya Nayer will lead breakout sessions in their areas of expertise. Men and women are welcome at Ma’ayanot for the Day of Big Ideas on Sunday, February 2, 9:30-12:30.