Ellen Geller Kamaras
As a Yeshivah of Flatbush graduate, I was thrilled to interview an alumna who studied at Flatbush from pre-K through high school, who now plays an integral role at the high school in providing a safe, confidential space in which students can share, gain support, and develop skills to cope with their school experiences.
Please meet Etty Ballas Mizrahi, the Director of Guidance at Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School.
The Guidance Department imparts a significant function during typical times, helping students “thrive academically, personally and socially.” You can imagine how critical the Guidance Department’s work became when COVID-19 hit NYC.
Before we dive into Etty’s current role, let’s step back to take a look at her journey from student to adulthood.
The Early Years
Etty Ballas, born in Queens, moved to Brooklyn when she was a little girl. She has a brother and sister and is the oldest of the three. Etty’s parents were inspiring role models who championed her both emotionally and academically. Mayer Ballas, Etty’s father, emigrated from Syria as an adult after attending medical school in Syria. Dr. Ballas worked hard to bring Syrian Jews to the United States so that they, too, could earn a living and learn Torah freely. Etty describes her mother Rachel lovingly as a person who is always present for family and would do anything to help others.
“As a child and teenager, I enjoyed school greatly and worked hard – the pressure to do well came from within.”
Mom and Dad were on board with Etty’s decision to apply early to Columbia University. Her father inquired about her goals. Etty considered following in her father’s footsteps and studying medicine. Etty was grateful that her parents were so supportive and allowed her to dorm and enjoy the total college experience.
Etty met Raymond (“Ray”) Mizrahi in her senior year of high school. Ray, two years older than Etty, was a Yeshivah of Flatbush alumnus. They married in 2003 and it was Ray’s encouragement and constant support every step of the way that enabled Etty to pursue graduate school and her career goals.
The Mizrahi’s have been married for 17 years and have five children ranging in age from two to thirteen. Ray works in the fine foods business and is a devoted partner and father. The Mizrahis are glad that all their kids attend Flatbush. Their 13-year-old son will be entering high school this year.
Academics and Career
Back to Etty’s Columbia days. She thought about pre-med studies but then realized how much she loved psychology and working with children. During college, Etty was a second grade assistant teacher at Flatbush and enjoyed the kids tremendously. That position confirmed her desire to work with children one-on-one. Etty applied to Brooklyn College for a master’s degree in school psychology and returned to Flatbush for an internship in the Middle Division when she was expecting her first child.
After completing her master’s degree, Etty was hired as a school psychologist at Barkai Yeshivah.
“I loved my experience at Barkai. Three months into my job, I was chatting with a friend about pursuing a doctorate degree and she said, ‘Etty, instead of talking about it, go for it!’”
Etty felt torn. Things were going well at Barkai, yet the Pace University doctoral program in school-clinical child psychology called to her. Etty wanted the flexibility and opportunity afforded by a doctorate, and she wanted to follow her passion for learning. After consulting with others in the field (who later became her mentors), Etty took the leap and applied.
Etty entered Pace’s Psy.D school-clinical child psychology program with one child at home and one on the way. As a student therapist, she saw clients and attended classes during the day and made every available hour productive. Family time, however, particularly during Shabbat, was sacred to her. That January, Etty gave birth to her second child. She was back in her statistics class a week later.
In her third year at Pace, Etty received an externship at Kings County Hospital. She landed a full-time internship at NYU’s Rusk Institute during her fourth year. She completed a fellowship at NYU’s pediatric cancer center following her graduation from Pace in 2012. She was exhilarated about her clinical training at NYU. Etty gave birth to her third child shortly after beginning her fellowship.
Returning to Flatbush
As fate would have it, Etty saw a Guidance Director position advertised at Flatbush High School. She was interviewed by her former high school principals and received a job offer for the position that had been previously held by one of her mentors.
One of Etty’s much-loved parts of her job is working directly with students, but she is glad that she gets to apply her clinical skills and training in so many ways, and finds her role and responsibilities fulfilling and challenging!
Etty’s Special Essence
Etty was modest when asked her to describe herself. “I do the best I can at whatever I do and try to give my all. I care about people and try to be there for those I am close to, including family, friends, colleagues, and students. I prefer to be a giver but I am learning to accept help from others.” While I observed that she was driven, Etty described herself using the softer term “motivated.”
Being “present” and “genuine” are Etty’s priorities. Since I am a life coach, these attributes touched me, as they both require an individual to really listen. Being present means giving your time, energy, and attention, and showing up without inserting a personal agenda.
Genuine people have the ability to really listen. They generally do not care so much about being liked and they share their real thoughts about life.
Miriam Wielgus, Etty’s colleague and the Jewish History Department Chair, portrayed Etty as extremely warm, empathetic, and special.
Etty is so proud of Flatbush’s unique guidance program. The Yeshivah believes that every student benefits from having their own personal advocate as they navigate their high school years. Each incoming freshman is assigned a guidance team member who stays with them throughout the four years. These relationships grow as the student advances through high school. “We look at each student as a whole person, with different abilities, talents, and perspectives and we support each one to achieve success and fulfillment.”
Her favorite aspects of the job? Number one is meeting one-on-one with students. That’s what initially drew Etty to psychology. Number two are her supervisory responsibilities. “I work with an amazing team of gems. We all have different backgrounds and skills, including school psychology, social work, and art therapy, but we all collaborate, cover for each other, and perform the same responsibilities. We work with our students, teachers, administrators, and parents to help our students have the best possible experience throughout high school. We work toward building students’ inner strength, character, and values in all that we do.”
The Guidance Department creates student and parent programming on topics affecting teenagers, such as relationships, substance use, and mental health issues. Etty and her team collaborate closely with Project SAFE teachers, who conduct weekly life skills discussion classes on all aspects of teen life.
The Juggling Act of a Working Mom
Elly admits that it is a daily challenge to balance work and family life and that she could not do it without Ray’s support. He even shops at Moisha’s for her! She also credits her wonderful nanny who has been with her since her oldest child was six weeks old.
Etty loves her work but her family is her prime accomplishment, “I love being a mom and love the stage I’m in with my children.”
Since her job is an all-consuming one, Etty structures her time carefully. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve had a full day before I walk into work!”
Her advice to working moms? “Do something for yourself every day and set boundaries as far as what you commit to.”
Etty spends her free time with family and friends. She loves outings to beaches and parks and greatly enjoys cooking, eating, reading, and attending lectures with friends.
Dealing with the pandemic from a Guidance perspective was a huge undertaking. In-person learning ended with one day’s notice in March. Etty and her team communicated that they were there for students, parents, and teachers and provided resources for all of them. Students were engaged virtually, individually, and in groups. The team also used social media to convey uplifting messages to Yeshivah of Flatbush families.
The Guidance Department’s focus throughout the reopening process is on taking care of the mental health of the students, parents, and faculty and supporting families as they transition back to school.
Connect with Etty at email@example.com.
Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach. Her coaching specialties include life, career, and dating coaching. Ellen works part-time as an entitlement specialist at Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org (www.lifecoachellen.com).