Providing books to Jaffa preschoolers makes Israel stronger


The children at the Arabic-speaking Ofek preschool in Jaffa spent a lot of time this past year thinking about a mouse named Samsoum, the character in a picture book all the kids have read at home with help from their parents.  

In class, the kids did a range of Samsoum-related projects inspired by the book “Samsoum the Mouse” by Jahil Khazaal, about a field mouse who relaxes while the other field mice gather food for the winter, but who later warms the hearts of the worker mice with his colorful stories. 

The children discussed the different emotions portrayed in the book. They also learned that every creature has a role to play in the community — and that food for the soul can be as important as food for the stomach. In the process, the children fell in love with the book.  

Throughout Israel, 45,000 Arab children in government preschools read “Samsoum the Mouse” as part of a reading-readiness program called Maktabat al-Fanoos (Lantern Library). The program began in January and is modeled after Sifriyat Pijama, which for the past five years has distributed children’s books in Hebrew to hundreds of thousands of Jewish preschoolers. Sifriyat Pijama is a sister program to the popular PJ Library Jewish family engagement program in North America, both founded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Massachusetts. 

Lantern Library, created by the Ministry of Education in partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and San Diego-based Price Philanthropies Foundation, provided four books that the children took home and treasured. During the 2014-15 school year, the plan is to provide eight books to children in all government kindergartens and pre-kindergartens — 80,000 children in all.  

“As people who care about Israel and about the future of Israel, we feel it’s very important to help improve the lives of the Arab citizens of this country,” said Robert Price, president of Price Philanthropies Foundation, explaining his family foundation’s long-term involvement in the Arab community and the decision to be a partner in Lantern Library.

Culturally appropriate and with a strong storyline conducive to discussions on values and emotions, the books encourage parents and children to lay the groundwork for reading. As with books in the Hebrew-speaking effort, the Arabic books are chosen by a selection committee composed of experts in child development, children’s literature and preschool education. 

On the occasion of a visit by the Price family to Ofek, Keefah Masri Bassel, who teaches the 3- and 4-year-olds, said the program has transformed her classroom. 

“The first time I held one of the books, I began to dream that every child would have a shelf in their room reserved for their books,” Bassel said.  

A week later, the teacher invited the parents to the school, where she taught them how to create a library corner at home. The parents helped the children transform T-shirts into book bags and create “This Library Belongs to …” signs.   

When the children went outside for breakfast, a speech-language expert discussed with the parents ways to cope with the differences between spoken and written Arabic, and how to best engage the children — for example, allowing them to retell the story in their own words. Together, they explored the parents’ guide at the back of the book. 

Galina Vromen, executive director of the Grinspoon Foundation in Israel, said the Arabic-language program presented the organizers with some unique challenges. One of them is the dearth of quality Arabic children’s books that are accessible to the Israeli market. 

Vromen said the program “is largely dependent on what’s produced here in Israel, Jordan and Egypt” and noted that, due to political unrest, the annual Egyptian book fair, once the largest Arabic fair in the world, has been discontinued. Turmoil also has affected children’s book production in other nations, including Syria and Iraq. 

Because of the Arab boycott of all things Israeli, some Arab publishers have refused to sell reprint rights to Israeli publishers, who repackage the books, with a parents’ guide, for the program. That’s one reason the program has an interest in supporting the local Arab-Israeli publishing industry, which clearly benefits from a sale of 45,000 copies, whether the book is an original or reprinted.  

“We want strong readers, so we need locally made books,” Vromen said, adding that “there’s tremendous excitement” about the program in the Arab sector from publishers, teachers and parents. 

These same teachers and parents say the literacy program is particularly important for Arab children because it introduces them to formal written Arabic, which is different from spoken Arabic, at an early age.  

“Our goal is to encourage reading readiness with exposure to classical Arabic,” said Vicky Glazer, the supervisor of Jaffa preschools. 

Fatma Abu Ahmed Kassem, national supervisor of preschools for the Arab sector, said the program’s emphasis on interaction with adults “is critical to learning. Reading books offers an opportunity for quality adult interaction with children at home and in the classroom.”

The program, Kassem said, “promotes and enhances a culture of expression and discussion, and raises the awareness of language and enriches language use. Exposing children to a variety of literary works of Arab literature and culture as well as world literature encourages children to become curious and enthusiastic readers.”

JCRC’s Schwartz-Getzug picked to head Jewish World Watch


Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, a longtime Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles executive and director of the organization’s Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), has been named executive director of Jewish World Watch (JWW), a coalition of synagogues, schools and Jewish community members working to combat genocide around the world.

Schwartz-Getzug plans to leave the Community Relations Committee, which is one of the prominent faces of The Federation in the non-Jewish world, in November and begin her new position in early December. The committee has not yet announced her replacement.

Schwartz-Getzug, who is also The Federation’s senior vice president of public affairs, said she has mixed feelings about leaving the “epicenter of the local Jewish communal world” after six years of service. Still, the opportunity to head a small up-and-coming organization outweighed her misgivings.

“This was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up,” said Schwartz-Getzug, a 44-year-old mother of three. “This felt like an opportunity to branch out.”

“Tzivia will definitely be missed,” Federation President John Fishel said.

Schwartz-Getzug will help the two-year-old nonprofit raise money, market itself to the community, oversee the creation of a strategic plan and help determine which issues the group should spotlight, said Janice Kamenir-Reznik, JWW president and acting executive director.

Schwartz-Getzug was selected from 40 applicants for the top spot at JWW. Schwartz-Getzug said she plans to work closely with JWW’s board and other leaders to determine how to grow the organization.

The Community Relations Committee programs have grown in scope and importance under Schwartz-Getzug’s direction, observers say. Among them is KOREH L.A., a well-regarded reading mentoring program, which offers literacy programs to children as young as 3 and 4. Schwartz-Getzug also increased the number of JCRC-sponsored trips to Israel for California legislators, a program that helps increase political support for the Jewish state and for Federation social services.

Recently, she oversaw the creation of a new coalition that has brought together more than 80 local Jewish staff members from congressional, county supervisor, City Council and other political offices. Schwartz-Getzug hopes the new group will reach out to other ethnic and religious coalitions to network and figure out ways to collaborate.

Still, Schwartz-Getzug, like other JCRC directors in the past decade, has had a hard time leading the JCRC to take public stands on controversial political issues. In mid-May, for instance, the JCRC board approved a pro-immigrant rights statement that some members hoped would demonstrate solidarity with the Latino community. The approval process was so slow, however, that the statement appeared several weeks after the largest pro-immigration demonstrations in the country, a reflection of the JCRC’s, and, by extension, The Federation’s, cautious approach.
A lawyer by training, Schwartz-Getzug’s career has taken “a lot of left turns” over the years, she said. After practicing law for four years as a litigator, she joined the Anti-Defamation League to become civil rights director for the Western Region. She moved on after six years to become community liaison at DreamWorks SKG, principally working on “The Prince of Egypt” and its prequel, “Joseph: King of Dreams.” Schwartz-Getzug joined The Federation in 2001.

“It is clear from my career choices that I am most happy and passionate working in the Jewish community,” she said. “And I look forward to continuing to play an important role in it.”

‘Dumb Jews’ react, more politics, more Israel


Dumb Jews

Your issue focusing on Jews’ Jewish literacy (“Dumb Jews,” Oct. 20) could not have been more appropriate. The key to building strong Jewish communities is creating knowledgeable Jews, aware of the meaning, significance and holiness of their tradition.

Your issue came out just as our synagogue began a program, started by a young rabbinical student at the University of Judaism, Laurence Rosenthal, called the Conservative Kollel. The program meets twice a month, it is free and offers intimate study sessions on a series of topics drawn from traditional Jewish literature.

I hope that it is through programs like this one that we will deepen and strengthen Jews’ commitment to their beautiful tradition.

Rabbi Aaron D. Benson
Congregation Beth Meier
Studio City

You often print obnoxious and anti-Jewish materials, but the front-page cartoon titled, “Dumb Jews” (Oct. 20), depicting a young Jew in a dunce cap, insults Jews as being stupid.

Jews with little knowledge of Judaism may indeed be uneducated in that important area of knowledge but describing them as “dumb” and “dunce” is nasty and misuses those words.

Webster’s dictionary defines “dumb” as lacking intelligence or not having the capability to process data. “Dunce” is defined as a slow-witted or stupid person.

Jews are often cited as among the most intelligent group of people on earth. Nevertheless, there is certainly a lack of good education about Judaism among American Jews. That is worth discussion that will lead to the desire for better Jewish education.

Show respect for the Jewish community and for the English language. Berating and abusing the former while misusing the latter does nothing for your credibility.

Fred Korr
Los Angeles

Your Page 1 heading, “Dumb Jews,” is wrong, stupid and written by a dumb Jew. The correct word to have been used is “ignorant.” If you don’t know the difference between “dumb” and “ignorant,” I suggest you use a dictionary. None of all those Jewish laureates of whom we are so proud were dumb but will readily admit that they are ignorant of matters not within their range of specialty.

Albert M. Goldberg
via e-mail

I was disappointed in your education issue this month. We have been listening to the same bromide answers for the last 50 years.

As someone who makes an effort to study Jewish texts on a daily basis and who loves Jewish learning, I find myself in the odd position of having to say that Jewish literacy is, in and of itself, not the answer.

We all know from life experience that there is an inextricable bond between belief and conditioning. The clarity and quality of what we believe engenders the clarity and quality our commitments in support of those beliefs. These commitments, such as regular Jewish learning, as well as some level of commitment to Jewish law, represent the conditioning side of classical Judaism’s belief – conditioning dynamic.

For example, how many parents who have been brought up to believe that the Torah is an inspiring “myth” will be motivated to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on even one child’s 12 years of Jewish education?

Beyond financial considerations, how many of these parents would want their child to spend half of each school day during those 12 years studying that “myth?” Why would those same parents decide to spend their Sunday mornings in temple pouring over arcane Jewish texts, when they could be on the golf course?

The real reason most adults and their children do not receive a real Jewish education is that, by and large, our leadership has failed to give them compelling reasons to bother to become knowledgeable Jews. A serious conversation about what we believe and what we are willing to do in support of those beliefs is the 800-pound gorilla in the middle of the room that no one will talk about.

No, its not about more user-friendly courses or cutting-edge pedagogical theories. Until we can engage in a serious communal conversation about Jewish beliefs and understand that that conversation is both necessary and possible, even for sophisticated, 21st century American Jews, we will continue the downward spiral and pretend that Jewish literacy is the answer to all our ills.

Rafael Guber
New York

Are Jews “dumb” or are their educators a bit primitive?Jewish educators need to think out of the box, otherwise it’ll be the same old story for dumb Jews.

Classical Jewish education in day or after-school programs prepares people for b’nai mitzvahs but does not have the sophistication to engage Jews from high school ages through young professional ages. Educators even tout this point, but are they doing enough to change the way they convey Jewish concepts to teens and young adults looking for more sophisticated answers and more 21st century learning modes?

We need only look at the abundance of educational products in the Christian market – Internet, audiovisual, music – that has led to great strides in engaging their audiences to learn about their religion. FOX now even has a FOX Faith branch of film development projects geared at Christian audiences.

Jewish education must adapt and be more innovative in its approaches. I’m not saying today’s teens and young adults suffer from a Jewish attention deficit; educators are just not reaching us.

Dan Witzling
Business Director
The J-Flicks Project
Los Angeles

I was terribly upset when I picked up The Jewish Journal just outside of my driveway, face up with the headline, “Dumb Jews.” I thought for a moment that it was perhaps an anti-Semitic publication but was shocked to see that it was indeed The Jewish Journal.

Don’t we have enough people around town, around the country, across the globe bashing us? Is it necessary for you to get your point across in such a demeaning way with the exposure to many who may not understand the significance behind the headline ?

I think you wonderful writers at The Journal could have come up with a better choice for your headline so as not to create more disharmony – not only amongst ourselves but fuel our critics as well.

Judaism 101: everything we need to know


What is Jewish literacy? What does it mean to be Jewishly literate? Who is an educated Jew?

Paula Hyman, professor of modern Jewish history at Yale University, wrote in an issue of Sh’ma, “There has been no consensus on the issue of ‘Who is an educated Jew?’ for more than 200 years.”

Clearly, our definitions have changed over the centuries. But where are we today? What must we know to function as literate Jews?

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his introduction to “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History,” observes, “At a time when Jewish life in the United States is flourishing, Jewish ignorance is, too.”

He goes on to say that while large numbers of Jews of all ages are seeking Jewish involvement, in many cases, they are secretly “Jewishly illiterate.”

Modern Jews, Telushkin writes, are either vaguely familiar with or completely unaware of the most basic terms and significant facts about Jewish life and Jewish history.

The traditional definition of literacy is the ability to use language – to read, write, listen and speak. In modern contexts, the word means reading and writing on a level adequate for written communication and generally a level that enables one to successfully function at certain levels of a society.

For our purpose, the phrase “successfully function at certain levels of a society” is where we must begin. What do we need to know to function in or create a Jewish home, to function in the synagogue, to function in Jewish communal life and to function in the world as a knowledgeable Jew? What should we know, feel and be able to do to be considered a literate Jew?

Jewish educators wrestle with these questions on a regular basis. Whether working in a congregation, in a day school or in a graduate program in Jewish education, the questions are the same, although the answers may vary greatly from setting to setting.

Let’s begin with some basic categories: God, Torah, Jewish nation, Israel, holidays, life cycle and deeds. These categories, once briefly explored, will form the basis on which most Jewish learning, leading to Jewish literacy, is built.

  • God: It is in this category where ideas and concepts about Jewish belief are explored. Understanding God and spirituality is a process with which Jews must wrestle. Discussion encompasses questions such as: What is the nature of God? What is Judaism? What do Jews believe?
  • Torah: This category can be expanded to focus on the “words” – the ideas and concepts – of Jewish life. It includes not only the Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew language, common expressions and greetings, Jewish names and names for God, but it also includes: What is the Torah? What are Torah readings? What is in the Bible? What are prayers and blessings? What is Jewish liturgy? What are the basic Jewish texts? What is biblical history and modern Jewish history?
  • Jewish nation: Who is a Jew? How many Jews are there in the world? What are the movements in Judaism? Who are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Oriental and Ethiopian Jews? What is “Jewish” food? Who are the patriarchs and matriarchs? Who are the prophets, the sages and the scholars of the Jewish people?
  • Israel: Why is Israel, the spiritual homeland of the Jewish people, important to all Jews? What is the difference between the Land of Israel and the State of Israel? Who lives in Israel?
  • Holidays: This area begins with a discussion of the Jewish calendar. How is the Jewish calendar the same and different from the secular calendar? What is Rosh Chodesh? What do we need to know about Shabbat and religious holidays? What is Yom HaShoah? What is Yom Ha’atzmaut? Which holidays are celebrated at home? Which are celebrated in the synagogue? What is the history of the synagogue?
  • Life cycle: What are the rituals and traditions that accompany each of the stages of the life cycle? Birth, naming and the first month of life are times of beginnings and celebrations. Bar and bat mitzvah and confirmation are milestones in a child’s religious education. Marriage begins a new Jewish home and family. Death and mourning have special customs to help the family and bring the community together. What does Judaism say about the afterlife?
  • Deeds: Ethics and ethical behavior are important Jewish values. How are we to behave toward Jews and non-Jews? What is tzedakah? What is meant by gemilut chasadim? What are the Ten Commandments? What does Judaism expect of us? How should we speak about others? What is lashon hara? How should we treat animals?

Judaism places great emphasis on caring for one another and the world around us. Jewish literacy requires that we be able to function successfully as knowledgeable Jews. If we accept that Jewish study is a lifelong pursuit, we will learn what we should know, feel and be able to do at each stage of our lives.

Jo Kay is director of education of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City and vice president of educational resources for the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

American Jews are learned in everything — except Jewish texts


The American Jewish community is one of the most learned and sophisticated communities in Jewish history – in everything except Jewish texts. As Jews, we are illiterate.

This phenomenon has its roots in our history over the last 150 years. During that time, the Jewish people underwent five events, each one of which can be counted as a major upheaval. These are the emergence of the Jews from the ghetto into the modern world, the mass movement of Jews from Europe to the United States, the systematic suppression of religion in the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.

These events went far in determining the nature of the Jewish world today and led to the fact that in the United States, we remain comfortable and sophisticated in the Western world and immature in our Jewish knowledge.
The Jewish educational establishment has tried to remedy this problem and, to some extent, has succeeded. The number of day schools certainly has grown. Still, as a community, we remain undertaught and illiterate.

Consequently, when youngsters go off to a university armed with the Jewish education they received in religious schools, or even many of our day schools, they are unable, by and large, to integrate their Jewish knowledge into their much more sophisticated secular knowledge. Even more so, they are unable to have them in equal dialogue with one another.

The basis of good education does not rest on supplying you with facts but on teaching you how to read. In a university, you do not learn science as much as how to function within science or how to read literature or how to write poetry or solve a mathematical problem.

In Jewish texts, by those criteria, we are illiterate. We do not learn how to read Bible but only learn the stories in the Bible. Rabbinic texts that are central in classical Jewish literature remain foreign to most of us. We celebrate holidays, but know nothing of the theology behind them. We pray, sometimes, but know nothing about the theology of the prayer book. Jewish survival relies on loyalty and nostalgia and not on meaning and value.

How can we proceed? I think the first step is an acknowledged awareness of the problem. The American Jewish community does not have literacy as a central focal point. It is spoken about, but the hard truth is not really expressed. I will give a number of examples.

Many years ago, I spoke at an Orthodox congregation on the West Coast. Most of the 200 people there were elderly, and many of them were European-born. I asked them how many of them read Hebrew fluently, and almost all of them raised their hands. I then asked how many understand what they are reading, and almost none raised their hands.
No other group of people would say that they read a language fluently without understanding a word of what they read. Yet this phenomenon continues. We train people to “read the Torah” but not always to understand what they are reading. We train people to “lead” the services but not really to understand the services.

We have Jewish leaders who speak about the importance of Jewish education, but who themselves are not educated or on the path to being educated. We have teachers who are underqualified.

Our expectations are low. If children enjoy going to religious school, that is enough, even though they are learning nothing. We would never tolerate those same criteria for our secular education. Imagine a high school student who loves going to school but cannot read basic texts.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) is one of the educational organizations that is trying to change this. Their recent conference at Duke University was dedicated to the theme of “Jewish Literacy.” This is the necessary beginning.

CAJE must define the question and press the individual schools and teachers to address the problem. At the same time, it must provide them with programs that will bring literacy to their teaching staff.

How can this be done? First, we have to set our goals higher. Teachers must know how to read the text. For example, the Bible has its own style, as do rabbinic and medieval texts. These styles must be taught and mastered. We should be cautious about separating between biblical story and midrash or rabbinical explanation.

We must also understand that the rabbis wrote in a very particular nonlinear style. Information was not given from beginning to end; their style was coded. The prayer book, which they composed, is a master composition, but in order to understand it, you have to know how biblical sections are chosen and put in different contexts and how the rabbis established specific forms of prayer.

The Jewish calendar is a complex theological statement and should be taught as such. Unlike the secular American calendar, all of the holidays are connected one to another.

All of this must be taught in connection to the other, secular education that these students are receiving. They should know the tremendous impact of the Bible on Western civilization and how the concept of history comes from it. They should understand Jewish theology in its many facets.

The impact of science and technology should be taught, along with their limitations. Jewish concepts of death, soul, responsibility and government should be studied.

Most important, by the time they finish high school, they should be able to examine concepts of knowledge and truth, beginning with the story of the Garden of Eden and working through modern theories of logical positivism, existentialism, chaos and theories of complexity. Why not?

I was once speaking to a principal of a community Jewish high school. He said that attracting students was very competitive. He had to assure the parents that their child would get a secular education that would enable them to get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton and, at the same time, would get a Jewish education. I said to him, “Why not tell them that here your child will master two alternative systems of truth, Jewish and Greek, upon which Western civilization was built. They will master both Aristotelian linear knowledge and rabbinic nonlinear knowledge and be all the wiser for it.”

It is not only possible to do both, but for Jews living in the modern world, it is necessary to do both. They will become literate Jews.

Yosef Leibowitz, director and founder of the Yad Yaakov Fund, received ordination from Yeshiva University and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. He served as a rabbi in Berkeley before moving to Israel. Leibowitz was the keynote speaker on the subject of Jewish texts at the recent CAJE conference focusing on Jewish literacy.

It takes a shul: programs target Jewish literacy via congregants


Pick up a synagogue bulletin, and you are likely to read about a variety of programs. From book discussions to Torah study to lectures by local and visiting scholars, there are many opportunities for adults to learn.

Walk into the congregation’s religious school classrooms and you will see children engaged in activities. There will likely be many resources around: colorful textbooks, art materials and idea books for the teacher.

We aim to engage our congregants – young and old. We want to be sure that they are choosing to attend and leaving happy and enthusiastic about being in our congregations. Often our programs for adults are developed by a variety of committees, each addressing different interests. Classroom activities are developed by classroom teachers without an explicit weaving of one lesson’s activities into other aspects and goals of the curriculum.

A few years ago, the leadership of Temple Society of Concord, my Reform synagogue in Syracuse, N.Y., decided that we were doing many programs and activities, yet we were not sure where they were heading and whether we held the same vision of Jewish learning. What did we think our congregants wanted to know? What did we feel should be learned? Who was coming to study and who was missing? Were our programs addressing the same themes and missing others?

We brought committee chairs, congregational professionals and lay leadership together to begin to wrestle with these questions. Our goal was to engage all of our congregants in learning by better meeting their needs through a coordinated program that addressed many facets of Judaism. Our hope was that learning would lead to increased engagement in the congregational and wider Jewish community.

At the same time, our religious school’s board of education decided that it was time to review our curriculum and school program. The curriculum committee’s process used the understanding by design model. Instead of focusing on what should be taught at each grade and what textbooks should be used, they began with what they wanted our students to use in the future.

Interestingly, both groups arrived at the same conclusions, which led to our seven guiding principles. No matter their age, we wanted our congregants to:

  • Understand that our purpose as a Jewish people is tikkun olam – to make the world a better place.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to apply Jewish values to our everyday lives.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to understand Jewish history and experiences in order to articulate the uniqueness of the Jewish people.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to use both Hebrew and English in prayer, ceremonies and celebrations.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to articulate our ongoing connection to Israel.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to engage in ongoing study of Torah and integrate its teachings into our lives.
  • Have opportunities to share their joy, pride and enthusiasm about Judaism and the Jewish community.

We also articulated some understandings that underlie our work and ongoing decisions. First, our overall goal was to ensure that learning focused on promoting Jewish living. Judaism is not meant to be an academic subject alone. We are meant to use our Jewish knowledge to guide our decisions and interactions.

We also want our congregants to see Jewish learning as a lifelong pursuit. We want our children to see their parents and other adults of all ages attending classes and one-time programs. We create opportunities for families to learn together and for our entire congregation to engage in learning and “doing Jewish.” Jewish professionals should also remain learners, continuing our own professional growth and Jewish study.

As Jewish educators, we hope that through their learning and experiences, our congregants’ values will include education. And that they will become educators themselves through their actions and deeds.

Iris Petroff is director of membership and programs, family educator and confirmation teacher at Temple Society of Concord, a Reform congregation in Syracuse, N.Y. She is also the president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.)

Jewish literacy Is a mitzvah — and not fulfilled with phonetics


For the People of the Book, literacy is a mitzvah, a sanctified behavior that draws us closer to God and the Jewish community.

Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, described a curriculum in the year 200: “A 5-year-old begins Tanach,” or scripture; “a 10-year-old begins Mishnah,” or rabbinic law; “a 13-year-old is obligated to accept mitzvot,” based on his/her ability to comprehend meaning; “a 15-year-old begins Gemarah,” or elucidation of Mishnah. (Avot: 5:28).

The desired outcome of this course of study is the development of a Jewish identity rooted in our connection to and knowledge of Jewish texts.

Fast forward to our day: In the past 30 years, the number of schools and the percentage of Jewish children receiving a day school education has risen to dramatic heights. Most of the schools are under the broad spectrum of Orthodox auspices; a smaller but growing number associate themselves with the Conservative and Reform movements or are in the expanding network of pluralistic “community schools.”

Yeshivot and Jewish day schools are uniquely positioned to deepen and expand Jewish literacy. Immersion in classical texts, the time commitment of students and the financial investment of families come together to give a 21st century meaning to Jewish literacy. As graduates of today’s day schools assume professional and volunteer leadership roles in Jewish communal institutions, renewed Jewish literacy may emerge as a characteristic of Jewish life.

A premiere aspect of Jewish literacy is fluency in Hebrew, whether classical or modern, spoken or textual. In our time, we have seen a huge growth of Jewish publishing of classical texts in English. Nonetheless, it is true that the meaning, nuance and message are lost in the translation and may lead to distortions of the original.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act reduced much of the discussion on literacy in American society to a focus on phonics – $900 million was distributed in 2002-2003 to develop “scientific, research-based” programs on this approach to reading – but the initiative has been stalled at that basic level.

Day schools and yeshivot need to resist the temptation of reducing their Hebrew literacy programs to phonetic decoding. That would miss a special opportunity of these schools.

Most modern day schools subscribe to the belief that they are engaged in fashioning a new kind of Jew: One who sees the world refracted not only by the wisdom of Western civilization but also simultaneously through the insights of Torah.

Jewish literacy promotes such philosophical and psychological integration; the yeshiva and day school that embraces this view can produce a student whose vision of the world and his/her community was described millennia ago by the midrash: “May words of Torah be spoken in the language of Yafet,” i.e. classical philosophy and science, “within the tents of Shem,” i.e. the ideas and ideals of the Jewish people. (Genesis Rabbah 36:8). Many hope that this describes the best of what it means to be a modern Jew.

There is a third dimension to Jewish literacy particular to the day school setting: To be Jewishly literate, immersed in the meanings and messages of 4,000 years of Jewish life and letters, conveys with it a moral imperative. We get “it” – the eternal truths of Judaism – when we look up from the page of text, peopled by the generations of giants that preceded ours, and say to ourselves, “What are the consequences for me of taking this seriously?”

The Mishnah teaches: If we achieve Jewish literacy, then our actions will speak louder than our words so that we treat people with a countenance that reflects God’s own. (After Avot 1:15). Jewish literacy does not permit a retreat from real life. What we read, study and discern ought to have implications for our attitudes and behavior.

In the Jewish schools of today, Jewish literacy can have new and special meaning. It calls for a refocus on the linguistic, textual and ethical dimensions of learning, which will be the legacy we leave our students.

Emotional Bond Revs Up Reading


Isabella Van Etten, 3, began her journey of learning to read before she was even born. “I got a book when I was pregnant called ‘Oh Baby, the Places You’ll Go: A Book to Be Read in Utero,'” recalled the child’s mother, Celeste Russi of Newbury Park.

Russi, an actress, recalled reading the Dr. Seuss-inspired book to her growing abdomen throughout her pregnancy. The book lover and her husband continued to read to their daughter as an infant and a toddler. Now a preschooler, Isabella shares her parents’ love of books and is already beginning to sound out small words.

While theories on early literacy have changed over time, the importance of the emotional bond between parent and child continues to be a driving force in helping young children learn to read.

In the United States, only 32 percent of fourth-graders are reading at grade level. In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the number is a staggering 11 percent. In reaction to the dramatic statistics, communities are pushing early literacy. While the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush in 2002, provides grants for state and local schools, the country is still in crisis. Here in the Southland, the Jewish community is taking action.

Last year, Esther Elfenbaum, the early childhood education head consultant for the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, served as a facilitator for HeadsUp! Reading, a college-level course in early literacy for Jewish preschool teachers. Elfenbaum noted that the program emphasizes fun, interactive teaching methods, rather than “ineffective practices” such as relying on worksheets. Parent involvement is key.

“Our goal is to help teachers incorporate early literacy into all our Jewish preschools in an appropriate way and to encourage them to work with parents,” Elfenbaum said. “Early literacy is a partnership between parents and teachers.”

She plans to teach additional HeadsUp! Reading courses this fall and spring.

Nestled inside a classroom at the Conejo Valley Jewish Community Center for Early Childhood and Family Education in Agoura Hills is a “reading center,” a miniature living room-like area where preschoolers are encouraged to cuddle up with a good book. The cozy corner includes a small couch, a lamp, an assortment of stuffed animals and dolls and a rack full of picture books and magazines. Staff members said the point is to mimic and reinforce the comfy association with books on which the children have hopefully grown up.

In addition, Director Joann Hulkower and her staff have created a “print-rich environment” where items around the classroom are labeled for emerging readers. Little signs are posted on the classroom door, the mirror, the table and even the pet rabbit’s cage so that the children may begin to recognize the words. Above all, Hulkower said, parent reinforcement breeds success.

“It used to be that you’d send your kid to school and the school took care of educating the child,” Hulkower said. “Now the theory is that the parent is involved beginning when the child is an infant.”

Betsy Hiteshew, project director of LAUSD’s Early Steps to Reading Success and former president of the California Association for the Education of Young Children, said that neglecting to establish a positive connection between parent and child in regard to reading can be detrimental to youngsters.

Unfortunately, many Jewish families are unaware of the local resources for early literacy. The Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, which is located in the mid-Wilshire area, is an often untapped resource.

“Children’s Jewish literature is one of the finest vehicles for learning culture and tradition,” said Abigail Yasgur, library director. The library offers free “storytime programs” throughout the year where storytellers, musicians, authors, artists and experts provide Jewish-oriented reading activities for infants and children of different ages.

To help Los Angeles’ effort to combat the literacy crisis, residents are encouraged to get involved with KOREH L.A., the largest partnering literacy program in the city. The organization is part of The Jewish Federation and is funded by the Winnick Family Foundation. KOREH L.A. trains volunteers to go to LAUSD elementary schools to help children who have reading difficulties.

“The point is to expose children to books as a pleasurable thing. They might not have had that [experience] in their home,” said Elaine Albert, director of KOREH L.A.

While finding resources outside the home is important, early literacy experts encourage parents to utilize their greatest asset — themselves.

Hiteshew said, “It’s been said many times that the best reading machine is a mother’s lap.”

For more information on the Jewish Community Library of
Los Angeles, call (323) 761-8648 or visit www.jclla.org. To get involved in
KOREH L.A., call (323) 761-8153 or visit www.korehla.org .

Community Briefs


6 Million Remembered Nun’s the Word on Mother’sDay

It’s not every day or even every year that a Jewish organization honors a Catholic nun — but naming her Community Mother of the Year seems odd for a Jewish organization. This year, the Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA) is honoring Sister Jennie Lechtenberg, founder and executive director of the PUENTE Learning Center in Los Angeles, at the JHA annual “World’s Largest Mother’s Day” event. “We really wanted someone who has done something incredible [in the] community — and Sister [Jennie] has helped so many children, she really could be a mother,” said Dan Rosenson, committee chair for the event.

At the event, winners will be announced for JHA’s “Why My Mom Is the Best” essay contest, sponsored by Wells Fargo Bank. This year’s contest drew responses from 214 pupils at 37 local elementary schools. Some of the themes addressed in this year’s winning essays were heartbreaking. Two children wrote about mothers fighting breast cancer, one first-grade girl, Gabriela Fernandez, wrote about how her mother, a cleaning lady, “works so hard to get her job back” and Fiana Eber, a fifth-grader at Stephen S. Wise, wrote about how her mother adopted her from the Ukraine last year.

Molly Forrest, chief executive officer of the JHA, said the Mother’s Day event is one of great importance to the residents. JHA currently cares for 800 people on its two campuses, about 90 percent of whom are women and about one-third of them in their 90s. Many of the women have survived their immediate family “and thus have no one to come for Mother’s Day,” Forrest said.

“We buy gifts for Mother’s Day, but the best gifts for these people is to see your faces, the faces of their family and of the community,” she said.

The ninth annual Jewish Home for the Aging Mother’s Day celebration, which includes brunch, will take place Sunday, May 11 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the home’s Eisenberg Village campus, 18855 Victory Blvd., Reseda. $15 (adults), $5 (children). For reservations, call (818) 774-3324. — Wendy J. Madnick, Contributing Writer

Silence of the Left

A prominent Israeli journalist expressed his dismay last week that in his travels along the West Coast, “I have heard no pro-peace voices in the American Jewish community.

“Even when I spoke at UC Berkeley, I could find no such voices,” said David Landau, who sits on the editorial board of the prestigious Ha’aretz daily newspaper and is editor of its English edition.

The British-born Landau, a former diplomatic correspondent and managing editor for The Jerusalem Post, addressed a faculty group at UCLA Hillel, and later a student audience on campus.

The central decision facing Israel, and by extension American Jewry, is how to deal with the “road map” for ending the intifada and setting Israelis and Palestinians on the long road to peace.

Though “very poorly put together,” the road map is crucial because it represents a concrete proposal on the table and can provide “the building bricks of real change,” he said. Landau warned that if the road map fails, the present situation continues and Israel doesn’t evacuate the territories, then Israel will face a demographic time bomb with Arabs outnumbering Jews in the Jewish State by 2008.

Israel’s course will depend almost entirely on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is in a near unassailable position after his overwhelming election victory and the disarray of the opposition, said Landau, whose kippa and beard gives him a certain rabbinical look.

Far from being just a rough-and-ready “bulldozer,” Sharon is “a very complex and very sophisticated person, who appreciates good music and good art,” Landau observed. But the prime minister is also a very hard man to read. “Even those close to Sharon don’t know what he will do,” said Landau. “He remains an enigma to us.”

David Landau will be speaking on “The Road map to Peace” at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel on May 10. For more information, call (310) 475-7311. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

HUC-JIR Sets Up New Institute for AdultEd

Most rabbis, cantors, educators and communal professionals have had no professional training for meeting the needs of adults seeking Jewish education — until now. This spring, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles established the Institute for Teaching Jewish Adults (ITJA). The continuing education program, which is the first of its kind in the United States, will train Jewish professionals and advanced lay leaders to reach out to the growing number of adults seeking Jewish literacy.

“Concerns over Jewish literacy and the need to develop an informed leadership are becoming commonplace in our community, affecting every family and synagogue,” said Dr. Diane Tickton Schuster, the director of the ITJA, who is also a visiting faculty member at HUC-JIR, an educator at the Institute for Informal Jewish Education at Brandeis University and in the counseling department at Cal State Fullerton.

“It is increasingly important that Jewish professionals who work with adults understand the learning needs of this highly diverse constituency and the best strategies for teaching them,” she said.

Currently, the new program has a pioneer class of six students, all rabbis. — Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Education Writer

El Al Introduces Platinum Class

El Al recently replaced its Business Class with a new Platinum Business Class, offering increased personal service and comfort to passengers traveling on the airline’s 777 and 747-400 aircraft.

Each aircraft has been reconfigured, resulting in a 25 percent reduction in the number of seats and increased leg room for Platinum Business Class passengers. Each seat offers a laptop power outlet and personal lighting, as well as a personal TV monitor. Additional improvements include an increased number of flight attendants per passenger, more meal choices and courses and an extensive wine menu. At specific El Al Platinum Business Class counters check-in is expedited and travelers are allowed three pieces of luggage, compared to two in Coach. Platinum Business Class travelers are also allowed entry into luxurious airport-specific departure lounges, such as the LAX King David Lounge in the Tom Bradley International Terminal.

For those traveling to Israel on a full-fare PlatinumBusiness ticket, El Al offers a $250 roundtrip Platinum Business ticket tocompanions of Platinum Business ticket holders. For more information, visit www.elal.co.il . — Rachel Brand, Staff Writer

Indyk Predicts Ripple Effect of Saddam’sFall

The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime will have a dramatic impact on the entire Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, veteran policymaker and diplomat Martin Indyk predicted in a speech in Los Angeles. As the first payoff of the coalition’s victory in Iraq, the governments of Iran and Syria “will be much more cautious and defensive, as will the terrorist groups they support, said Indyk, who shaped American policy toward Iraq during the Clinton administration and served twice as U.S. ambassador to Israel.

More basic changes will take a longer time.

“The fall of the most repressive regime in the region will have a ripple, not a domino, effect,” Indyk declared.

Delivering a long-scheduled lecture recently at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations, Indyk also warned that unless two conditions were met, the promising prospects would be squandered. The first condition is the establishment of a representative Iraqi interim authority to guide the country’s reconstruction.

“We cannot impose an unpopular military regime,” Indyk said.

Secondly, President Bush’s administration must continue to be fully engaged in the Middle East and actively participate in a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As Clinton’s Middle East adviser on the National Security Council, Indyk was instrumental in changing U.S. policy toward Iraq from “containment” to “regime change” and helped negotiate the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. He is now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Although Bush did not get involved in Israeli-Palestinian problems during the first two years of his term, Indyk thinks that the president will take a more active role now. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

The Downside to Literacy


I honestly thought my daughter, Bruria, would never learn how to read. My nieces learned how when they were 3, and so I assumed that if I got in early, say around 2, Bruria would be in full swing by 3.

So I dutifully started with letters and sounds, labeling every item in the house, in a constant education mode. Nothing happened. Bruria loved listening to stories, but when I paused before a word to see if she could work it out herself, there was just silence.

By the time Bruria was 3 1¼2, and there wasn’t an inkling of literacy, I decided to take her to a nationally reputed reading expert. It was a whole operation to get her there — with my husband and me, our nanny and new baby in tow — and by the time we arrived, Bruria was hungry, and restless and about to have a tantrum.

After the interview, the specialist told us gently that there really wasn’t any need to start with testing when a child was 3. But she did find that Bruria had phonemic awareness problems. I gasped — a diagnosis! Now there was a project for me to jump right into.

No, no, no, the specialist assured us, there was nothing to do, just keep reading to her, morning and night, and come back if there was still a problem when she was 6.

“What on earth are you doing to the girl?” one friend asked me — the one who had been reading when she was an infant, “She has such a wonderful ego, you’re destroying it because of some ridiculous notion of yours that she has to be up to Tolstoy in kindergarten.”

Suddenly, I came to my senses: self-esteem was in fact my goal. I wanted her to have the time to get through the literature I had forfeited when I became obsessed with school and grades. But this wasn’t getting Bruria where I wanted her to go; in fact, she was just becoming nervous and unhappy around books. What a nightmare!

So we laid off for many years. She didn’t come to the preschool interview leafing through “Jane Eyre,” and — to my great shock — she was still admitted.

Last week, at age 7, Bruria finished her first novel, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” by Roald Dahl. I wanted to say “Shehecheyanu,” the blessing we recite for new festivals or fruit (my husband explained the blessing is really only for tangible things). There are a very few milestones in life that really land you on a different plain, perhaps: taking your first step, childbirth, death — and reading your first novel. There is no experience like it, each time you enter a completely imaginary universe and the writer takes you on a fantastical journey through places and things you could never experience or know — and when you land back home, you’re still on the living room couch. It links you with other eras and places and puts you right in the breathtaking center of the vast human dialogue.

Well it’s all very nice, but now we’re drowning in books. There are piles in the toilet, and next to the bath and on the kitchen table. Most of the time I’m asking Bruria to return the old ones to the shelf before getting out new ones, but she thinks that is ridiculous. How can you only be reading one book at a time? There have to be at least three different adventures progressing at every place she may be sitting at that moment.

I still read to her. And I am rediscovering all the wonderful worlds of words I lost so long ago when I decided I had to turn my precious literature into something economically productive. Thankfully, my daughter has no notion that her joy in books has any purpose other than pure enjoyment.

May it always be so.

Torah Portion:The Holiness of Literacy


For many years, the Allen School was the worst in the Dayton, Ohio, system. Located in the dilapidated inner city, the dropout rate was astronomical. Fifth graders had parole officers. Then came a new principal. He brought the staff together and said to them: “We have to understand that the young people we are working with have nothing of external substance or support. They have dangerous neighborhoods. They have poor places to live. They have little to eat. They have parents who live out on the edge and are barely able to care for them. But these students have one thing no one can take away from them. They have their souls. And from this day forward, in this school, we are going to lift those souls. We are going to make those souls visible to the young people themselves, and to their parents, and to the community. We are going to celebrate their souls, and we are going to reground their lives in the power of their souls. All this will require this faculty to recover the power of our own souls, remembering that we too are soul-driven, soul-animated creatures.”

Within five years, the Allen School had risen to the top of every measure of school success. Something is missing from education in America. Not another technique for raising test scores or evaluating teacher performance. We’ve been “back to basics” twice in the past 20 years alone, vacillating between phonics and whole language, between new math and old. In the meantime, schooling has become an obstacle course – something to conquer and surmount.

In traditional Jewish communities, a child’s first day at school was filled with ceremony: The elders would come and carry the child to school on their shoulders. A clean slate was presented, on which the letters of the alphabet were written in honey. As each letter was mastered, it was licked off. Learning was celebrated as a sweet gift. Learning was directed not just at the mind, but at the character, the emotions, the heart. Learning was personal – an offering of life wisdom from heart to heart and generation to generation. Jewish tradition grasped that all education is education of the soul.

On display in New York’s YIVO institute is a battered copy of the Mishnah. Unremarkable except for the flyleaf: “Property of the Teamsters’ Mishna Circle of Bialystok.” Each evening, after an exhausting day of hauling freight, a circle of drivers would gather to study Jewish law. In Judaism, learning is a lifelong adventure. One doesn’t learn to earn a living. One earns a living to have the chance to sit and learn. There is no word in Hebrew for what we call a “school.” There was never such an institution in Jewish life. The traditional beit midrash is a place where people of all ages gather to learn. It is filled day and night with scholars and seekers, the old and the young.

No one is more revered in Jewish life than the teacher. If one’s parent and one’s teacher are threatened, instructs Jewish law, you save your teacher first. Your parent gives life to the body; your teacher give life to the soul. One stands up when a teacher enters the room because the teacher represents the Presence of God. In very religious neighborhoods, kids trade cards with images of great rabbis. Instead of Mark McGuire and Shawn Green, they collect Rashi, Rambam and Hofetz Haim. Imagine the impact on kids if a superstar is celebrated not for his towering home runs but for breathtaking interpretation of holy text and humble acts of compassion.

This week we celebrate the festival of Shavuot. This holiday embraces an audacious claim: God enters the world through a book. To come close to the Presence of God, one learns to read the book. Literacy is not for economic expediency or cultural empowerment alone. Literacy is holy. Literacy permits us to experience God’s revelation. Learning is communion with the sacred. When the rabbis of the Midrash read the story of Moses on Mount Sinai, they wondered how an 80-year-old man could traverse the rocky slopes of the mountainside carrying two heavy stone tablets. It wasn’t that Moses carried the tablets down, they concluded. The letters of the law were written in the hand of God. The tablets flew down the mountain. All Moses had to do was hold tightly – the words carried him. And they will carry us, too.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Chanukah Calendar


When the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles celebrated the launch of its anti-illiteracy program KOREH Los Angeles in September, the focus was on educators and celebrities to read children’s books to kids. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the spotlight at that event were some local women who are equally vital in the campaign against illiteracy: the creators of the children’s books themselves.

Nancy Smiler Levinson, Sonya Levitin, Joanne Rocklin and Erica Silverman are all award-winning authors behind some of the books that line the shelves of our nation’s classrooms and libraries.

With Chanukah upon us, the Journal spoke with them (all old friends) and discovered four distinct voices whose nexus is an appreciation for family, a passion for storytelling, and a shared sense of their Jewish roots.

Four for Chanukah


When the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles celebrated the launch of its anti-illiteracy program KOREH Los Angeles in September, the focus was on educators and celebrities to read children’s books to kids. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the spotlight at that event were some local women who are equally vital in the campaign against illiteracy: the creators of the children’s books themselves.

Nancy Smiler Levinson, Sonya Levitin, Joanne Rocklin and Erica Silverman are all award-winning authors behind some of the books that line the shelves of our nation’s classrooms and libraries.

With Chanukah upon us, the Journal spoke with them (all old friends) and discovered four distinct voices whose nexus is an appreciation for family, a passion for storytelling, and a shared sense of their Jewish roots.

Making Reading a Star Attraction


In a corner of downtown Central Library’s Children’s Literature Department, actor Elliott Gould is reading “Arthur’s New Puppy.” Over by the stacks, J. Paul Getty Trust President Emeritus Harold Williams enjoys a picture book about sunflowers. In another corner, TV personality Bob Saget pours through “Looking for Atlantis,” a sensitive read for kids tackling the topic of death. Across from him, actress Mayim Bialik is engulfed in a Babar tale, and beside her, producer Marc Platt is studiously leafing through one children’s book after another.

Despite appearances, these high-profile Angelenos are not on some trendy trek to connect with their inner child. They are, in fact, reading to school children at a star-studded kick-off for KOREH L.A., a new program designed to combat illiteracy.

Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, “KOREH L.A.: The Los Angeles Jewish Coalition for Literacy” is the most recent affiliate of the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, a non-profit movement. The nationwide version is already up and running in more than 17 cities, such as Miami, Philadelphia and Boston (site of the program’s pilot). Now the reading campaign is finally hitting home. And with the involvement of more than 60 Jewish institutions — Young Israel of Century City, Shalhevet High School, Temple Isaiah, and Hadassah among them — KOREH L.A. is already the city’s largest Jewish coalition effort.

KOREH L.A. hopes to reverse some frightening statistics. Recent national statistics say California’s fourth-graders ranked second to last among 39 states in reading skills and comprehension. As high as 80 percent of those fourth-graders are not proficient readers, and more than half of them have failed to even partially master fundamental skills. Urban school districts have been particularly hard-hit by the disturbing trend.

So champions of KOREH L.A. believe the one-on-one reading initiative is particularly welcome here in Los Angeles, home to the nation’s second-largest school system with nearly 700,000 students. And beginning in October, hundreds of volunteers will be deployed throughout the LAUSD, where each will spend an hour a week reading to a designated child.

The Jewish Federation’s interest in KOREH L.A. started about a year and a half ago, when Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, attended a conference in Miami. There, he learned about the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy — the brainchild of Moment Magazine founder Leonard Fein — and the work that the nascent organization had begun across the Eastern seaboard. Hirschfeld was so taken with the idea that, upon his return, he immediately spoke to Elaine Albert, director of the JCRC’s Commission on Urban Affairs, about installing a local branch of Fein’s program. Soon, KOREH L.A. found a “literacy partner” in the Wonder of Reading — a non-profit organization that renovates public school libraries and trains tutors — which has helped place the program in more than 33 schools.

Opening New Chapters


The National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, which arrives in L.A. this summer, began with a dose of chutzpah.

Several years ago, Leonard Fein, the founder of Moment Magazine, heard President Clinton call for one-million volunteer reading tutors to help public school children in grades one through three. The state of public schools was so deplorable, Clinton said, that 40 percent of all students couldn’t read at grade level.

So, Boston-based Fein, who believes Jews have a “surplus of literacy,” made a chutzpahdik offer to an official high up in the Department of Education. “The American Jewish community will take responsibility for the first 100,000 volunteers,” he said.

“But the minute I hung up the phone, I knew I had a tiger by the tail,” he said. “I’d make a commitment on behalf of ‘The Jews,’ without any authority to make that commitment!”

Yet Fein, who is also the founder of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, knows how to pull a string or two. He coaxed endorsements from most every major Jewish organization, secured $125,000 in grants, convinced the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council to adopt the program locally, and eventually helped mobilize similar efforts in 25 cities from San Antonio to San Francisco.

Today, the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy has more than 3,500 participants, including doctors and teachers, teenagers and retirees who volunteer to tutor one child at least one hour per week. The program has reconnected assimilated Jews to the Jewish community and Jewish suburbanites to the inner-city. Of why the project has caught on, Fein says, “Jews are the People of the Book, for God’s sake.”

Jews may have largely abandoned the inner-city and are increasingly placing their children in private schools, Fein adds. But there is still an affection for the public schools that helped immigrant parents and grandparents become American.

In L.A., the literacy stakes are even higher, says Elaine Albert, the founding director of KOREH L.A., The Los Angeles Jewish Coalition for Literacy, which is based on the national program and is now recruiting volunteers. California schools test the second-lowest in the nation and 80 percent of public school children can’t read at grade level, sources say. KOREH L.A. Coordinator Dan Rosenfeld, previously a science teacher at Manual Arts High School, says his former students could hardly read their textbooks. The problem is so bad that more than one-third of all L.A. Jewish children now attend private school, according to Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater L.A.

So the L.A. JCRC of the Jewish Federation has taken action. “We adopted the literacy project because it responds to a pressing local need, and because it appeals to Jews who are drawn to the notion of tikkun olam,” says Albert, director of JCRC’s Urban Affairs Commission. “When we talk about black-Jewish or Latino-Jewish relations, we’re usually talking about congressmen and public officials,” Albert says. “KOREH L.A. is a way to make those relationships happen for everyday people.”

The L.A. project already has a literacy partner, The Wonder of Reading, which renovates libraries and trains tutors for 33 public schools. And 57 Jewish organizations have signed on as coalition partners, from the Labor Zionist Alliance to (Orthodox) Young Israel of Century City. “It’s the most broad-based Jewish coalition I’ve seen since the Soviet Jewry days,” Albert says.

Of course, a skeptic might ask whether KOREH L.A. might be perceived as condescending, as the ‘haves’ patronizing the ‘have-nots.’ Albert doesn’t think so. “It’s a low-key endeavor, based on one reading partner and one K through third grader quietly working together in a library,” she explains. “It’s not a flashy, public display.”

Moreover, Fein says, promising early evidence suggests that the program works. A study conducted by the literacy project in Louisville, KY, suggests that volunteers helped students improve their reading skills by an entire grade level, says Sandee Linker, the Louisville volunteer coordinator.

Fein, for his part, described his visit to the class of a grateful Boston teacher named Mrs. Moloney. The visit took place on a Friday, the day Jewish Day School students arrived to tutor Moloney’s second-graders.

“It [was] something to behold the enthusiasm with which the children … [greeted] one another, and to watch as some of the [Jewish] students, there being a shortage of chairs, [knelt] next to their younger partners and [helped] induct them into the world of books,” Fein recalled in an essay. Amid the hubbub, Fein asked Moloney whether the weekly session was “more than fun” and “actually useful.”

“I have 28 students in my class,” she replied. “How much individual time do you think I can give them?”

To volunteer for KOREH L.A., call 323/ 761-8153, e-mail: literacy@jewish la.org.

A Crash Course in Hebrew


Lorraine Anishban, 38, has been trying to learn how to read Hebrew for years.

“I attended two or three different courses, but I never came out reading,” she says. Recently, Anishban completed the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Hebrew Reading Crash Course taught by Rabbi Moshe Gutnick at the Chabad of Northridge. “I feel like I’m really reading now,” Anishban says. “I feel great!”

Anishban is just one of more than 105,000 adults in the U.S. and Canada who have completed the beginner’s crash course since its inception in 1988. (Another 45,000 to 50,000 people have gone on to take level two). The NJOC, a non-denominational organization founded in 1987 to stem the tide of Jewish assimilation, created the course to improve Hebrew literacy across North America.

“Hebrew literacy is the fist step towards Jewish involvement,” says Melanie Notkin, marketing director for NJOC. “People who read Hebrew are more likely to go to synagogue. Market research shows that people don’t feel comfortable because they can’t read Hebrew, so they don’t go,” says Notkin.

Gina Blakeslee, 33, concurs. “It definitely makes you feel more comfortable going to shul being able to follow along,” she says. “It makes the experience so much more meaningful. All of a sudden you can look at the words and pronounce them. I used to mumble the words I read phonetically. Now it’s so different.”