September 23, 2019

People Of The Book

On this last day of May, in the middle of Dodger Stadium, the sun is shining on dozens of students from Shalhevet High School and Carthay Center School as they shout their hero’s name: “Shawn Green! Shawn Green!”

In the center of it all, the celebrated left-handed right fielder – tall, thin, handsome – is generously donating his time to sign baseballs and pose for pictures.For Green, it’s probably just a typical day. For the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) and its parent organization, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, this day is a major victory. The Dodgers’ $84 million star player has just held a press conference announcing his new role as spokesperson for KOREH L.A., an exciting culmination for the first year of JCRC’s new literacy program.

For Elaine Albert, a JCRC director, her involvement with KOREH L.A. almost didn’t happen. Albert was contemplating leaving her post at the Federation. But the JCRC’s executive director Michael Hirschfeld convinced her to return to helm what would become KOREH L.A., a nonprofit campaign whose name comes from the Hebrew word for “reading” and whose subtitle is “The Los Angeles Jewish Coalition for Literacy.”

They had both been introduced to and impressed by Leonard Fein’s nonprofit National Jewish Coalition for Literacy at a Fort Lauderdale convention that they attended two years ago. Hirschfeld was now ready to initiate a program that would enlist volunteers from the Jewish community to donate an hour a week to reading books to pupils in grades 1-3 of the Los Angeles city schools.

According to recent L.A. Times statistics, 67,000 third grade students in the Los Angeles system can barely read, while nearly 80 percent of 4th graders don’t read at grade level. In the face of such disappointing data, Hirschfeld felt that Fein’s template for a literacy program would be welcome in Los Angeles. Albert found the idea irresistible: “It really captured the essence of the Jewish community being the People of the Book.” With Albert aboard, Deborah Kattler Kupetz was appointed as the lay chairperson of KOREH L.A. Part of Kupetz’s job was to assemble a 25-person task force to help execute KOREH L.A. programming, which includes hitting venues such as the L.A. Times Festival of Books and the Israeli Independence Day Festival. Kupetz has been working very closely with Albert throughout the year to help launch and maintain the program.

“It’s been a huge privilege for me,” says Kupetz. “We complement each other. We’re both so focused on all the exciting possibilities of the program.”

Before training sessions began last September, KOREH L.A. partnered with an existing literacy program, Wonder of Reading, to help train volunteers. About 250 volunteers were anticipated at best, but organizers got more than they bargained for.

“Our first recruitment of 400 volunteers was an enormous number, maybe two times what Wonder of Reading already had on their books,” says Hirschfeld.Since then, the roster has continued to grow, peaking at 650 volunteers in January. That’s nearly 700 volunteers helping 800 kids in 30 local schools. KOREH L.A.’s numbers quickly surpassed every literacy program of its kind in the city, including the L.A. Times-sponsored “Reading by 9.” “We matured in this project faster than we anticipated,” saysHirschfeld. Adds Albert, “And we were able to do it ourselves.”

“We didn’t anticipate doing our own literacy training,” says Kupetz. “We envisioned outsourcing, but we were so successful that we maxed out the capacity of our initial literacy partner.”By the beginning of 2000, KOREH L.A. had amicably ended its association with Wonder of Reading and had employed Miriam Jannol to train volunteers. Jannol will train two more trainers, as Hirschfeld predicts that they will be utilizing 600-1,000 volunteers when Phase II of KOREH L.A. begins in August.”There’s this groundswell to accomplish something good for our society,” says Hirschfeld. “The thing that gets me excited is the fact that here we have created another movement, a la [the one in] the 1980s to save Soviet Jews. This inspires us.”

KOREH L.A. is already creating awareness in the community, and not just among laypeople. On May 3, KOREH L.A. received a community service award from the Administrators Association of Los Angeles (AALA).

It has also been aided by some major contributions from the local community. The Jewish Community Foundation, as part of its New and Innovative Programs awards, provided KOREH L.A. with its initial seed money of $25,000. An additional $10,000 came from Honey and Ralph Almado. And thanks to Gary and Karen Winnick, a Winnick Family Foundation grant of $500,000 – distributed over five years and effective June 15 – will ensure that the program will be able to spread its wings and grow.

“I just feel that education is what saves people, and I believe in literacy,” says Karen Winnick, whose family has a history of donating generously to educational charities. “It reinforces our imaginations. It expands our world.”

Winnick was a special guest at the Dodger Stadium presentation. Representing the Winnick Family Foundation and lending support to her petcause, the accomplished children’s book author personally made sure that every Carthay Center School child received a copy of her easy reader “Sybil’s Night Ride” before they headed back to the buses. Federation chairman Todd Morgan is proud to have the Winnicks aboard the KOREH L.A. campaign. He says that it is working with such people, who can effectively and swiftly make a difference in society, that attracted him to the chairman post in the first place.”The Winnick family have always been friends and are doing a wonderful job, helping the community,” says Morgan.

KOREH L.A.’s organizers insist that they did not run into major potholes executing Year One, but rather some minor speed bumps.”The challenges were really the demand that came from the community,” says Kupetz. “It’s a fantastic challenge to have.”

Hirschfeld and Albert estimate a turnover of about a hundred volunteers due to conflicting personal commitments or first-year growing pains. Also, says Hirschfeld, “some schools misunderstood our agenda. They gave volunteers children with learning disabilities.”Albert notes that children who didn’t know English were also designated. “Our volunteers are not trained to be ESL teachers,” she says.

KOREH L.A. attracted the help of 64 Jewish institutions, ranging from synagogues to private companies, to help promote its cause and to plumb their ranks for volunteers. Without naming names, Albert says she was surprised to find that some of the bigger names on their roster fell short of desired results, while some of the smaller ones demonstrated incredible passion and accomplishment that went far beyond expectations. But this is nit-picking for a reading program that invites people to take part to the best of their ability.While most of KOREH L.A.’s volunteers are adults of all ages, an important and growing part of the program’s future lies in its student-to-student component. KOREH L.A. tested the waters of teen participation this year by enlisting two schools, Shalhevet High School and Milken Community High School, to assign their teenagers to weekly reading sessions. Shalhevet’s communications director, Daphna Gans, sent 61 of her students to the KOREH L.A. mentorship with Carthay Center School [see sidebar, page 11] while Rabbi Ruth Sohn, coordinator of KOREH L.A. for Milken, dispatched 18 students and four faculty members – including herself – to Sherman Oaks Elementary School. She says the program’s initial year was relatively smooth sailing.

“It took us a while to get going. We had to wait for the library [at Sherman Oaks Elementary] to be finished,” says Sohn, adding that 40-50 students volunteered in all, but coordinating free periods among all of them proved problematic.

Nevertheless, Sohn says that Milken High’s relationship with KOREH L.A. is off to a good start: “Some students went a couple of times a week after school
and really got attached to the kids.”Sohn can pinpoint the exact reason that she brought KOREH L.A. to her school.

“When I was in high school myself,” she begins, “of all the different volunteer work, the experience of helping someone how to read and become enthusiastic about reading was a very special experience.”She adds that instituting KOREH L.A. at Milken has positively affected her school: “Elementary students look at teens as role models. I think it’s really something special.”

“To be a part of improving the literacy problem in our public schools is very fulfilling,” gushes Eva Dworsky, a lawyer and mother of two young boys who volunteers as a KOREH L.A. task force member. “I’ve been so impressed by the success of the program. I’m thankful to be a part of it.”

Karen Winnick agrees: “It enriches both the people who do the mentoring and the people who are being mentored. If you’re a reader, you can be an educated person, and if you’re an educated person, you can make good decisions in life.”

KOREH L.A. intends to expand the number of schools involved in student-to-student pairing. And Shalhevet and Milken will both resume KOREH L.A. ties come fall. Sohn, who is currently meeting with student leaders and staff to accommodate more Milken volunteers for next year’s KOREH L.A. agenda, says, “We’re ready to move ahead. The school is very committed.”

Indeed, the people behind KOREH L.A. are forging ahead as well and are looking forward to expanding the promise of its program.

“The first year has been great, and I look forward to having 5,000 volunteers by Year Four or Five,” says Kupetz. “Now that we’ve gone through many of the steps for the first time, we have a great taste for what’s working and where are our strengths.”

With many of the bugs worked out, Kupetz believes that Phase II will run much smoother, and she’s already exploring creative ways of spreading the KOREH L.A. message.”What’s exciting to me,” says Kupetz, “is that with this kind of project, we get to move forward in ways that expand on this opportunity. We are going to be creating the opportunity for using books as centerpieces for significant events and celebrations. And the books will be used to stock designated school libraries.” She adds that there are also plans to form an interfaith coalition for next year.With its guinea-pig stage behind it, KOREH L.A. will confidently steamroll ahead at full speed come September.

“We’ve got a fantastic coalition that isn’t even at the beginning of working towards its capacity,” says Kupetz. “Were just at the beginning of our relationships with all our schools.”

Back at the Dodger Stadium press conference, Shawn Green’s microphoned voice echoes throughout the cavernous venue he calls his professional home. But it is not only his voice that is amplified – it is his pride as well.

“Playing for the Dodgers fulfills a lifelong dream for me,” Green tells his audience, as JCRC chairman Osias Goren, Hirschfeld, Albert, Kupetz, and Jewish Community Foundation chairperson Annette Shapiro proudly look on. “And KOREH L.A. is an opportunity to give back to the community.”

As Winnick hands out copies of her book to the Carthay Center School kids, Federation president John Fishel cannot help but beam as he watches over the merry bedlam of children bustling with excitement over their new books.”We’re deliriously happy,” he tells The Journal regarding KOREH L.A.’s nascent year. “It’s a great first step.”