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Focus on Issues: National Program Recruits Jews to Pass on a ‘surplus of Literacy’

July 10, 1998
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

When Eileen Lieberman was asked to lead a team of literacy tutors at the Lucy Stone School in Boston’s inner city, she was apprehensive.

Volunteers from the Women’s Division of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, would be intimidated by the elementary school’s surroundings, she thought. “People will say, `Where do I park my car? I don’t want to go alone.'”

After only one visit to the school, however, she knew the program would work. “It was a very welcoming atmosphere,” she said. She was confident that she could find others to participate.

Her 25-person team, like many others in the Boston area, now far exceeds the initial 10-member commitment requested by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

“It’s just blossomed,” Lieberman said, having concluded her first academic year.

Boston is the model project for the year-old National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, the brainchild of Leonard Fein, director of the Reform movement’s Commission on Social Justice.

To date, Jewish communities in Boston and 10 other cities have signed on to the project, and by the year 2000, coalition administrators hope to engage every Jewish community nationwide.

They are working in association with 17 national Jewish organizations from across the Jewish spectrum and, to date, 11 local affiliates.

“Jews should be involved massively in tutoring,” Fein said. “If we have a surplus of anything, we have a surplus of literacy.”

The founder of Moment magazine and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Fein was moved to action on his latest initiative when, in the fall of 1996, President Clinton announced a national campaign for childhood ???eracy.

In response to the president’s call for 1 million volunteer tutors over the next five years for the “America Reads Challenge,” Fein promised the Department of Education he would recruit 100,000 people from the Jewish community to serve as tutors, readers and book-drive operators.

Unique to the Jewish initiative, each local affiliate is also encouraged to promote Jewish literacy among its volunteers through study and discussion of Jewish texts. Some texts studied include the Passover Haggadah’s four questions and four children, recognizing as one volunteer said, that “the simple son has as much value as the smart one.”

“Everything about Jewish culture, its history and tradition, lends itself to leadership on this issue,” said Craig Sumberg, executive director of the national coalition. He said he hopes the “Jewish literacy piece” will encourage Jewish continuity by bringing communities together in pursuit of a larger goal.

For Susan Abravanel, the national vice chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the co-chair of the Portland Jewish Coalition for Literacy, the Jewish component provides volunteers with a “double benefit”: the chance to help children and to learn about Jewish sources of literacy and good deeds.

“The concept of community service has, unfortunately, far outlasted the idea of studying our own tradition,” she said. “Tikkun olam is very much there for many people, but they don’t understand why.”

Coalition organizers from southern Florida to Seattle report an unprecedented response from volunteers and funders, including an $85,000 donation of seed money to the coalition from the Righteous Persons Foundation, which is run by Steven Spielberg.

“You don’t have to explain this to anybody,” said Naomi Cohen of Hartford, where plans are under way to place 100 volunteers in schools by the fall. “We know that reading is key to so many things.”

For children who cannot read independently by the third grade, “the chances of not doing well are greatly enhanced,” she said, citing national education studies. “I guess that’s a double negative.”

The national Jewish coalition aims to re-engage suburban Jews in the lives of cities, where many of them grew up.

“Just because we chose to move to the suburbs doesn’t mean we don’t care about what goes on in our cities,” said Nancy Kaufman, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

The challenge, she said, is to find a way to “be partners, not patrons.”

From its inception, the national coalition was not intended to create a new literacy program, but to provide a framework for channeling Jewish volunteers into existing ones, such as S.M.A.R.T. (Start Making a Reader Today), a Portland initiative begun in 1991 by former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, and Avodah B’Yachad, a social action coalition in the Twin Cities funded by the 3M Corporation.

Sumberg is quick to point out that Jewish groups, such as the National Council of Jewish Women and Hadassah, have been involved in literacy efforts for decades.

However, he said, the national Jewish coalition is the first organization to focus on a local level, with autonomous affiliates held responsible for creating relationships within their own communities.

“What we can do well in the Jewish community is organize people,” said Rich Meyer, the literacy coordinator of the Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy, which created a partnership with Read Boston and Boston Partners in Education to train and place over 250 volunteers in public schools.

“It’s collaboration to its fullest extent,” said Margaret Williams, the executive director of Read Boston, which also provides a “quality-control mechanism” for its Reading Partners program.

One of her main concerns when placing volunteers in schools was echoed by literacy program administrators across the country: finding tutors willing to commit at least one hour a week for one-on-one sessions with the same student.

“Consistency is the important piece,” said Portland’s Abravanel. “These are kids for whom the rule is disappointment.”

If Boston is any measure of volunteer commitment, however, consistency does not appear to be a widespread problem. Once volunteers start working with children, most say, they do not consider missing a session.

Eileen Lieberman recounted her work on alphabet recognition with a 6-year-old girl too young to read.

After four months, the student could identify all of the letters. “She said, `I’m really learning,'” Lieberman recalled with pride. “That’s all you need to hear.”

School principals also report full satisfaction. Maria de los Angeles Montes, who has run the Stone School for seven years, said she saw the benefits of having tutors right away, and hopes to accommodate more volunteers next year.

Carol Geyer said of tutors at Boston’s William H. Ohrenberger School, where she is principal: “These are extremely capable people, people I felt had a great love of reading, and they really passed that on to the kids.”

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