Literacy Program Bridges Bronx, Upper East Side
Diane Okrent, an Upper East Side resident who serves as president of Congregation Or Zarua and works as a market researcher, was nervous before her first meeting a year ago with a second-grade student in the Bronx.
Okrent was going to be Mia’s reading tutor.
Part of a group of 20 members of her synagogue who worked with first- and second-graders from PS 92 in the borough’s Tremont section during the 2017-18 school year, Okrent spent a half-hour on Skype each week reading “simple” eBooks with Mia, working on the child’s phonetic skills, and sometimes playing tic-tac-toe or other games.
Okrent’s volunteer activity was coordinated by the Chicago-based Innovations for Learning nonprofit, whose 15-year-old online TutorMate initiative last year brought together some 5,000 pairs of students and adult tutors in 26 cities.
The Conservative Or Zarua is the first synagogue to participate in TutorMate, whose earlier volunteers had come from corporations and a handful of civic organizations like the Junior League and United Way.
“Our mission is to fight long-term poverty” by improving people’s reading ability, starting in the early grades, said Dan Weisberg, national director of TutorMate. The program recruits dedicated adults who don’t need to sacrifice a half-day in travel time to and from students’ schools in order to participate, he said.
TutorMate had not reached out to religious congregations, because few have the funds to make the requested donation (about $200 to $300 per volunteer) to take part, but the success of the Or Zarua volunteers will encourage TutorMate to seek out other congregations, Weisberg said.
Okrent, who minored in education in college, took part, with her congregation’s other volunteers, in online training offered by TutorMate.
Before her first tutoring session with Mia (whom Okrent describes as Hispanic, “very sweet,” with pigtails) she had some jitters (“How are we going to get along?”), which disappeared by the end of the first half-hour.
The congregation’s participation in TutorMate was advanced by Rabbi Scott Bolton, Or Zarua’s spiritual leader, who had proposed that members take part in a literacy-training program. Lesley Palmer, who heads the congregation’s Hesed Committee, suggested TutorMate; she had served as a volunteer with the program through the bank where she works.
“A perfect match,” thought Rabbi Bolton, who felt that “the literacy issue is a Jewish issue.”
“The Talmud teaches us that it is the community’s responsibility to help educate the next generation,” Rabbi Bolton said. “At Congregation Or Zarua, we see that as including our family and our neighbors’ children. We are really doing holy work.”
The rabbi was among Or Zarua’s 20 volunteers (“We got two minyans”), participating in the program every Friday morning.
Most of the PS 92 children are from poor homes, and most of them are Hispanic and African-American.
The students take part in the program at pre-scheduled times, in their classrooms. The tutors Skype from their homes or offices.
“Helping a child is one of the most important things we can do,” Okrent said.
Mia, who had begun the school year with poor reading skills and little confidence, “improved immensely,” Okrent said. “By May,” near the end of the semester, “she was at the top reading level. She had confidence.”
The students and tutors met in person last May, at a party at the school. “She hugged me,” Okrent said. “We sat together and read together and played Hangman.”
Okrent said she will take part in TutorMate again this year.
With another student.
Mia has “moved on,” to third grade. “She doesn’t need me,” Okrent said. “I feel wonderful about it.”
Lessons Beyond The Basketball Court
This summer, a group of college students from North Carolina joined a new international movement in Holocaust education that involves visits to sites of Nazi concentration camps by teams of professional and student athletes.
The basketball team of Davidson College (14 players and five coaches) took part in a four-day trip to Poland, which included guided tours of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and Auschwitz Museum, and time in Cracow, where the delegation was based. The visit, coordinated by the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust (MIMEH), based in Freehold, N.J., and the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, from Terra Haute, Ind., was part of the program of overseas training tours that the National Collegiate Athletic Association provides for its teams every four years.
But the Davidson team’s time in Poland was different.
“No basketball at all,” said Bob McKillop, the team’s Queens-born head coach.
Guided by Eva Mozes Kor, the Auschwitz survivor who founded CANDLES, the players saw the gas chambers and railroad tracks of Auschwitz and heard Kor’s story of losing her parents in the Shoah and being forced to take part in one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s brutal experiments on twins. “It was non-stop and exhausting, physically and emotionally,” McKillop said.
The players returned to campus as changed persons, he told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “I’m watching the way they treat people. I see there’s a sensitivity, there’s a respect that maybe was not so apparent. That will shape their lives.”
As prominent members of the campus community, the athletes are likely to share their experiences during classes, in interviews and public speeches and in a forthcoming documentary, said McKillop, a church-going Catholic who served as a high school history teacher early in his career.
The fifth-longest-tenured head basketball coach currently in NCAA Division I, he is best-known to fans as the former coach of NBA superstar Stephen Curry, who played at Davidson in 2006-09.
Other sports teams that have made similar visits to concentration camps in recent years include England’s Chelsea Football (soccer) Club, the Duke University men’s soccer team, and the University of Tennessee men’s basketball team, under the leadership of Bruce Pearl, the Jewish head coach who now works at Auburn University.
“It’s a growing educational trend, and a valuable one,” said Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust expert and author. “A pilgrimage there is deeply important — it raises all the issues of the fundamentals of life.”
“We are glad that there are so many young people visiting the Auschwitz Museum. Among them are also sportsmen,” Lukasz Lipinski, a Museum spokesman, said in an email interview. “It is important that those that are leaders or idols visit Auschwitz. Their experiences … their thoughts and emotions after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau reach a very wide group of people.”
The visit of the athletes from Davidson College, a small, private liberal arts school loosely affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, was the idea of Amanda Caleb, a 2002 graduate of the university who played field hockey there, and of Stacy Gallin, founder and director of MIMEH, which targets most of its activities to healthcare professionals. High-visibility athletes are poised to serve as informal Holocaust educators and an antidote to Holocaust deniers, Caleb and Gallin thought.
Caleb pitched the idea to McKillop, who immediately accepted. His players, members of various Christian denominations, “welcomed the opportunity to see history,” he said.
McKillop said fellow basketball coaches have approached him about conducting similar concentration camp visits for their teams. They share his vision that their athletes should learn lessons about life beyond sports, he said. “There’s a greater awareness.”
U.S. Philanthropist Aims To Revitalize Haifa
A $10 million donation to the University of Haifa will be used to build a downtown campus in an effort to revitalize the school and the city.
A new campus of at least four buildings will be located in the Port of Haifa and the city’s downtown area.
The donation is from American philanthropist Lorry Lokey, the founder of the international media relations service Business Wire.
An early signer of The Giving Pledge — a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving back — Lokey has donated more than $800 million, or some 98 percent of his lifetime earnings, to philanthropies, universities and educational institutions, including University of Oregon, Stanford, the Leo Baeck School, the Weizmann Institute of Science and the University of Haifa.
The Haifa municipality is assisting the university with the acquisition of some of the new buildings, and Lokey’s donation will be used to cover the project’s renovation costs.
“This gift is an affirmation of its mission to improve access to education and bring more jobs, stability and security to northern Israel by establishing a downtown campus,” Lokey said in a statement. “I invite others to join me in transforming what is becoming one of Israel’s most important universities.”