Beyond Books: Partnerships in Literacy and Learning

The route between High Street and Beacon Hill is a familiar and well-worn one for us at JCRC, as so much of our advocacy on this community’s priorities is realized through our close and enduring relationships with our legislative partners. But Boston City Hall is a much less frequent destination, since our dealings with the City of Boston are more limited. So, we were particularly proud to have our contribution to the City recognized last Wednesday when the Boston City Council honored our longtime volunteers from our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition (GBJCL) for Literacy program for their dedication to the schoolchildren of Boston.

The event was a proud display of the strong partnership that our program has enjoyed with the City of Boston for 22 years: connecting Jewish volunteers deeply committed to the success of young students, to Boston Public Schools, where their expertise can be leveraged to support both students and teachers.

The six volunteers representing GBJCL (with a total combined 100 years of dedicated service!) spoke of the profound bonds that they had formed with their students and about the impact of these relationships on their own lives. Florence Coslow, a volunteer with GBJCL throughout the program’s 22 years, proudly pulled out a stack of thank you cards she has received from her students over her decades of service.

GBJCL Volunteer Florence Coslow (center), with her sister (R) and Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George (L)

I was struck by one remarkable story, shared by GBJCL volunteer Kim Meyers. A member of Temple Beth Zion (TBZ) in Brookline, Kim volunteers with her congregation’s tutoring team at The Winship School in Brighton. For 19 of their 20 years, she has been TBZ’s team leader, organizing volunteer schedules with the school and acting as the liaison between the team of volunteers and school administration.

When GBJCL first initiated the partnership between Winship and TBZ, a small collection of books in a basement room at Winship served as the school's library. These books disappeared when the school was renovated, and the Winship school was left without any library at all.

When a new principal came to the school a couple of years later, Kim met with her to tell her about GBJCL and the one-to-one tutoring that volunteers were providing. She seized on this meeting as an opportunity to present the principal with a challenge:

"What this school needs is a library. How can you promote literacy without a library? If you get a librarian, we will build a library for you."  

The principal took Kim up on her offer. Within the year, she had secured the funding to hire a new librarian. Volunteers at TBZ started a book drive and collected a thousand gently-used books. When the books were delivered to the school, Kim had the chance to meet with the newly hired librarian, who presented her with a wish list of books that she had strategically selected for the new library. Kim brought this list back to the synagogue with a new challenge. Could TBZ provide the school with even more new books?

A bar mitzvah student asked for donations of new books from this list, collecting hundreds of brand new books as well as bookshelves. Rabbis at TBZ organized a mitzvah day and over 20 people showed up at the Winship School on a Sunday to build the bookshelves and then, proceeded to cover, label, catalog, and shelve the books.

GBJCL volunteers and the TBZ synagogue community built a brand-new library.

Years later, the library is still thriving and the partnership is still going strong. The TBZ team has continued to donate books to this library. Several bar/bat mitzvah students have collected books for the library as their service projects. In relaying this story, Kim said, “We feel it is important to foster literacy in all the students, not just the ones we tutor.” 

As with so many of our GBJCL tutoring teams, the deep bond formed from one-on-one tutoring blossomed into an entire Jewish community pursuing a shared dream with a neighboring community. We see this again and again as our GBJCL volunteers cultivate relationships throughout Boston, which evolve from supporting individual students to identifying a variety of creative ways to build rich learning environments.

You can be part of creating and strengthening these relationships by getting involved in GBJCL tutoring services or library projects. Please email Rebecca Shimshak, Director of GBJCL, to find out more information.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy