Reading and education are essential to Jewish identity and to our perseverance as a people; they are the vehicles for transmitting our tradition and living a Jewish life. As Jews of the Diaspora, we understand that the gifts of education, knowledge and reasoning were – and still are – key to our survival. For centuries, we faced discrimination and worse. Shut out of many schools and locked out of educational opportunities, we built our own. Within our own communities, often segregated from the rest of society, we educated ourselves and our children. Now, generations later, we continue to value knowledge as power, and as a means to ensuring the vibrancy and future of our people.
Recognizing that education provides access to opportunity, President Clinton embarked on an initiative over two decades ago, called America Reads. He outlined a simple but audacious plan, issuing the call to recruit one million volunteer tutors from across the country to help students learn to read by the end of third grade. Legendary social justice pioneer Leonard (Leibel) Fein, z”l jumped at the opportunity to engage the Jewish community. The intellectual architect of liberal Jewish engagement over the past many decades, Fein was a prolific writer and thought leader for the burgeoning Jewish social justice movement. His writings appeared regularly in The Forward and Moment Magazine, which he co-founded. But Fein’s work transcended the theoretical; his passion demanded that Jews act on our values in the world. He founded Mazon, a non-profit that has raised millions of dollars from the Jewish community to combat hunger.
Fein seized on Clinton’s initiative as an opportunity to mobilize the Jewish community in acting on our most cherished value; igniting the love of reading and learning. With no plan, and not a single volunteer on board, he impulsively promised to deliver the first 10,000 tutors from the Jewish community. In 1997 he approached my predecessor, Nancy Kaufman, with a bold proposal; for JCRC to be the pilot for a new National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, recruiting Boston’s primarily suburban Jews in tutoring weekly in high need urban elementary schools. Nancy sprang into action and the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) was born. Our program grew quickly, as JCRC identified leaders at area synagogues to recruit teams of volunteers within their community to work with young students throughout Greater Boston. Twenty years later, we are honored to carry on the legacy of these Jewish social justice giants and to fulfill our commitment to education as we enrich the lives of our Commonwealth’s children.
Today GBJCL continues to be a powerful vehicle; providing needed services to students and meaningful experiences to our community members, as we serve some 500 students each week of the school year, in 24 schools throughout Greater Boston. The service of our 322 volunteers extends way beyond their required weekly sessions with their assigned students. Our tutors support the whole school community in multiple ways including helping with science and book fairs, doing “read-alouds” and organizing book drives.
As we reach GBJCL’s 20th birthday, I am excited to let you know about JCRC’s year-long celebration to mark the program’s achievements and ensure its robust future. In the coming months, we will be sharing stories of the volunteers and students whose lives have been transformed through this remarkable program. We will also be hosting opportunities throughout the school year to recognize our partnerships, honor our volunteers and thank our supporters. And, we will celebrate GBJCL20 at JCRC Celebrates this spring (save the date for May 24th!)
And, if you want to experience GBJCL firsthand, visit our website for information about volunteering or setting up a team at your synagogue or company.
Wishing you a 2017 filled with the joy of reading!