Brandeis Hillel’s first reunion serves memories, margaritas

About 175 members of one of the San Francisco’s most prominent Jewish families gathered last month to toast the millennium. Amidst the bonhomie and the clinking of margarita glasses, one of the family elders saluted the past.

“About 26 years ago, I got stabbed in the thigh with a pencil,” said Emanuel Berston, a member of San Francisco Brandeis Hillel Day School’s “family.”

“I was sent to the nurse,” continued the 35-year-old pediatrician, trying to shout over the noisy crowd. “The nurse just happened to be the guitar teacher, as well as the secretary and mother figure.”

The crowd roared its approval, as the microphone was handed over to the subject of Berston’s tribute, Ardath Kirchner.

“Well, I’m very flattered, but the evening’s not about me,” Kirchner said. “But it’s a joy to see so many young men and women that I first knew as children, here with their own families now.”

Kirchner has long been a fixture at Brandeis Hillel, which has itself been a fixture in the city since 1963. The San Francisco campus held its first-ever reunion Dec. 20, featuring students from almost every graduating class.

Despite being held in a restaurant, LaBarca,that has built its reputation on fajitas, not falafel, the reunion was a huge success, said Rabbi Henry Shreibman, the head of Brandeis Hillel.

“The purpose of the evening was to see what value a couple of generations of kids got out of their Jewish education. We wanted to see if the graduates of Brandeis Hillel were leaders in the Jewish community, and in the community in general.”

The findings: An unqualified “yes” on both counts, according to Shreibman.

Another subtext of the evening, the rabbi said, was to prove that children educated in a Jewish environment don’t turn out “different.”

“I think there’s a very subtle fear about that,” Shreibman said. “The concern may be that social and academic standards suffer. But we’ve always been clear that general education doesn’t play the second sister to Jewish education. And, just by looking around this room, you can see that no social skills were impaired.”

Judging by the way Berston allowed family and friends to grab at the quesadillas before digging in himself, the rabbi may have a point. Sipping a margarita, Berston, who attended the school with four siblings, said that the memories of Brandeis will be with him for a lifetime.

“First of all, I still have the scar,” Berston said, laughing. “I was going to point out the guy who did it, who’s still a friend of mine, but he’s not here.

“You know, it’s kind of bizarre, but over half of the kids that I was in the third grade with, I’m still in contact with. I think I know what just about every kid in my class [1976] is doing now.”

Separated from Berston by a throng of fellow alumni, several bowls of salsa and a generation, was Polina Melamed, Class of ’96. The 18-year-old spoke emphatically about her love for the school, and the role it played in her life.

“I was an immigrant from the Ukraine when I came to Brandeis,” Melamed said. “I was in the second grade, and practically the only English I knew was ‘dog’ and ‘cat.’ But I never felt marginalized there, or unwelcome.”

Melamed, who speaks often to prospective Brandeis students and their parents — “I’m their unofficial PR person,” she said, laughing — also cites Brandeis as the source of her affinity for Judaism.

“After having lived in Kiev, with all the anti-Semitism there, it was a relief to live someplace where my Judaism was considered a gift, not a curse. At Brandeis, I really reconnected to my roots, and learned what it meant to live a Jewish life. It’s a lesson that I’ll never take for granted.”

Perhaps no one symbolized the continuity of Brandeis Hillel more than Harry Tucker, who has done maintenance work there for about 35 years.

“I just keep the place from falling down,” said Tucker, who is 64.

“That’s all. You couldn’t put me in the classroom with all these wild young animals,” he said with a chuckle. “Nah, I actually love these kids. I walk up to them and tell them who I am, and they can’t believe it. Of course, after so many years, I don’t recognize some of them either. So we’re even.”

When asked what made Brandeis unique, Tucker said it was the environment.

“I get a kick out of seeing all these crazy kids running around,” he said. “When I leave to go to work, it’s like going to my second home. This school is like a family to me.”

J. Staff