There are two kinds of kids who attend Hebrew school after completing a bar or bat mitzvah — those excited about continuing a Jewish education, and those who come because their parents don’t give them a choice.
That’s according to Jeff Greenwald, who has been teaching Sunday school classes at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills for the past 35 years. And, perhaps a bit surprisingly, Greenwald says he gets more satisfaction from the latter group of kids.
“Between 13 and 15 years old is really a transformational period in a child’s life,” he said. “They struggle with parents’ expectations, their own fears and aspirations. I love that period because one day they’re adults and very mature and visionary, and the next day they’re kids.
“And it’s a joy to teach those who are forced to be there, because at a certain point a light bulb goes on and that’s a personal satisfaction for the teacher.”
Greenwald, 62, started teaching at Beth Am in 1972 as a freshman at Stanford University. The Reform synagogue paid him $5 for leading two hours of kindergarten classes each Sunday morning, his first exposure to teaching.
And he’s never stopped. He took a 10-year break from Beth Am while getting his master’s in business administration at UCLA and then working in Princeton, New Jersey, and San Diego, but taught Sunday school at each of those stops.
“It’s a very rare and very special breed that not only would be willing to try it, but then 35 years later still be pumped and have the same energy around it,” said Mike Mason, the synagogue’s director of youth education.
Greenwald, who is senior director of sales at a computer data storage company, has taught every grade at Beth Am except fourth and sixth. No matter how old his students, he encourages them to focus on the world beyond themselves, especially on community service at the upper grades.
I’d rather teach one child and change the world than teach 2,000 kids and have no impact.
“Even at kindergarten or first-grade level, I ask: ‘Before we eat this food, where did it come from? Why do we pray over it? Why should a Jew do that?’ In third grade, when they bring in $1.50 for a snack, I ask, ‘Who would give up that $1.50 and send it to someone who really needs it?’ ”
By the time they’re teenagers, Greenwald has his students visiting homeless shelters and serving meals to the hungry, or helping illiterate people with reading. His classes have adopted a charity in Israel that helps orphans.
“For our children to see how privileged, how advantaged and how enabled they are is a moment in their maturation we strive to get to,” he said. “Post-bar mitzvah, you’re trying to relate your world to you, you’re not trying to ask what we can do for our world.”
Greenwald, who has taught an estimated 2,000 kids at Beth Am over the decades, says the students have changed little since 1972 — even if they now have iPhones and Google calendars at their fingertips. He has changed — “I’m more committed, I’m smarter, I see that one human being can affect another human being” — and the parents have, too.
“The biggest change in children in 45 years is the overscheduling of a child’s life that we as parents insist upon,” said Greenwald, who has two daughters and a 3-month-old grandson. His wife, Susan, is a third-grade teacher at Santa Rita Elementary School in Los Altos.
Kids today “take multiple languages, play instruments, travel, go to robotics class. It is not at all unusual for a child to have zero hour [at school], a violin lesson, swimming practice, then eat a snack while an Uber drives them to synagogue, and they come famished, exhausted for their two hours of Jewish classes before they rush home to do homework for a test at 8 a.m. That change is the worst part of today’s child.”
A couple of years ago, Greenwald put up a sign in his classroom that read: “My goal is to have your child prefer to be here than at soccer practice.”
Mason said Greenwald “can command a room with his personality, which is energetic, positive and fun.”
“He’s an incredibly engaging teacher and there’s lots of tricks to the trade as far as education, and he has a lot of them. He does not stand behind the desk and lecture, he moves around the room. He tries to lock in on what the kids are interested in, and he can talk the talk — he can talk at a level that kids can understand.”
Greenwald draws satisfaction from college kids who visit to tell him how a recent experience in a Jewish setting traces its roots back to a lesson or an outside-the-classroom event in Hebrew school.
“I’d rather teach one child and change the world than teach 2,000 kids and have no impact,” he said. “There are stock options of being a Jewish educator, and I do cash in on those internally.”