Longtime teacher turns love of travel into Jewish heritage trip

In her 41 years as a teacher, Berkeley resident Barbara Loften had a seemingly simple goal in her classes: She wanted history to come alive.

So she regularly took her students on trips abroad to see the actual places that, up until that point, had been only words and pictures in history books.

“When I was a sixth-grade teacher and I taught history, my students would say to me, ‘Mrs. Loften, we would just love it if you could take us to some of these places,’ ” she recalled. “So I started taking my students to Egypt, Italy and Greece.”

 

Barbara Loften stands in front of the Colosseum in Rome in the summer of 2008.

Loften, 66, retired after the 2007-08 school year, but she hasn’t stopped organizing educational trips. She now leads tours for adults and seniors, including an upcoming 15-day Jewish heritage tour to Eastern Europe that will start in Budapest and end in Warsaw.

 

The trip, said Loften, was put together in honor of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and will include visits to Holocaust-significant sites such as the Great Synagogue and Shoes Monument at the Holocaust Memorial in Budapest, Vienna’s Jewish Museum, a Jewish cemetery in Slovakia, the Terezin concentration camp site and Oskar Schindler’s factory.

Loften said part of her motivation in organizing the tour (set for June 20 to July 4) was to deepen her own connection to the Holocaust.

“A lot of my reading, especially my Jewish reading, is about World War II, and a lot of those stories take place in Eastern Europe,” she said. “I had never seen a lot of those places. To not only go to these beautiful cities, but to do it from a Jewish heritage point of view was just too much for me to pass up. It just seemed like a marriage made in heaven.

“We have the Yom HaShoah observance [May 1] and then to go to the cities, where a lot of these things took place. It was important to me — it’s a heritage tour and this is part of my heritage.”

Loften, a longtime member of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, is working with the Boston-based company Go Ahead Tours, which is handling a lot of the details.

“I’m the group leader, so it’s my job to organize people to go,” she said. “The company has all of their in-depth tour leaders — we have one tour leader that stays with the group for the whole time, and when we get to specific places, there are local experts who step in to do the tours.”

Loften said the trip is open to anyone, although, she added, it probably will appeal most to seniors, especially those who lived through the Holocaust era and may have been personally affected by it.

Loften grew up in Stockton in the 1950s and attended Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue with roots dating back to the California Gold Rush, with her family. She says she made history in 1957, becoming only the second girl in the history of Stockton to have a bat mitzvah.

She went to college at U.C. Berkeley, where she pledged a Jewish sorority, Delta Phi Epsilon, and since 1985 has been a member at Emanu-El in San Francisco, where all three of her sons were bar mitzvahed and confirmed.

She taught for 41 years in the Mount Diablo Unified School District in Contra Costa County, spending the last 21 of those years at Valley View Middle School in Pleasant Hill.

Since retiring three years ago, Loften has started two book groups and regularly attends the ballet, opera and theater — she subscribes to eight different theater series.

“I am kind of a culture vulture,” she said.

In addition, she has a small business, creating and selling artifact history kits to school districts and teachers around the country.

Of course, travel also keeps her busy.

“I travel abroad two or three times a year,” she said. “I want to take others with me as I travel, not so much for me to keep active, but to share my love of travel and education with others.”

Loften’s travels have taken her all over the globe, from Israel to China and from Japan to Peru. She said her favorite trip was an around-the world trip in 1970, which also happened to be her honeymoon. In particular, the trip included a memorable stop in Bali.

“We stayed with the headman in the village of Ubud, way before all the fancy hotels were built there,” she recalled. “We would walk down the road at night to some temple where the dancing and gamelan [musical group] performances were personal, free and spectacular.”

The upcoming trip to Eastern Europe is Loften’s third venture with Go Ahead Tours. Two years ago she took a group to Egypt and last October she led a Greek island tour — and although those didn’t focus on Jewish-oriented sites, on the group’s visit to Cairo, a visit was made to the Jewish section and one of the few remaining synagogues there.

“Anyone can organize a tour with this company,” Loften explained. “As the group leader, you find the people to go, and for every 10 people you get one free spot. The only financial risk is that if you cannot find the requisite number of people you either have to drop out or pay for your own trip yourself.”

As the leader, she said, she helps people get from place to place, and deals with any problems or concerns that might crop up on the trip.

“Also,” she said, “before we leave on a tour, I host a potluck dinner at my house and we go over any concerns. For this Jewish heritage tour, I might also recommend some reading or films that I think would illuminate some of the places we will be visiting.”

Loften said she is especially looking forward to this trip and how it will put the Holocaust in a new perspective for people.

“When you read a book, you can put yourself into it, but when you actually go to that place, you get a much deeper sense of what the story is,” she said. “Being able to take people to these places in Europe, where [the Holocaust] actually occurred happened, is special.”

Barbara Loften’s Jewish Heritage Tour to Eastern Europe is  June 20 to July 4.  Cost is $4,684. For more information, visit barbaraloften.grouptoursite.com or call Barbara at (510) 841-0595.