Nina Smith, 13, is particularly grateful for the opportunities that have come her way. Reflecting upon her bat mitzvah last November at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel, she said, “Here are all these people that love you and that care about you, enough to travel long distances to be with you.”
Nina, a student at Tehiyah Jewish Day School in El Cerrito, also knows that not everyone is so fortunate. So for her bat mitzvah, she sought donations — in lieu of gifts — to the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, which provides one-on-one tutoring for struggling young readers from low-income homes.
“Our thinking was that becoming a bat mitzvah has to do with becoming an adult member of the community, with all the rights and responsibilities that go with that,” said Nina’s mother, Iris Greenberg-Smith. “One of the responsibilities is to give back, contribute something … A bat mitzvah celebration can seem like a very self-centered thing — so much attention is heaped on this kid, and all they’ve done is turn 13!”
Nina agreed. “I thought that as much as I’d love to have the gifts, there are people who need the money more than me. I was very privileged to have a bat mitzvah, and I think it’s unfair if other people don’t have the same opportunities as I do.”
When they sent out invitations for her bat mitzvah, Nina and her mother included a line on the invitation suggesting that guests “please consider a donation” to the S.F.-based Jewish Coalition for Literacy. As a result of Nina’s request, the nonprofit received more than $1,400 in donations — including contributions from as far away as Australia.
“I just hope that this donation has changed someone’s life,” Nina said.
The Jewish Coalition for Literacy deploys nearly 400 volunteers to over 60 underserved public schools in San Francisco, the East Bay and on the Peninsula. To that end, the organization has fostered a deep bond with the Jewish community and the community at large to donate books, money and time.
Reading has long been a source of bonding for Nina and her family. “As a child, I loved to read ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ ‘Eloise,’ ‘Madeline’ and many more,” Nina said. “Even now, I continue to read and listen to ‘Winnie the Pooh’ sometimes. I have it on tape.”
Her mother said reading with Nina was a part of their bedtime routine. “Our shelves are filled with children’s books. As [my children] have gotten older, I’ve continually culled the shelves and given away books that they’ve outgrown. Even so, there are some board books and picture books that we have held on to, just because we used to read them so often, and they’re such a nice reminder of those years.”
Nina and her family know how important it is to not lose sight of reading as a quintessentially human experience. So much time goes into quantifying student literacy, making sure students are up to par, that it becomes all too easy to think of reading as something students do just to become competitive in the workplace.
“On a practical level, literacy is such an essential skill which people need and use all the time in anything they want to do,” notes Greenberg-Smith. But she views literacy as something more: “There’s so much pleasure and beauty in words — it would be such a shame if that whole part of life was closed off to someone.”
Ian Kinzel is the AmeriCorps VISTA program associate at the Jewish Coalition for Literacy in Berkeley, www.jclread.org.