Linda Riff, currently serving as the interim head of school at Tehiyah Day School, was supposed to be retired by now. At least, that was her plan when she moved back to the Bay Area from Los Angeles in 2015. But it didn’t exactly work out that way.
“I was retired for eight days,” she said with a laugh.
Plan B came about because the moment she arrived, she heard that Tehiyah — the K-8 Jewish day school where she’d been a parent as well a staff member — needed help. She didn’t hesitate.
“Tehiyah has this quality about it that somehow winds around the heartstrings,” the 70-year-old said.
Her desire to step in at the El Cerrito school also had something to do with her daughter, Shira Ulmer. An alumna of Tehiyah, and a sixth-grade math and history teacher, Ulmer passed away in 2011 while living in Southern California.
“She developed breast cancer very young,” Riff said with tears in her eyes. “She was 30 when she was diagnosed, and her daughter was 1 year old. She fought it for a year.”
Riff said that during that difficult time, Tehiyah, which she considers a “lifelong community,” was there for her and her family. “Staying with the baby, staying with her in the hospital,” she said. “That’s what I mean by Tehiyah is ‘lifelong.’”
In her daughter’s honor, Riff recently established the Shira Legacy Scholarship at Tehiyah; it gives $10,000 per year to eligible middle-schoolers who are good students, caring human beings and new to Tehiyah. Riff convened a group of her daughter’s friends and classmates to come up with criteria that honored Ulmer, and that’s what they chose.
“They saw Shira as really interested in justice, in tzedakah in the Jewish sense,” Riff said. “She was always empathetic.”
Riff’s story at Tehiyah has had several chapters. She enrolled her daughter there in kindergarten in 1984, and eventually became the school’s business manager. The school was still small, and she took over development duties, as well. She subsequently moved to Drew School in San Francisco, where she worked for 18 years.
Tehiyah has this quality about it that somehow winds around the heartstrings.
After her daughter’s death seven years ago, Riff and her husband, Meyer, moved in with Ulmer’s husband and toddler in Los Angeles to help out. Subsequently, Meyer Riff passed away, and Riff herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a difficult time.
“Life is random,” Riff said. “You don’t really have any control.”
After her husband’s death, Riff returned to El Cerrito and to Tehiyah, first as chief financial officer and then as interim head of school starting last July. She stepped into the role after the previous head of school, Debra Sagan Massey, left the position, and the plan is that she will stay on the job through the 2018-19 school year as the search committee looks for and secures a new head of school.
Riff began living in the Bay Area at age 9 after spending some of her childhood years on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. Her father, part Choctaw, had worked with Navajo code talkers in World War II.
“We were 60 miles from the nearest paved road,” Riff said of life on the reservation.
The family wasn’t Jewish.
“I’d never heard of Judaism until I was in high school,” said Riff, who converted after she met her husband.
Now she runs a Jewish school, and is deeply committed to that community. Tehiyah is a bond for Riff that won’t be broken, no matter what the future brings, because the school is just so close to her heart.
“I don’t have a superlative good enough,” she said.