Jewish Community for Literacy lead tutor Beverly Ark celebrates Read Across America Day with a student at Parker Elementary in Oakland. (Photo/Jo Budman)
Jewish Community for Literacy lead tutor Beverly Ark celebrates Read Across America Day with a student at Parker Elementary in Oakland. (Photo/Jo Budman)

Jewish Coalition for Literacy gives 1,000 youngsters in Bay Area the gift of reading

Fresh out of college, Joshua Solomin would pass an elementary school every day on his way to work. As a serious reader who’d started tutoring b’nai mitzvah students when he was 16, he had a thought: He’d like to help younger students learn to love reading as he did.

Soon enough, he became a reading tutor with the Jewish Coalition for Literacy,

volunteering an hour a week in the classroom for nearly two years.

Then, life evolved: He moved, went to grad school, changed jobs.

Now, 18 years later, he’s back at it, this time tutoring students at Theuerkauf Elementary School in Mountain View. “Reading has helped me to become who I am,” said the software production manager, whose employer provides paid time off for community service. “That was the trigger that led me back to tutoring. I want to spread the love of reading.”

Solomin, a Mountain View resident and member of nearby Congregation Kol Emeth, assisted first-graders two years ago and was working with second-graders this year.

The closing of schools due to the coronavirus pandemic has slowed and altered the means of tutoring, but it has not changed the mission of the JCL, piloted in Boston in 1997 and launched in the Bay Area in 1999. There are 27 independent affiliates of the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy.

“We have some tutors who have reconnected with their students and are tutoring through Zoom, FaceTime and the like,” JCL Bay Area director Lisa Peckler told J. “It’s a high priority for all of us.”

Solomin is one of nearly 300 JCL tutors who have been recruited, trained and matched with about 1,000 struggling K-3 readers in 55 Bay Area public elementary schools and afterschool programs. Most of the schools have a high percentage of children receiving reduced-price or free lunches and a large number of children whose parents are not native English speakers.

In addition to helping students at school, JCL gives free workshops for parents and books for children to promote literacy at home (under normal conditions, that is).

Schools assess the progress of students, and most achieve at least a year of reading growth with their tutors, according to JCL.

Tutors work one-on-one with students, usually for about 20 minutes each, and as the kids read aloud, they are asked questions along the way.

That’s because comprehension is a big part of the equation. “There are kids who can read what’s in front of them, but if you dig further, you might find that they can’t understand what [they’ve read],” said Peckler. “Tutors spend a lot of time filling in the blanks.”

A key to their success is the relationship built between tutor and child, said Corinne Jaffe-Gellman, program manager for the Peninsula and Marin. Sometimes a tutor will follow a student from one grade to another — “we’re flexible in that respect,” she said — and often they will spend more than the required hour at a school.

Meta Pasternak, a tutor at San Francisco’s Redding Elementary School and a member of JCL’s advisory council, has followed students from the second to fourth grade. Pasternak taught high school English for almost 30 years, and found that after retiring she missed teaching. Redding school is within walking distance of her home, though in a sense it is a world away.

“One of the things that is stressed in JCL and in the Jewish community is the sense of community. I have a lovely apartment in Nob Hill, and I often tutor children who are living in shelters.

“Kids are resilient — I love that. They have a great sense of humor, they have energy, they talk about their living situation.”

She described a boy she tutored who one day “wasn’t responding. He looked at me and said, can you buy me new shoes?” His shoes had come apart. Pasternak spoke to the school principal and got the OK to buy him a new pair. Beyond that, she threw a cocktail party in her building and raised more than $2,000 to set up a clothing account for needy students at the school.

“I get a great deal out of tutoring,” said Pasternak, a convert to Judaism and member of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. “It seemed like it all fit together and was exactly the right thing for me. It’s so much about Judaism and being a member of a community.”

Peckler echoed that sentiment. A veteran of the nonprofit world with a strong sense of Judaism and tikkun olam, the member of Kol Emeth in Palo Alto said JCL “brings all these pieces together for me.”

JCL Bay Area is a project of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. There is no requirement that tutors or students be Jewish.

“It’s all about building bridges,” said Peckler. “For us it’s about justice and helping to close gaps and level playing fields. … Reading is fundamental to everything. There’s a strong awareness among tutors that kids really need their help, and [reading] can open doors for them.”

Susan Desmond, a lead tutor in her sixth year with JCL, sees the disparity. Formerly a professional tutor in Silicon Valley, the people she tutored there “were completely the opposite, from completely different families” than those she has assisted at Wren Avenue Elementary School in Concord.

Beyond the satisfaction of helping children build reading skills, Desmond said “it’s very fulfilling to give them a trusted adult in their life. In my case, I’m like an American grandma … Even kids who are not being tutored sometimes come up and give me a hug and ask, ‘Can I be tutored?’”

Giving away books “is another feature that I love about JCL,” said the Martinez resident and member of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. She also likes that middle-school students and even b’nai mitzvah students have tutored or held book drives.

For example, students at both Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette and Oakland Hebrew Day School have tutored younger children at nearby public schools, Peckler said.

Now that school sites are closed due to shelter in place, JCL is adjusting. In addition to in-person tutoring being halted, programs such as “Books and Babka” came to a stop. That program, which started last year, brings tutors together to “discuss challenges and victories, and come up with solutions,” Jaffe-Gellman said. “We hope to continue virtually.”

Training sessions for new tutors were canceled, as was an annual tutor conference scheduled for March.

JCL wants to offer virtual tools, and recently received a $10,000 grant from the Corte Madera-based May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust to support changes necessitated by the pandemic.

Looking ahead to the next school year, Jaffe-Gellman said, “We will have greater need because the kids are missing essential learning time right now.”

And while JCL enjoys a 79 percent tutor retention rate, “the tutor corps is everything for us,” Peckler said. “We would love to have more tutors.”

The local Jewish Coalition for Literacy operates in three regions: San Francisco, East Bay and Peninsula. For more details or to become a tutor, visit jclread.org.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.