Jewish Journal

Double Duty

Lainer Award-winner Candace Baker splits time between Leo Baeck Temple and South-Central's McKinley Avenue Elementary

by Beverly Gray

Posted on Feb. 24, 2000 at 7:00 pm

A highlight of the annual religious school educators conference sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education is always the presentation of the Lainer Awards. These cash awards, established in 1989, go to talented educators who help perpetuate Jewish traditions and values in a religious school setting. Most of the winners have an in-depth knowledge of Judaica, and have committed much of their professional lives to Jewish institutions.

Such is the case of Neal Schnall, longtime religious school principal at Valley Beth Shalom, and Dalia Frank, who has taught for over 30 years at Ner Tamid of South Bay. Then there's this year's third recipient, a spirited young woman who balances her devotion to Leo Baeck Temple with an equally strong dedication to the children of McKinley Avenue Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles.

Candace Baker grew up in Brentwood, and was -- she claims -- the only dark-haired person at Palisades High School. Her family belonged to University Synagogue; she served as a day camp counselor for the Jewish Community Centers Association, and spent weekends working at Camp Swig. Her college career began at UC Santa Barbara, but -- once again daunted by the preponderance of blondes -- she transferred to UC Berkeley, graduating with a degree in urban studies. From there it was only a quick hop into the field of elementary education. "With my personality," quips Baker, "there wasn't much choice."

In 1984 she began teaching kindergartners in Leo Baeck's Sunday School program. A large part of her curriculum there is "Gefilte, the Wish Fish," who leaves her students upbeat messages like, "Do not feel blue-ish; it's great to be Jewish." Baker freely admits that she's not deeply versed in Jewish theology. Early on, during a period of self-doubt, she confessed to then-education director Linda Thal, "I don't believe in God. You should fire me." Thal's answer: "Jews are supposed to question. Now go teach!" What Baker is adept at teaching is ethics, and "how to be a mensch." This fits in well at Leo Baeck, where the congregation is philosophically committed to social awareness.

Because of Baker, there's now a growing link between Leo Baeck families and the children of McKinley Elementary.

McKinley is one of the lowest-achieving schools in Los Angeles. Its students, all of them black or Latino, live well below the poverty line. But since her arrival there in 1985, Baker has never felt like an outsider: "It was easy for me from the beginning, because I'm funny."

Her quirky personality has helped motivate children to learn English and produce award-winning art projects. Typically, Baker credits the members of Leo Baeck for some of her own classroom accomplishments. She cites the case of her "ritzy friend," Susan Irving, whom she persuaded to come demonstrate quilt-making at McKinley. What started as a one-time visit has turned into a five-year commitment -- quilts created by Baker's students have been displayed at Barnsdall Park and at UCLA's Fowler Museum. Irving has also helped locate five computers for Baker's classroom. And each year some 30 Leo Baeck members -- including doctors, lawyers, and Hollywood writers -- trek to McKinley for the school's annual career day.

Baker is perhaps proudest that she has managed to involve her Leo Baeck children in the lives of their McKinley counterparts. Yearly, she collects mounds of "gently used" books from Leo Baeck students so that the McKinley kids can have their own classroom lending library. And last year she organized a Leo Baeck field trip to the McKinley campus where children from both communities enjoyed what she calls "Chanukah in the 'hood," complete with latkes, dreydels and a menorah. It's important for all of them, she feels, to learn to respect other people's traditions: "I don't want them to be limited, like I was, growing up in Brentwood."

Baker has always taught the McKinley children about Jewish festivals, along with holidays from other cultures. They particularly like Chanukah, when she kindles her menorah, turns off the lights and reads stories. As perhaps "the only Jewish person they'll meet," she's highly conscious of being a good role model. She recalls one little boy, a beneficiary of the Leo Baeck book drive, happily sighing, "I love the Jewish people!"

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