March 23, 2010
The joy of teaching
After teaching for 50 years, Adina Bender is looking forward to retiring this June — sort of.
The petite, auburn-haired woman crinkles her nose when she contemplates leaving Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Day School, her home away from home for half a century.
“I asked another teacher, ‘How do you know when it’s time to retire?’ and she said, ‘You just know,’ ” said Bender, 71, strolling the sunny, outdoor halls of the school on a recent morning. “Well, I don’t know. I love these children so much. But 50 sounded like a good number.”
To her colleagues at the school, and to the entire VBS community, it’s a number worthy of the highest praise and recognition. At the synagogue’s annual fundraiser on Feb. 20, organizers honored Bender with a tribute program during which a lineup of local Jewish dignitaries — including U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman, VBS Rabbis Edward Feinstein and Harold Schulweis and Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) Executive Director
But Bender, in her husky, Israeli-accented voice, said her reason for staying on so long is more tangible: “The kids are so sweet and enthusiastic — and delicious.”
For nearly two decades, starting in 1960, Bender taught at VBS’ Hebrew school, an after-school program that had her teaching up to 45 kids at a time. When the synagogue opened its day school in 1978, she took a position at the helm of the second-grade class, where she has remained ever since.
It’s been a dream career for someone who said she’d wanted to be a teacher ever since she was a child in Tel Aviv.
That dream took shape after Bender met her husband, Ilan, as soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. After an army-style wedding on a kibbutz in Gaza — complete with a chuppah held up by pitchforks and rifles — the pair saved up and moved to the United States on student visas. Ilan studied engineering while Bender enrolled in teaching classes at the former University of Judaism (now American Jewish University).
As luck would have it, one of Bender’s professors was Rabbi Ben-Zion Bergman, who then doubled as spiritual leader of VBS. Bergman invited Bender to teach at the Encino congregation, and the rest is history.
“In Israel, you know you’re Jewish because you live it every day,” she said. “Here, how do you know unless you’re taught? You have to learn who you are and what you stand for, and your heritage.”
During her 50-year career, Bender estimates that she has taught the Hebrew language and Judaica to more than 1,500 children. Multiple generations of the same families have passed through her classroom — in one family alone, she said, she has taught a boy’s great-uncle, father and the child himself.
And while English names were never her strong point, Bender is proud to relate that she remembers almost every student’s Hebrew name.
Leaving the school in June will force a change of routine to which she will have to adapt: “Whenever I go driving, my car automatically leaves the freeway at the Haskell exit,” she said.
She has given more than just her time to her students, too. In 1993, Bender won a Milken Family Foundation Jewish Educator Award and donated the $10,000 gift to VBS to create a scholarship fund for families who might not otherwise be able to afford the cost of day school.
“I hate the thought that there are Jewish kids who can’t go to a Jewish school,” she said. “It breaks my heart. We lose so many good kids because they can’t afford it. I pray to God we can raise enough money to help them.”
Now, Bender also wants to establish another type of award at the school — a “Mensch of the Year” honor given annually to a graduating sixth-grader. The prize — an Israeli bond — would not be for students with the best grades, she said, but rather for students who are “good-hearted, kind, who give tzedakah and help others.”
The award ceremony would also be a boon to the retired Bender: “It would give me an excuse to come back every year,” she admitted with a laugh.
With her newly acquired free time, Bender plans to take classes in topics such as art history and politics, and to do volunteer work. “I’m too energetic to sit at home,” she said. “I’m never tired.”
“You are a legend, larger than life — there is only one Adina Bender,” Locke said. “You understand the importance of passing on our rituals through language and skills, but what makes you unique is your kavanah — your passion and intention. You make each child shine and nurture their souls.”
Tamar Raff, director of Judaic studies at the school, praised Bender’s unflagging devotion throughout her career. “Adina is as animated about teaching today as she was a generation ago,” she said. “She loves what she does, and you can feel it every time you enter her classroom.”
Graff gave Bender a certificate of appreciation from the BJE. Congressman Sherman presented her with a flag that had flown over the Capitol. When Bender took the podium to address the audience, her first words were, “Oy, I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
The synagogue is planning to dedicate an original mural, titled “Seeds of Learning,” at the day school’s new community garden in Bender’s honor.
“You have to really love kids, otherwise teaching doesn’t work,” Bender said of her guiding philosophy over the years. “I do hope that I’ve left an impact.”