June 26, 2003
Educator CombinesTwo Passions in Life
Metuka Benjamin was sitting in a taxicab in a Tel Aviv traffic jam when the Israeli prime minister's limousine happened to pull up next to her. The driver recognized Benjamin and told her to ditch her cab and he would take her where she wanted to go -- and she did.
While the Jewish education pioneer said she doesn't recall the incident, it's one of Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin's favorite stories about his colleague of 39 years. "I'm sure if Metuka lived in Israel, she'd be up in the government there, because she knows everybody," said Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple.
In the Southland, everybody remotely associated with Jewish education in Los Angeles knows Benjamin. As director of education and co-founder of the six Stephen S. Wise schools along with Zeldin, Benjamin is among the most respected Jewish leaders in the city.
Benjamin, whose first name means "sweet," has a passion for Jewish education that has earned her a reputation as a leader. She is also a mother figure to whom former students often turn for approval before marrying their prospective mates.
At a time when many other local Jewish educators are retiring or being replaced by younger members in the field, Benjamin's legendary leadership continues to thrive.
Born in Tel Aviv to a Lithuanian businessman and an American-born mother, Benjamin moved to New York with her parents and brother when she was 15. She attended Columbia University's Jewish Theological Seminary, where she received a master's degree in education.
"I missed Israel terribly," the administrator said. "But I felt I could contribute to what is needed here [in the United States], which is the passion for Jewish education and the passion for Israel."
Benjamin's ambition led her to Los Angeles, where she became a Hebrew school teacher at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. There she found Zeldin, someone who shared her passion and educational vision. In 1964, Benjamin and Zeldin teamed up to establish a new school, which later developed into Stephen S. Wise Temple.
"We can pray anywhere," Benjamin said about creating the school before the shul, "but youngsters need a place for education."
The efforts of Benjamin and Zeldin resulted in the creation of the largest Jewish educational system in the United States, which includes an early childhood education center, elementary school, middle school, high school, religious school and adult education program.
As Benjamin's professional life flourished, so did her personal life. In 1979, she married Ray Benjamin, a shipping company owner. They have one son.
Today, Jewish education experts credit Benjamin and Zeldin as being instrumental in legitimizing the concept of Reform Jewish day schools.
"[Stephen S. Wise] has been a trailblazing institution in the larger Reform movement," said Dr. Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE). Benjamin was among the first educators in Los Angeles in to win the BJE's prestigious Milken Family Foundation Jewish Educator Award in 1990.
In addition to her role as an administrator, Benjamin has been the international president of the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center near Tel Aviv for the last 10 years. Assaf Harofeh is one of the largest hospitals in Israel and serves some of the poorest areas.
Benjamin became involved with the center while spending time with a friend during one of her visits to Israel, a trip she has made several times a year since she was 18. Although she originally had no vested interest in the medical field, she quickly changed her mind.
"When I saw the hospital and the need," she said, "I decided to work for them as a volunteer." Similar to her other endeavors, Benjamin quickly emerged as a leader.
Benjamin's lifelong connection to Israel has merged with the educational mission of the schools. Stephen S. Wise schools have a relationship with two sister schools in Israel. One of Benjamin's goals is to ensure that all of her high school and middle school students have the opportunity to visit Israel.
In Israel, Benjamin received the Constantiner Award from Tel Aviv University for exceptional contributions to Jewish education on an international level at a ceremony May 21.
"There is nothing which is too daunting for her," said Graff, recalling the time Benjamin stepped in to coordinate the school's former transportation system one morning years ago.
After nearly four decades with Stephen S. Wise, Benjamin does not see her work ending any time soon.
"For me, it's not a job, it's a mission." she said, adding that retirement isn't in the near future. "I have a lot of work to do yet."