Jewish Journal


July 10, 1997

Honors Are Just Icing for Sara Lee



In the 1950s, young women knew their place. "You are who you marry" was the gist of the covert message that mothers passed on to their daughters. And Sara Lee, having graduated from college with a degree in social relations and a burning passion for Zionism, was quite content to put her skills to work in support of her new husband's medical studies. She could never have guessed that on a June day in 1997, she'd be standing on top of Mount Scopus, accepting an honor reserved for the crème de la crème of the Jewish educational world.

Receiving the Samuel Rothberg Prize on the campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Lee felt her "entire life come together." It was a heady moment for someone who, two decades before, had faced what seemed to be an insurmountable dead end.

Straight out of Radcliffe (the year was 1955), Lee married a young man who shared her enthusiasm for Jewish learning and Jewish causes. But, inevitably, his career came first. They traversed the United States, eventually putting down roots in Southern California, where he established himself as a surgeon. By this time, there were three children. Lee taught Hebrew school, but she devoted most of her energies to the Hadassah organization. Rather than simply join the Ladies who Lunch, she chose to create new programs. She also rebuilt the local branch of Hadassah's youth organization, Young Judaea, "the movement that had shaped my life " as an eager, young teen. Her satisfaction lay in being that quintessential icon of the era: Mom as Volunteer.

All this changed on the day her husband went out to wash the family car and was felled by a fatal heart attack. He was 41 years old. Their youngest child was only 7. Somehow, life had to go on. Lee mourned for a year and then began taking stock. With no spouse to provide financial and emotional support, she faced nothing less than the need to remake her life. Her best chance, she knew, lay in going back to school.

In 1977, a full 22 years after her graduation from Radcliffe, Lee earned a master of arts in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College. Recognizing her talents, as well as her economic plight, HUC also found room on its staff for her. Two years later, she received a second master's, from the USC School of Education. When a colleague faced health problems of his own, Lee was named director of HUC's Rhea Hirsch School of Education, a post from which she quickly began making waves throughout the Jewish educational community. Without planning it, she had embarked on an important career.

Anyone meeting Lee today would see a confident woman, who's given to tailored jackets and a friendly but get-to-the-point manner. Known for being both tough and canny, Lee has discovered in herself the ability to shake up the status quo. While training scores of young educators and initiating a pioneering interfaith dialogue with members of the Catholic Church, she has also launched such groundbreaking projects as the Experiment in Congregational Education and the brand-new Day Schools for the 21st Century.

Lee speaks tartly of what's wrong with the conventional Jewish religious school -- "a school in a vacuum teaching things that people don't do and the community doesn't care about." Her long-range goal is to help congregations transform themselves into true learning centers, in which everyone -- in every age group -- continues to pursue Jewish education. Such congregations will, she hopes, produce teachers who, because of their strong emotional bonds with Judaism, can transfer their own passion to their students.

Lee has seen the effects of enlightened role-modeling -- what she calls "the great missing piece in Jewish education" -- firsthand, thanks to her youngest child. While attending Harvard, her son joined the teaching staff at Temple Israel of Boston. He was neither a scholar nor a trained instructor, but simply a young man deeply committed to Jewish life. Years later, Lee chanced to meet a rabbinical student who, as a sixth-grader, had been taught by her son and who had found in his classroom the inspiration to pursue his own serious Jewish educational journey.

Although her work addresses the need to improve Jewish schools and Jewish teachers, Lee acknowledges that a commitment to learning always begins at home. And this is particularly important in homes with a Jewish teen-ager. It's no surprise that once the haftarah is chanted and the gifts are all unwrapped, most teens shrug off opportunities for further study. After all, says Lee, "why would you expect some 14-year-old to care about Jewish learning if his parents don't engage in it?" Why, indeed?

Because so many American Jews devalue Jewish studies, Lee notes, there's an acute shortage of educators nationwide to head up religious schools and day schools. This means that graduates of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education can choose from multiple job offers, but it doesn't speak well for the long-range health of the Jewish community in the United States. Lee says, "We will know that Jewish education as a profession has succeeded when Jewish leaders encourage their own children to become Jewish educators." So far, it isn't happening.

What of Lee's own children? Certainly, they grew up in a home where Jewish learning was prized, where Jewish schools and summer camps were given high priority, and where, despite strained finances, each teen-ager had the opportunity for an extended stay in Israel. Ironically, not one has chosen education as a career. Two are now medical doctors but maintain strong Jewish institutional ties on the East Coast. In Los Angeles, there's the filmmaker son who, though ambivalent about organized religion, got married under a chuppah and is raising Jewish children. Although none of the younger Lees has gravitated toward the teaching field, all are well-educated Jews. And all seem proud to have a mother who, when the chips were down, found in education a domain triumphantly her own.

Beverly Gray writes about education from Santa Monica.

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