Several years ago, Leonard Fein, the founder of Moment Magazine, heard President Clinton call for one-million volunteer reading tutors to help public school children in grades one through three. The state of public schools was so deplorable, Clinton said, that 40 percent of all students couldn't read at grade level.
So, Boston-based Fein, who believes Jews have a "surplus of literacy," made a chutzpahdik offer to an official high up in the Department of Education. "The American Jewish community will take responsibility for the first 100,000 volunteers," he said.
"But the minute I hung up the phone, I knew I had a tiger by the tail," he said. "I'd make a commitment on behalf of 'The Jews,' without any authority to make that commitment!"
Yet Fein, who is also the founder of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, knows how to pull a string or two. He coaxed endorsements from most every major Jewish organization, secured $125,000 in grants, convinced the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council to adopt the program locally, and eventually helped mobilize similar efforts in 25 cities from San Antonio to San Francisco.
Today, the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy has more than 3,500 participants, including doctors and teachers, teenagers and retirees who volunteer to tutor one child at least one hour per week. The program has reconnected assimilated Jews to the Jewish community and Jewish suburbanites to the inner-city. Of why the project has caught on, Fein says, "Jews are the People of the Book, for God's sake."
Jews may have largely abandoned the inner-city and are increasingly placing their children in private schools, Fein adds. But there is still an affection for the public schools that helped immigrant parents and grandparents become American.
In L.A., the literacy stakes are even higher, says Elaine Albert, the founding director of KOREH L.A., The Los Angeles Jewish Coalition for Literacy, which is based on the national program and is now recruiting volunteers. California schools test the second-lowest in the nation and 80 percent of public school children can't read at grade level, sources say. KOREH L.A. Coordinator Dan Rosenfeld, previously a science teacher at Manual Arts High School, says his former students could hardly read their textbooks. The problem is so bad that more than one-third of all L.A. Jewish children now attend private school, according to Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater L.A.
So the L.A. JCRC of the Jewish Federation has taken action. "We adopted the literacy project because it responds to a pressing local need, and because it appeals to Jews who are drawn to the notion of tikkun olam," says Albert, director of JCRC's Urban Affairs Commission. "When we talk about black-Jewish or Latino-Jewish relations, we're usually talking about congressmen and public officials," Albert says. "KOREH L.A. is a way to make those relationships happen for everyday people."
The L.A. project already has a literacy partner, The Wonder of Reading, which renovates libraries and trains tutors for 33 public schools. And 57 Jewish organizations have signed on as coalition partners, from the Labor Zionist Alliance to (Orthodox) Young Israel of Century City. "It's the most broad-based Jewish coalition I've seen since the Soviet Jewry days," Albert says.
Of course, a skeptic might ask whether KOREH L.A. might be perceived as condescending, as the 'haves' patronizing the 'have-nots.' Albert doesn't think so. "It's a low-key endeavor, based on one reading partner and one K through third grader quietly working together in a library," she explains. "It's not a flashy, public display."
Moreover, Fein says, promising early evidence suggests that the program works. A study conducted by the literacy project in Louisville, KY, suggests that volunteers helped students improve their reading skills by an entire grade level, says Sandee Linker, the Louisville volunteer coordinator.
Fein, for his part, described his visit to the class of a grateful Boston teacher named Mrs. Moloney. The visit took place on a Friday, the day Jewish Day School students arrived to tutor Moloney's second-graders.
"It [was] something to behold the enthusiasm with which the children ... [greeted] one another, and to watch as some of the [Jewish] students, there being a shortage of chairs, [knelt] next to their younger partners and [helped] induct them into the world of books," Fein recalled in an essay. Amid the hubbub, Fein asked Moloney whether the weekly session was "more than fun" and "actually useful."
"I have 28 students in my class," she replied. "How much individual time do you think I can give them?"
To volunteer for KOREH L.A., call 323/ 761-8153, e-mail: literacy@jewish la.org.