When they met and married in Jerusalem, her goal was to be a mathematician and he was preparing for a career in economics. But both discovered they were gifted teachers, strongly dedicated to Jewish education. Ultimately he became the principal of Kadima Hebrew Academy, while she has spent the last six years as education director of Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am.
Now, after a combined total of 69 years in the education field, both have chosen to retire. George stepped down last year, and Aviva will leave her post in June. On January 29, Beth Am will honor Aviva at its annual benefit concert. Typically, she has asked that the bulk of the funds raised be used to establish a retirement fund for Pressman teachers.
The Lebovitzes recently spoke to The Jewish Journal about their long careers.
What are the rewards of being a Jewish educator?
Aviva: "Getting a group of children that are becoming committed and taking Judaism seriously, especially those who came from homes that were really not very interested... that gave us a lot of pleasure."
George: "I've always looked at Judaism as a chain. When you work in a Jewish school, you're really part of something; you're enabling the chain to go on."
What's the state of Jewish education today?
Aviva:"I am very optimistic. I think it's the renaissance of Jewish life. So many children are learning at all levels, are going to Jewish day schools, are going to high school, are continuing post-high school; it's an unbelievable period of time in our history."
George: "We have something out of Dickens. We have the best time in the history of the Jewish people, and simultaneously the worst time. There are more children getting a Jewish education today more intensively than ever before. But on the other hand, in America right now, half the Jewish children are getting zero Jewish education. None. At least in Europe, the children got a Jewish education through the family and the community. That isn't happening today to very large numbers of people."
Why do so many of today's Jewish children lack a basic Jewish education?
George: "Our son has four children. He's spending this year $30,000 on yeshivas. That's ridiculous for a young family. How many people can afford this kind of thing?"
Aviva: "I know how many people I turn down every year-it's terrible! It really breaks my heart when [a parent says], 'I want my children in your school,' and I say, 'Look, you can't afford it.' There is no doubt in my mind that if we had the room and the financial ability that we could take many more children."
How hard is it to get, and keep, great teachers?
Aviva: "It's very hard to attract teachers, especially teachers who teach Judaica, with the salaries that we offer and the opportunities that we offer. Most schools do not have the benefits that teachers get in the public schools. When you get a little older you think to yourself, I do not have retirement, I don't have health insurance, I don't have anything to really lean on."
George: "We're 35 years in the field and -- neither one of us -- we don't have a retirement plan from any of the schools that we've worked at."
George, what do you miss in retirement?
George: "The best part of the job is the children, and you miss the children. The hassles over the budget and the fundraising... you don't miss that, believe me."
What does the future hold for you?
George: "We want to study. We want to spend some time in Israel. We were married at nineteen, we had babies right away, we've been responsible [adults] for the last 40 years. Now we want to devote some time to personal growth, new challenges."
Aviva: "I have a problem with the word 'retire' because I really am not sure I'm retiring. I'm taking a sabbatical and then I'm going to go back to something, because I feel I'm too young to retire."
George: "We're not going to sit in our rocking chairs. I go now every day for three hours to YULA and study Talmud. We'll come back to doing something in the community in another year or two. But we want to take some time off. Our profession does not give sabbaticals to educators. And in terms of keeping teachers and letting them recharge their batteries, that's sorely lacking."
For information about the Beth Am benefit concert honoring Aviva Lebovitz, call (310) 652-7353, ext. 234.