JCC teacher still touching childrens lives after 25 years

"Next thing [I knew], I was a JCC kindergarten teacher who coached basketball, and gave cooking classes and guitar lessons," he said.

A quarter of a century later, Garfield has touched the lives of more than 4,000 children as a teacher at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

"I like to taste the sweetness of life, and then try to transmit it to children," said the 49-year-old teacher.

Early on in his involvement with the JCC, Garfield provided basic custodial child care for children. But as the years progressed, he and his colleagues, Lori Ottolini and the late Don Thompson, saw a need for creating a Jewish learning-enrichment program for children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

In 1975, they started JCC of S.F.'s Havurah Youth Center, an after-school program where youngsters explore Jewish culture and tradition through painting, singing folk-songs, baking challah and other hands-on activities.

"I created my own job," Garfield said.

Lately, Garfield has been forced to stay away from that job because of hip surgery. Still, with his home just half a block from the JCC, and wearing a JCC sweatshirt during a recent interview, all indications are that he's never far away from the center in body or in spirit.

Walking into his apartment, one sees a homestead that's neat, simple and decorated with the things he and his wife, Sue, have collected from their worldwide ventures. Although he's currently homebound, his tiny VCR-less television has remained cold from constant non-use. Instead, he's quelled any boredom by watching his flowery palm-tree garden and poring through a stack of books.

"A man's wealth can be measured by the things he can do without," said Garfield, quoting Henry David Thoreau.

Born in East Los Angeles in 1948, Garfield grew up in a household in which his parents encouraged him to visit their local JCC.

Garfield, however, didn't need any extra prodding. "I was there by choice," he said.

The young Garfield made good use of the JCC's resources. There, he learned to play guitar, played on the basketball team, and studied for his bar mitzvah. Also, his rock band, the Sound Effex, played at the regular dances at the JCC.

Today, Garfield is the head teacher of the Havurah Youth Center he created. It's a job that gives him enormous pleasure.

"Concerning my Jewishness, I can't change who I am, so I come here to enjoy who I am to the fullest," Garfield said.

One of his first students was a 9-year-old boy named Marty Gomes, who now works as a janitor at the JCC.

"I didn't even know what Sabbath and Chanukah was before I met him. I looked up to him as a father figure and still do," said Gomes, now 34.

The Garfields, who do not have children, have traveled extensively in their 27 years together, visiting 75 countries and walking on every continent but Antarctica. They recently visited Indonesia.

Garfield's banquet of life is shared through storytelling.

"He's nice and tells stories from around the world," said Dylan Child, 9, whose face suddenly beamed when asked about Garfield.

"He's a big ham who loves to get up with his guitar, sing songs, and get people excited," said Karen Einbinder, Havurah center director.

Another of Garfield's students, 7-year-old Avalon Wollenberger, thinks her teacher resembles a famous figure. But she doesn't seem to be aware of the bushy-bearded Garfield's resemblance to his namesake president, James Garfield.

"He looks like Garfield the cat," Avalon said.

Garfield's pain from hip surgery hasn't slowed him down, and despite medical advice, he visited the Havurah center on crutches and even checked on his staff from his sick bed.

"When he was on [medically prescribed] morphine he called us up all giggly and silly, saying how much he loves everyone and the place," said Jeffrie Palmer, the Havurah center's office manager. "The next day he called without remembering a thing."

Garfield is now up and walking, but still must use crutches. He looks forward to returning to work full time by Chanukah.

"I feel lucky and honored to have worked at the JCC S.F.," he said. "I have enjoyed my work thoroughly and see the JCC as a giant kibbutz with seas of humanity passing through the doors."