Bay Area joins Jewish drive to promote child literacy

Local Jewish leaders have indicated that they can provide several hundred Bay Area volunteers.

The national pledge would meet 10 percent of President Clinton's goal to send 1 million volunteer reading tutors to help the nation's poorest readers. Current estimates indicate that up to 40 percent of all fourth-graders read below grade level.

Clinton's initiative, the America Reads Challenge Act of 1997, aims to make every third-grader a good reader by the year 2002 by allocating $100 million to state, local and regional literacy programs.

Even before Congress passed the act, the president appealed to communities, corporations and individuals to get started.

Jewish activist and writer Leonard Fein answered Clinton's battle cry by forming the New York-based JCL, a nonprofit umbrella of participating Jewish agencies.

Fein, who is the board chairman, aims to establish a project manager in 10 urban areas during the 1997-98 school year and recruit another 25 sites by 1999.

The project manager would be supported by participating Jewish agencies at each site.

"We see this as the best single social justice project for the Jewish community," the JCL's Sumberg said during last week's visit. The former Tikkun co-publisher had returned to the Bay Area to rally support for the new coalition.

"We feel directly implicated in a world broken and in need of repair."

Sumberg conferred with leaders of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, area federations and a local board of the National Council of Jewish Women about how to steer local volunteers to existing literacy programs.

Currently, the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco runs an after-school tutoring program together with Third Baptist Church. But there is no Bay Area-wide program geared specifically to teach reading.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, JCRC executive director, said it was premature to detail a future literacy project, but indicated that his agency has begun to identify existing programs outside the Jewish community. The JCRC then would seek the funds to support a Jewish operation that staffs those programs with volunteers.

Kahn is still uncertain about how much such an operation would cost, but said the sum must cover what is required to actually raise literacy.

"If we are going to attract hundreds of volunteers, we want to make sure that we design a meaningful experience."

Nationally, participating agencies include the Council of Jewish Federations, Hadassah, Women's American ORT, Hillel, the Jewish Community Centers Association of America and others.

The JCL already has enlisted the Jewish communities of Boston and Baltimore. And there are rumblings from Minneapolis, Providence and Portland, Ore.

Interested volunteers can call (650) 948-7425.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.