BJE honors teacher Fred Nathan, who refuses to quit after 40 years

After 40 years of teaching at Jewish day schools and synagogues, often commuting between jobs, Fred Nathan is looking forward to retirement. But he has no plans to give up teaching. Ever.

"My dream is to retire and to just teach an afternoon religious school as long as I can," says the San Franciscan.

While Nathan, 58, has not yet volunteered a date for his so-called retirement, his lengthy career has been thrust into the spotlight by the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, which has named him this year's recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for excellence in teaching.

The honor, which ironically was created by the BJE with Nathan's help while he worked there, will be awarded to the instructor during Teacher Appreciation Evening and Awards Celebration Thursday.

Colleagues at the BJE said there was no question about Nathan's suitability.

"People unanimously felt that Fred was really deserving of the highest, most prestigious kind of kavod [respect] that peers could give someone in Jewish education," said Debbie Findling, BJE director of school services and principal of the religious school at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. "Fred Nathan embodies what Jewish educators try to be."

Findling fondly recalled a service during which Nathan was designated to give the d'var Torah. The assignment coincided with Purim, so he got creative. Only minutes before the program, Nathan hustled together some adults to play roles in his Purimshpiel. At his request, they threw themselves into their characters as the reading came alive with song and humor.

Nathan even wrote the little songs. The mini-production was a hit with adults in the congregation as well as kids.

"He brings that kind of enthusiasm to everything and it just fills up the room," Findling said.

Bob Sherman, director of the BJE, said Nathan has been influential in helping the bureau redesign professional development programs.

"He is always focused on the best interests of the students, is extremely pragmatic and Jewishly pretty knowledgeable."

Perhaps most importantly, "He is an extraordinary mensch."

Nathan began his career at the age of 18 when he returned from studies in Israel. He had been attending the Chaim Greenberg Institute in Jerusalem as part of Yeshiva University's teacher training program. After returning to his native Boro Park in Brooklyn, he began to teach teens only a few years younger than himself in post-b'nai mitzvah religious studies.

Nathan finished his studies with Yeshiva University and moved on to teaching and administrative posts at synagogues and Jewish day schools throughout New England.

He arrived in San Francisco in 1983 to take a teaching position at Brandeis Hillel Day School. He also has taught at a variety of religious schools around the Bay Area, led professional development programs for other teachers and helped to open Brandeis Hillel's second campus in San Rafael.

Currently, Nathan is principal of religious schools at Congregations Kol Emeth in Palo Alto and Beth El in Aptos.

Together with his activism in social causes, the teacher said his Jewish-activity schedule has kept him busy seven days a week for much of his 40-year career. "When you do something you like, it's OK. You have to keep it fresh," with seminars that force teachers to rethink their methods, he said.

Unfortunately, Nathan predicts that religious-school education is headed for "a crisis."

Families do not make religious education enough of a priority and religious concepts sometimes are not reinforced in the home, he said.

Because teaching posts at most synagogues are only part time and do not pay very well, candidates who are both Jewishly knowledgeable and credentialed are difficult to find.

Women with young children and Israelis on sabbatical who used to fill such positions are now finding better job opportunities elsewhere.

While there is no quick fix for the situation, Nathan suggested that the Jewish community might alleviate future teacher shortages by pressing willing retirees into service.

After all, teaching can be addictive, Nathan said. Once you're hooked on "that interplay in the classroom, it's always part of you."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.