Seniors turn Jewish passion toward the classroom

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When Mark Haas turned 75, he informed his employer that he would continue to work but no longer wanted a paycheck.

"The kids are so darling, and the faculty members are wonderful," said Haas, who teaches art to religious-school students at San Francisco Congregation Emanu-El.

Haas is one of a growing number of Jews in their senior years who are teaching religious school in the Bay Area.

"They have a solid grounding in Judaism and a wealth of experience," said Debbie Findling, school services director at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education. "These people feel pretty passionately and strongly about their Judaism."

They are also filling a growing need in the community. "It's become increasingly difficult to find teachers in the synagogue schools," Findling said recently. "So we're really turning to seniors and retirees to feel an essential need in the classroom.

"We're hoping there'll be more and more who are interesting in giving back to the community."

Shirley Berman, who tutors bar and bat mitzvah students at Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, said the job is "perfect for me." She works three-hour days twice a week, meeting with students in a brightly lit classroom.

She has been teaching Hebrew for 50 years. And at 70, she still uses humor, patience and positive reinforcement to move her young charges along. "Perfect!" she tells Josh Galland during the 12-year-old's first session. "Good."

At Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, 63-year-old Gesher Calmenson is in his second year as school principal — a position that "came to me out of the goodness of life."

At 60, he sold his printing and publishing business in Oregon and moved to the Cotati area, where he and wife Cynthia became members of the Reconstructionist synagogue. When they heard Ner Shalom was looking to fill the principal slot, he recalls, "my wife said, 'Gee honey, I think this is what you're looking for.'"

He's a natural for the job. "I'm a very experienced guy with a Jewish background and I was interested in community development," he said. A believer in "experiential education," he has long been active in the human potential movement and ran the Esalen Institute in Big Sur for 10 years.

Under his guidance, the religious school is adding students, teachers and volunteers, and now has an adult education program. "I'm having a ball," Calmenson said.

Doris Popky considers herself a volunteer. "I won't take money for it," she said. "That would take all the fun out of it. It's a pleasure."

Popky teaches Hebrew, working with b'nai mitzvah candidates at Conservative Congregation B'nai Israel in Petaluma, where she is a member. She also coaches b'nai mitzvah candidates at Ner Shalom. She spends almost a year working with each student and recently has taken on an adult Hebrew class as well.

Ironically, she taught herself Hebrew. Popky took on the task for her own bat mitzvah, held just shy of her 60th birthday.

She moved to the North Bay from Philadelphia to be closer to her two sons and grandchildren. She previously worked with a custom drapery shop "for the high-end interior design trade. I loved it."

After settling in Sonoma County, she began volunteering for the local hospital auxiliary. That was before she started teaching. Now, "this is the most important thing I do — second to taking care of my grandchildren."

Haas, who lives in San Francisco, has long been on the faculty at Emanu-El, as a salaried art teacher. He was recruited decades ago, and went for his teaching credential at San Francisco State University. His regular job was as an electronics mechanic at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard.

At 75, however, Haas told his employers at the Reform congregation, where he attends Friday night and Saturday morning services, "I'm not going to take the money anymore." He continues spending Sunday mornings at the school, helping primary-grade students with "all sorts of art projects related to religion and Israel."

In his tenure at the Sunday school, he sees only positive changes. "The attitude has changed tremendously…for the better," he said, with more parents and grandparents coming in to help with projects and get involved.

From her vantage point at the BJE, Findling is launching a vigorous campaign to recruit more older workers to fill the increasing number of teacher openings.

"Synagogue schools are growing tremendously," she said. "More children receive their primary [Jewish] education in a synagogue setting than anywhere else."

Findling also asserts that the Bay Area's cost of living has reduced the supply of Sunday school teachers. "The Bay Area is an expensive place to live. [In the past] people who might have been more apt to do extra work on the side are now being forced to work full time."

She compliments those older teachers she has come to know. Younger staff members are "inspired by them," she said. Some religious school staff — themselves undergraduate or graduate students without family in the area — consider the older teachers their "surrogate grandparents."

Locally, she adds, "we don't have a lot of the bubbe factor."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.