Being a fly on the wall at day-school reunion

Raziel Ungar picks me up at the Burlingame Caltrain station with a firm handshake and welcoming grin. He explains the situation while we drive back to his home: He’s about to see some people he hasn’t seen in about 10 years.

Raziel is hosting a reunion for the first class of the North Peninsula Jewish Community Day School, what’s now the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City. The kids graduated after fifth grade, and now are all in their 20s.

I’m here as a fly on the wall, to see how products of a Hebrew day-school education turned out and how they will relate to each other as adults.

Raziel is the son of a former congregational rabbi, Irv Ungar, who now trades in old Jewish manuscripts, and Margie Ungar, who co-founded the day school. Raziel is living at home, but he’s become an enterprising real estate agent; he hopes to buy his own house in the near future.

The first guests arrive, friends of Raziel. They’ve kept in touch, and the collective air of anticipation grows. I have this itching question: Did their Jewish upbringing equip them to be mensches and menschettes?

I’m fascinated by the group that begins to assemble, trying to connect the young adults before me with the photos of cute children they’re all passing around. There is the Iranian immigrant training to be a dentist. A shy young woman becoming a comedy writer in Los Angeles. And another young woman who became a Millbrae cop.

The most remarkable story is that of the nerdy fifth-grade girl who came to the United States as a Soviet Jew with little English, who excelled in all of her subjects and is now a rising star in the field of nuclear nonproliferation. She works at a think tank in Washington, D.C. Basically, she’s trying to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction.

She’s also gorgeous and incredibly articulate — all of these young adults are striking and kind of checking each other out, trying to connect their childhoods and their emerging adult lives.

The whole time, the Ungars are standing in the background, kvelling. They are proud of these kids and seem to see them all in a way as the children of their own, larger family, the day school.

I ask the “kids” about their memories from back then.

The group collectively recalls learning Hebrew underneath the gingko tree in a teacher’s back yard, bonding together over Hebrew songs even though their parents came from places as diverse as Russia and Iran.

Then I ask about their level of Jewish involvement since fifth grade. The answers are all over the map. Some went on to B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and organized Hillel chapters on their college campuses. One of the students organized a Hillel at University of the Pacific. Another was deeply involved in advocacy for Israel at S.F. State during the intense Jewish-Palestinian conflicts there a few years ago.

Others haven’t been so involved. They go to High Holy Days services or have a few Jewish friends, but aren’t observant at all. They say it’s the way their colleges were organized or just how they’ve chosen to live.

We gather around the table and Rabbi Ungar leads us in the Kiddush and the HaMotzi. About half the students remember the prayer like it was yesterday, but the other half seem tentative — at first. Then a sweet thing happens. The childhood melody takes over, and they all have a shared smile of recollection. The tentative ones are humming along and the spirit is moving.

It’s clear to me that the time under the gingko tree has paid off. Regardless of which of the classmates are religious or not, they’ve all gone through the trouble of coming together (some all the way from Los Angeles and the East Coast) for something as unusual as a fifth-grade class reunion.

The singsong HaMotzi seems to call out how Jewish identity can transcend place and time to reunite those in the suburban diaspora.

Jay Schwartz can be reached at [email protected].