Inspirational Midrasha teacher retiring after 33 years

It’s the end of an era in local Jewish education.

Diane Bernbaum of Midrasha in Berkeley — an extracurricular program for Jewish teens of various levels of observance — is retiring after 33 years as the institution’s director.

That’s nearly three-quarters of the school’s 46-year existence.

Diane Bernbaum

“It was wonderful to see generations of families come through my life,” said Bernbaum, who will work her last day in mid-June. “Now I have students who are children of former students.”

Originally from Wis-consin, Bernbaum began her career as a public school teacher in Massachusetts. But when she moved west in the 1970s, she had trouble landing a similar job in the Bay Area, despite having a master’s degree in teaching from Harvard University.

“Public school jobs were impossible to get,” she recalled, “and I started teaching religious school [including a stint at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette] before moving into the Midrasha job.”

Midrasha is a supplementary educational program for Jewish teens in grades 8-12 who want to continue their Jewish education after their bar or bat mitzvah. It provides three hours of classroom-based education on Sundays, and three learning retreats annually.

Midrasha in Berkeley is one of four midrashot in the East Bay; the others serve Oakland, the Walnut Creek area and the area stretching from Fremont to Livermore. All of them receive support from the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and local synagogues.

Bernbaum has seen thousands of kids pass through the Berkeley program during her 33 years, and she’s seen the program double and even triple in terms of numbers. Some years, more than 250 kids — some of them affiliated with synagogues, others not — have been involved.

Yossi Fendel, chairman of Midrasha in Berkeley and an alumnus of the program, said Bernbaum’s impact on the school has been profound.

“She brought real professionalism and seriousness to the Midrasha office,” Fendel said, noting that she was determined to have the program reflect a true Torah academy.

Bernbaum “infused Midrasha with an atmosphere of academic freedom,” Fendel added, allowing teachers to focus on individual students’ strengths and needs. She also went the extra mile, he continued, such as “writing personal letters of recommendation” for students’ college or job applications.

“She is one of my major inspirations,” said Jon Emanuel, the education director at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon and a Jewish educator for two decades. He attended Midrasha in Berkeley in the late 1980s.

“I can’t think of too many people like her. She’s a model for Jewish educators out there,” he said, pointing to her penchant for creating interesting classes and other sparks that would get teens involved — and keep them from dropping out.

“We’d take field trips all over town to different Jewish businesses, where I got to understand the rich Jewish culture in Berkeley,” Emanuel recalled. “I understood what it was like to live in a Jewish community.”

Replacing Bernbaum will be Rabbi Jennifer Flam, an educator at Congre-gation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek since July 2008. Flam was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where she also received a master’s degree in rabbinic studies and Jewish education.

Fendel said he was excited and confident in Flam’s ability to lead. “She is a gifted and innovative Jewish educator and leader,” he said.

Bernbaum said she’ll miss working not only with the teens, but also with Midrasha’s teachers.

“They were so creative and caring,” she said, “and they became such wonderful mentors for the teens.”

Looking forward to retirement and enjoying some down time, Bernbaum said her goal was always to allow teens to discover themselves and their Judaism.

“The key focus [of Midrasha] is providing a safe place during the teenage years for Jewish teens to figure out who they are and what kind of a Jew they want to be going forward in life,” she said