Diane Levinson and Gabriel
For some Jewish Coalition for Literacy volunteers, the bonds they formed with students outlasted the formal program. Diane Levinson, for example, began tutoring 14-year-old Gabriel when he was in third grade. She went on to mentor him through middle school and is now helping him set his sights on college. (Courtesy)

Jewish Coalition for Literacy shuts down after 25 years of teaching kids to read

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The Jewish Coalition for Literacy has reached the end of its story after helping more than 15,000 Bay Area children learn to read over the past 25 years. 

JCL, one of the largest programs of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, became a casualty of both the Covid-19 pandemic and the JCRC’s post-Oct. 7 shift to respond to the antisemitism and anti-Zionist activism that has swept the region.

Jan Reicher, JCRC’s board president, said Friday that the decision to shut down JCL wasn’t a sudden or easy one.

“Personally, I find it sad. But I totally support, as does the entire board, that the decision had to be made,” she said.

Meta Pasternak of San Francisco, a longtime JCL volunteer, also felt sad about its demise.

“This is so tragic, because it’s so needed,” she said.

The program officially ended Sunday with the close of the fiscal year, but it essentially shut down at the end of May as schools wrapped up the academic year. The staff of four had already been reduced to one half-time position, which has now been eliminated as well.

Meta Pasternak
Meta Pasternak (Courtesy)

For most of its history, JCL had been “self-sustaining” through foundation grants and individual donations, JCRC said in a statement. But that changed over the past several years. Before the pandemic struck, JCL lost three full-time positions covered by the federal government’s AmericaCorps Vista program. Then, JCL lost momentum during the pandemic when schools moved online and some funders shifted resources to more immediate needs.

“JCRC has heavily subsidized JCL for some time with our general operating funds,” Reicher said.

Post-pandemic, JCRC leaders hoped JCL could rebuild its fundraising. But the Hamas massacre in Israel, the ongoing war and the aftermath for Jewish communities worldwide — and locally — was the final blow.

“After Oct. 7 and the crisis that ensued, JCRC had to direct all available resources to really address the needs of the community facing the alarming rate of antisemitism and anti-Israel vitriol,” Reicher said.

That meant narrowing JCRC’s focus to react to the harrowing environment for Jews in the public sphere, including at city council meetings, school board meetings, public schools and college campuses.

“After an unsuccessful search for a partner organization in the Jewish and civic communities to adopt JCL, we made a difficult decision to close the program in a vote that none of us took lightly,” Reicher said. “It is not something that we took pleasure in and wanted to do, but it was something that we needed to do as a fiscal and priority decision.”

JCRC is best known for serving as the “largest collective voice” of Bay Area Jews, but it also oversees specific programs. According to tax filings from the past three fiscal years, JCL cost between $540,000 and $552,000 annually — accounting for up to 19.5% of JCRC’s program service expenses.

It is not something that we took pleasure in and wanted to do, but it was something that we needed to do as a fiscal and priority decision.

Jan Reicher, JCRC Bay Area board president

JCL had been one of JCRC’s top three programs in terms of budget. Another in that tier also has undergone a major change: The Institute for Curriculum Services, which examines textbooks for anti-Jewish bias and trains K-12 teachers nationwide about Jews, Judaism and Jewish history, became its own nonprofit on Monday after 19 years with JCRC. (The third program topping the JCRC program budget covers Israel trips for political and civic leaders and remains in place.)

The Bay Area’s Jewish Coalition for Literacy started small but grew as it filled a need.

The National Jewish Coalition for Literacy began as a response to President Bill Clinton’s 1997 call for volunteers to help children reach grade-level reading by third grade. Based in Boston, it quickly expanded to more than two dozen communities, including in 1999 to San Francisco, where it was an immediate success. 

JCRC and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund launched it as a joint project that year. At the time, this publication introduced it with the headline: “Program recruits Jews to pass on ‘surplus of literacy.’”

In 2000, an editorial noted that JCL “seems to have struck a chord in the local Jewish community. Last year, despite the newness of the program, more than 200 volunteers signed up.”

According to the JCRC statement, over the lifetime of the program about 6,000 volunteers trained and tutored more than 15,000 students at 50 elementary schools and through nonprofits in six Bay Area counties. JCL also worked with volunteers through synagogues, JCCs and Jewish day schools.

In the 2018-2019 school year — the last full school year before the pandemic began in early 2020 — 285 tutors served about 1,000 children. That structure crumbled when schools shifted online during pandemic lockdowns, though JCL did set up virtual tutoring. During this past school year, JCRC said, 114 tutors served 309 students.

JCL worked to improve children’s reading comprehension, offered parent workshops and distributed tens of thousands of books. But the organization did more than teach children literacy skills and encourage a love of reading, volunteers said. It also gave underperforming students who needed extra help some valuable one-on-one time with trained adults. And it offered volunteers, many of them retired, a chance to give back to the community.

Pasternak, who wrote a J. op-ed in 2022 about her volunteer work with the organization, said tutoring “kept her sane” through the worst of the pandemic. “It was a win-win,” she said.

She also loved the training the organization gave her. “It stressed getting to know the student and meeting the student where they might be,” she said.

Another volunteer, Diane Levinson of San Carlos, said she got so much personally out of JCL.

“So many kids, through the years, have been helped” and “relationships established, going both ways,” she said.

She first heard about JCL through her synagogue and was immediately interested.

“I saw that our synagogue was doing a training and it was like: Oh, Diane, you cannot not do it,” she recalled thinking.

Levinson mentioned Gabriel, a 14-year-old boy she began tutoring in third grade and still keeps in touch with today. She lovingly described his successes and his challenges, and how immensely proud she is of his growth.

“We’ve been through a lot of things together,” she said.

The National JCL appears to have shut down a decade ago, according to tax records. With the local JCL now shuttered too, the immediate future of its quarter-century of work is uncertain.

“We are working with our tutors, schools and several civic tutoring organizations to transition our community of tutors so they can continue their important work into the future, helping underserved students learn to read,” JCRC CEO Tye Gregory said in a statement. “We’ve also heard encouraging news from a number of the tutors that they will be able to work directly with the schools, and we’re optimistic that most of them will be able to continue their volunteer service.”

For Levinson, the bond she formed with Gabriel has endured even though he’s long grown out of JCL’s formal tutoring structure. She said she coached him through elementary school, mentored him through middle school and is now helping him set his sights on college.

“I think I get as much out of it as he does,” Levinson said. “I just feel so good about being able to help him reach his potential.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.

Natalie Weinstein
Natalie Weinstein

Natalie Weinstein is J.'s senior editor. She previously worked as a senior editor at CNET News and, in the 1990s, as a reporter and editor at J., which was then called the Jewish Bulletin.