By Danielle Cantor
When Rabbi Stephen Chester of Temple Sinai in Oakland, Calif., approached congregant Judy Zollman about starting a literacy project to benefit area children, he didn’t imagine the initiative would grow into the far-reaching, award-winning entity it is today.
“He knew I worked in the literacy field. At the time, I worked for the Oakland Public Library,” Zollman says. “And he had been in a synagogue in Stockton, Calif., where he brought in some folks to be tutored in the synagogue. But Oakland being a different kind of city, I didn’t know how we were going manage that, legally or logistically. So I thought we would go to a local school; many of them in Oakland need help.”
Judy Zollman (center, in blue) is honored by the Jewish Coalition for Literacy in September 2010.|
Zollman launched the People of the Book Literacy Project in spring 1998, with the mission of helping Oakland's school children learn to love reading and books. Her first move was to approach a school near the temple.
“They were thrilled,” she says. “The principal said nobody had ever offered to help them. We started by asking what they needed, and the principal took me down the hall to a room full of books—awful books, outdated and racist. It was a dump, a storage room.”
The temple then sent a letter to the entire congregation, asking for volunteers and donations. “I went away for a week and when I came back, my mailbox was overflowing with reply cards. It was wonderful. We were able to buy books the school needed.”
A few months later, the mayor of Oakland fortuitously started Oakland Reads, a literacy program that let People of the Book launch its tutoring arm ahead of schedule. Temple Sinai “adopted” a number of local schools and started a program to send teens from the congregation to help out in the partner schools.
Another important partnership has come through the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, which has been training People of the Book tutors for six years now. (Oakland schools used to provide training, but it was not consistently available.)
Now in its 13th year, People of the Book has given more than 130,000 books to Oakland schools and students, and serves up to 10,000 children each year. It partners with five elementary schools in the Oakland Unified School District to provide one-on-one tutoring in reading and math, in-class storytelling, and art and music classes. Volunteers create and maintain school libraries, organize book giveaways and author visits, and stock schools with school, art and sports supplies.
The project also organizes food drives during winter break, when kids can’t rely on the schools for daily meals, and has helped set up weekly food delivery by the Alameda County Community Food Bank. People of the Book’s Adopt a Family project has been a huge success: At one school alone, 52 families with 142 kids were served last December.
People of the Book volunteers are deeply involved with their partner schools, attending health fairs, Read-Aloud Days, Dictionary Day, school assemblies and graduations. They participate in end-of-the-year parties for all tutors and their students.
The project has been honored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (Social Action Award) in Washington, D.C.; former California State Assemblywoman Wilma Chan; former California State Sen. Don Perata; the Jewish Coalition for Literacy; and the Oakland Unified School District. Zollman herself was honored with the Jefferson Award for Public Service in 2009 in San Francisco. But she is quick to spread the credit around, emphasizing that “we would not be doing the work we are doing so successfully without the support of our temple and all the volunteers and agencies who collaborate in making this literacy project what it is.”
“Sharing a love of books is wonderful, but when I find a key to open a child’s mind, it’s always amazing to me,” Zollman says. “When a kid says, ‘I love this book!’ or ‘I love this character!’ it’s a terrific moment. Reading opens a door to travel for kids who never get to. I just came back from Israel, so when I tutor today, I’m also bringing the kids things from my trip. A lot of these kids have never met a Jewish person.”
|Students at People of the Book’s partner schools choose books to keep at home.|
“It’s never as simple as reading a book with a child,” Zollman continues. “These kids open up to you, and while you can’t solve their problems, just being there and listening to them can be as important as teaching them to love to read. One girl, a very shy and smart Latina girl, told me she was interested in being a heart doctor. I brought her books about doctors, but then I asked if she’d like to go and see a hospital. I arranged with a friend for her to go and see a procedure at a local hospital. Afterward, she wrote up an account of what that experience meant to her, and her teacher said she really blossomed after that.”
Zollman especially enjoys helping students choose books at People for the Book’s annual giveaways—“a book that they want, not what their teacher thinks they should have. These kids don’t get a lot of opportunity for someone to look at them as an individual and fulfill their needs.”
Still, she says, “I feel like I’m getting way more back from these kids than I give to them.”
Learn more about People of the Book, including how to donate books, either directly or through Temple Sinai’s Amazon.com wishlist.