Levine Academy’s Joanie Geffen closing a chapter
Photo: Courtesy Joanie Geffen
Retiring with the Ann and Nate Levine Academy Class of 2024, Joanie Geffen has always enjoyed when her students return for a visit, such as the group pictured here in 2023.

Beloved and revered language arts teacher’s retirement to be honored May 28

By Deb Silverthorn

As Joanie Geffen retires from more than four decades of teaching language arts, the last 34 at Ann and Nate Levine Academy, faculty, students from then and now and their families and the greater community are invited to celebrate her with toasts and noshes beginning at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 28, in Levine Academy’s Beit Aryeh.

“My career has been about treating students as young adults, with utmost respect and, thank God, they give that back,” said Geffen. “I’ve enjoyed changing my curriculum, projects and literary choices with the times, but caring for my kids? That’s never changed. It’s really all that matters.

“Always encouraging the individuality of each student, recognizing them for who they are and having them do the same has been most important, not grades,” she said. “What matters most is what kind of person someone is; when you look in the mirror do you feel proud? We all need to be proud of who we are.”

Born Joanie Solomon in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she is the daughter of Rae and Irving and sister of Stuart Solomon. When she was a teen, her family moved to Dallas. She was raised at Temple Emanu-El, where she was a participant of TOFTY/Texas-Oklahoma Federation of Temple Youth and where she remains a member.

At Hillcrest High School, Geffen realized her love of literature, speech and debate as well as a true passion  for words. A former Alpha Epsilon Phi member at H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College at Tulane University, Geffen majored in speech and theater education.

Geffen’s first teaching experience was an education in life. At the C.J. Colton School in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, her students were poverty-stricken or homeless and living rough lives. As she did not have a car, her commute to her Garden District apartment included a walk, bus trips and trolley rides.

“I remember standing at the bus stop and one of my students asked, ‘Do you want to see something, Miss Solomon?’” she recalls. “He took out a long switchblade and told me, ‘We’re here to protect you.’ It was quite the awakening.”

Geffen taught in an Atlanta suburb at a public school with crosses hung everywhere. When she approached the principal with objections, he asked if she wanted to keep her job. When she reported it to the Anti-Defamation League, she was told they’d also addressed the issue, to no avail. Later teaching at a private Catholic high school in Houston didn’t provide any better experience.

Moving back to Dallas in the mid-1980s, Geffen taught at Akiba Academy (now Akiba Yavneh Academy) before moving to Solomon Schechter (now Ann and Nate Levine Academy).

Geffen often incorporates Jewish heritage and tradition into her curriculum. Kristallnacht is remembered by her students for her creative writing assignments about that pogrom. Students treasure her guidance as they prepare their graduation speeches. Despite the introduction of artificial intelligence, she has encouraged her students to believe they have their own words to share.

“Joanie is simply a teaching avatar who has driven the school’s reputation,” said Tom Elieff, Levine Academy’s head of school. “She cares deeply about her students and instills caring and kindness in each of them.”

Her former students are now lawyers, Jewish communal workers, accountants and teachers. They are entertainment, medicine and technology professionals and those working in the political realm.

In more than 20 years, Dr. Ariana Tart-Zelvin, now a clinical neuropsychologist, has never missed reaching out to wish Geffen a happy birthday.

“So much of what I have accomplished is because of the knowledge Ms. Geffen shared then and still now. She believed in me before I believed in myself and she taught me to reach for the stars,” said Tart-Zelvin. “Never afraid to show herself as a human, faults and all, she made every student feel safe and she perfectly balanced her challenging assignments with grace and compassion.”

Julie Kern Wilkofsky and her daughters Jordy, a Greenhill School freshman, and Molly, a Levine seventh grader, are among many families for whom parent-teacher conferences are now parent-former student-teacher meetups.

“Reading and writing weren’t my strengths, but Ms. Geffen prepared me for high school, college and life,” said Wilkofsky. “Being in her class was life-changing for me.

“I felt it and I’ve watched it in my girls,” she said, crediting Geffen’s inspiring creative assignments. “They revere her the same way I did and still do.”

Jordy says more than the academic success she gained while in Ms. Geffen’s class, “I love her and I love how she built me up as a person. She believed in me, supported me and taught me to do the same for myself.”

Yael Twito, Levine Academy’s director of development, and her siblings were all in Geffen’s classes.

“As alumni families come to campus to tour for the next generation, her room has always been one to visit,” she said. “We have many former students, their parents and faculty members reaching out with warm wishes and beautiful memories.”

Sandy Haymann Marks, chair of the retirement reception, is grateful that both of her children, Jake, now a freshman at Hillcrest High School, and Adrianna, a Levine seventh grader, were influenced by Geffen.

“I fell in love with her when I realized how beautifully she relates to our children,” she said.  “Ms. Geffen respects the students and connects with them in a way that makes them want to please her.” 

Geffen’s deepest roots outside the classroom are felt through the pride she has for her daughter Rabbi Wendi Geffen and her son-in-law Scott Duby as well as being “Mimi” to her grandchildren Joshua and Cami. The absolute unconditional admiration is mutual.

“Mom is epic. She sees capabilities in each of her students and she brings them to excellence with a continued narrative of quality and agency,” said Wendi, the senior rabbi at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois, who admits to having her mother proofread her sermons on occasion. “ ‘Say More With Less’ is what she’s taught. That goes way beyond any one-time assignment.”

Geffen doesn’t know for sure what the next season of her life will bring. Perhaps she’ll continue tutoring students but mostly she’ll spend her days with friends and family. She’ll also be immersed in reading science fiction, mysteries and the classics.

Her students know that “God gave you a mind and a heart and that is more important and meaningful than anything.” These are her lessons that will last their lifetimes.

To RSVP and upload memories, photos and more, visit levineacademy.org/support-levine/geffen. Donations in Geffen’s honor may be submitted at tinyurl.com/Levine-Joanie-Geffen-Donations.

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