Area synagogues helping non-English speakers fit in
By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
DALLAS — For more than half a century, Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) has helped adults learn to read and write. The agency, founded by the Dallas chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, has made a significant impact over the years in the Metroplex, while retaining close ties to the Jewish community that spawned it.
“We’re very proud of our founding heritage,” said Lisa Hembry, LIFT’s president and CEO. “The NCJW recognized that low literacy among adults was an intergenerational problem, and working with parents would enhance the learning of children.”
This past fall, LIFT started offering English Language Acquisition (ELA) classes at Temple Shalom. More recently, a partnership has started with Temple Emanu-El. A number of Jewish organizations and members of the community have also been involved through donations, volunteer work or partnerships.
Partnerships, such as the ones with the two congregations, have been a key part of LIFT from the start.
“They created this amazing program that was volunteer driven,” Hembry said.
About two years ago, Temple Shalom was looking to identify an issue to focus on. Education stood out because “everyone felt this tied into the other issues,” said Debra Levy-Fritts, who helps coordinate LIFT classes at Temple Shalom. She cited the strong leadership at LIFT as a major reason for teaming up. As it turned out, the feeling was mutual.
“We got involved with Temple Shalom because of Debra Levy-Fritts,” Hembry said. “She is very, very passionate about teaching people who have learning differences, and not treating them like second-class citizens. She actually brought Rabbi (Andrew) Paley to visit with us about two years ago. She shepherded this process through adopting LIFT and literacy as their community initiative.”
After a year of training and preparation, classes in English Language Acquisition started on campus last fall. It’s a small group so far, with about a dozen students, but Levy-Fritts expects that number to double for the next semester. Several volunteers have been trained, and the word is getting out in the neighborhood, she said.
“I want to keep up the relationship and ties with the community and let them know we’re there,” Levy-Fritts said. “I want to give people time to grow as teachers, as a partner with LIFT. Things that look like they happen overnight are a result of years.”
She said volunteers need to be patient, understanding that students have families and jobs to attend to. It has also been difficult for those who struggle to read to open up about it.
“You have to be positive and persistent with them,” Levy-Fritts said. “You have to keep letting them know they will break through and do this.”
LIFT provides the training, curriculum and data on adult learners, helping to ease the burden on organizations that host classes.
The congregation has teamed with LIFT in other ways. Hembry and Doug Butler, who teaches adult literacy, spoke to the seventh-graders, who made goodie bags for the LIFT students. LIFT has also benefited from Temple Shalom’s help with awareness at events, and took part in the annual Food Truck Palooza event.
Temple Emanu-El has long had ties to LIFT, including a pair of the organization’s board members, Dave Millheiser (who is also a Temple Emanu-El board member) and Edward Stone. Pat Peiser, who was president of NCJW when it founded LIFT, and new Executive Director Nancy Rivin, are both congregants. Last month, the partnership became official.
“We have a very deep involvement with Temple Emanu-El, and it just made sense for us to deepen that engagement by having a more formal involvement,” Hembry said.
Another reason was that the two groups already work with a lot of the same nonprofits.
“Literacy, we believe, helps alleviate poverty, and we as a service projects committee thought that the mission of LIFT fit in with our mission at Temple,” said Alex Null, associate director of Social Justice.
“It is something that we take very seriously, and we are hoping more of our members get involved in LIFT. We have already had people contact us who are interested in getting more involved.”
Because the partnership is so new, they are still exploring options. Null pointed to opportunities for volunteers in the classroom, through advocacy and working on special projects, such as helping with workplace or interview skills.
“We were thrilled they reached out to us because we believe in their mission and they are a great organization doing great work in Dallas,” Null said.
Hembry said she’d like to see Emanu-El help support a project at Herbert Marcus Elementary School teaching parents of school kids how to speak English, interact with the faculty and empower and advocate for their children.
Another partner is Jewish Family Service. Allison Harding, director of Career and Employment Services, teaches a class on financial coaching and workforce fundamentals on Tuesdays.
“She is wonderful, and her students — the people that sign up for that class — really love her,” Hembry said.
The M.B. and Edna Zale Foundation has supported LIFT over the years as well. Hembry said Leonard Krasnow and Dana Gerard, Temple Shalom members, recently helped LIFT to navigate the grant process.
“The foundation allocated $50,000 to launch a public awareness campaign designed to get more students, more volunteers to teach the classes, more partnerships to offer our services on sites, and more donors to help fund those initiatives,” Hembry said.
There is a considerable amount of work to be done in the region, which has one of the most troubling rates of low literacy in the country. Hembry pointed to a study by JPMorgan Chase that said every year 42,000 new jobs are created that go unfilled because the workforce does not have basic skills to apply for the jobs.
While the classes at Temple Shalom so far are for those learning fluency in English, Levy-Fritts said there are many native English speakers who are helped by LIFT. Some have learning disabilities that are undiagnosed, or improperly addressed, and others simply fall through the cracks.
As a result, they can have a difficult time making connections while reading that they would understand in conversation. Hembry agrees.
“It’s amazing how many people can actually sound out the words fluently, but actually comprehending what they are reading is the basis of our adult literacy curriculum,” Hembry said.
“We were founded with the mission to teach adults to read. I believe what we actually do is empower adults to have a better life, to become more self-sufficient and participate more fully in the lives of their children, family members and community, through learning to read.”
Currently, LIFT serves about 3,000 people with classes for adult basic literacy, high school equivalency and ELA.
“Our goal is to have at least 10,000 people, three times what we are serving now, by the end of 2019,” Hembry said. “We have a scale-able model we feel really works. We’re just now at the point where we can take our adult basic literacy education out of this office, and our high school equivalency, and take it somewhere and deploy it.”
Hembry said there is plenty of information, as well as the appropriate forms, on volunteering, partnerships and donations at lift-texas.org.
“And for anybody who wants to, we love to have tours and observations by request,” she added.