A Fuss 50 Years in the Making: Beth Israel Honors Educator Helene Schlafman at Their Annual Fundraiser

by Brie Stimson April 25, 2018


helene-selfie“She’s actually now teaching grandchildren from some of her early students so she’s taught the grandparents, the parents and now the children. So she’s teaching three generations of the same family, which is pretty remarkable,” Joanne Gimbel said of Beth Israel educator Helene Schlafman who is being honored at their annual fundraiser for 50 years of molding young minds.

Joanne andTammy Vener are good friends of Helene and co-chairs of the spring fundraiser “Camp Eemah” on Saturday, May 12.

Helene, known affectionately as “Eemah,” started working in Jewish education 60 years ago and spent all but 10 of them at Beth Israel. She was the congregation’s first female director of education and she helped with the development of the Beth Israel Day School and the Bill and Sid Rubin Preschool. She also started the first overnight Camp Beth Israel, UNI Camp, a day camp that brought together Jewish and African American children from the congregation, Beth Israel Babies (BIBS), the My Family and Me program and religious school weekend camps. Helene is perhaps best known for the Madrichim program (teen guides), which is now in its 48th year and serves as a model for similar programs across the country.

“Let me say that she has truly shaped the lives of our children and thousands of children,” Joanne continued. “I have a son and Tammy’s got a daughter. Tammy’s son’s a rabbi and my daughter’s in rabbinical school now, so those are direct links to the influence that she has had on all the children within the Beth Israel community and the impact that she’s had on their lives.”

The fundraiser will be like a trip back to camp. “We’re trying to replicate a camp Shabbat with song sessions and Havdalah, and it’s going to be a tribute to her. I’m cautious because there are lots of surprises that I don’t want her to know about, so if it goes in print then it sort of spills the beans!” Joanne laughed.

The evening will include al fresco dining and upscale camp cuisine, signature cocktails, Havdalah in the Glickman-Galinson Sanctuary, a tribute to Helene, a dessert reception and an after party with a DJ and dancing.

Both Joanne and Tammy’s children were taught by Helene; they’ve known her for more than 30 years and they both consider her a close, personal friend. “We were asked to be chair people of this event … because we have personal relationships with Helene Schlafman, and we wanted to make sure that we had an event that would represent her in a way that she would love to be represented and honored,” Joanne added.

With musical director Cara Freedman, Helene developed the children’s theater program Show BIS, which has won the prestigious Telly Award. “Her teaching method is through music and through just interesting ways that she has developed to teach children Hebrew and Jewish history, so she’s pretty accomplished,” Tammy said.

Helene began her career at Congregation Shaarey Tzedek in Michigan as a preschool and Hebrew teacher and youth advisor. She also taught in the Head Start program in San Francisco and the Soloman Schechter Day School in Chicago. During that time she met her husband, David, and together they settled in San Diego.

“We believe through Helene Schlafman, and all the programs that she’s developed, that’s a really huge piece of why there’s been this Jewish continuity here at Beth Israel, what she’s taught and the fact that people from 40 years ago wanted their kids to come and have her as a teacher and experience what they experienced,” Tammy observed.

A big part of the fundraiser will involve bringing back some of Helene’s former students to either speak at the tribute or send something in, and the co-chairs told me they have an entire subcommittee dedicated to finding people from Helene’s past. They have spent the better part of the last year tracking people down.

“Gathering the committee, though, was one of the easiest things Tammy and I’ve ever done because as soon as we told them what the event was for I don’t think anybody said no to me,” Joanne explained.

“Not one person,” Tammy added.

“They all wanted to do it, to be a part of it,” Joanne said. “And when Helene was told that we were doing this to honor her, she’s very humbled by it all and a little embarrassed probably that a fuss will be made over her, but it’s a fuss that’s 50 years in the making.”

The proceeds from the fundraiser will go toward youth programming that Helene helped develop over the years.

To find out more about the event, R.S.V.P. or share your thoughts and memories of Helene Schlafman, go to cbisd.org/programs/campeemah.


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