An Artistic Approach to Increasing Literacy

by Judy Pam-Bycel, JCL Program Manager, and Randi Dodick Fields, JCL Bay Area Director

JCL Tutor and artist, Joan Frenkel

Longtime Jewish Coalition for Literacy tutor, Joan Frenkel, loves inspiring curiosity in children.  “I was raised by a mother who imparted in me the importance of working to help other people, rather than just yourself.” Joan is a sculptor who spent almost 40 years as the Chief Scenic Artist for the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Ballet until retiring in 2010.  She’s been a volunteer reading tutor with the Jewish Coalition for Literacy (JCL) for the last 13 years - since the program started in the Bay Area.  Joan began by tutoring one child a week, but found she liked it so much, she wanted to do more.  Tutoring ‘’taps into my curiosity,” she says, and “gives me the opportunity to impart the love of reading in children…I end up learning more myself!” Today, Joan tutors at Starr King Elementary School in San Francisco, volunteering five days a week for two-and-a-half hours each day.  As part of her tutoring, she reads individually with each student in the kindergarten class as well as tutoring five 2nd grade students.  Most of her students, she says, are English Learner students, who have grown up without speaking English at home. “I was never a teacher,” she says, “but I can tell when a child is having trouble and I want to make their life happier.”

Joan has gotten so much out of her tutoring experience with the Jewish Coalition for Literacy that she started to think creatively about ways she could help even more. Being an artist, she came up with the idea of holding an art exhibition to benefit JCL, since she knows that the organization must raise all its own funds, which is especially difficult in a tough economy.  Joan was willing to donate proceeds from sales of her sculptural works to the cause, and she pitched the idea to a local Palo Alto art gallery.  The gallery liked the idea, as did several other local artists who also wanted to participate.

Joan and Artists

Participating Artistis, left to right: Ellen Brook, Joan Frenkel, Sandy Ostrau, and Karen Benioff Friedman. Not pictured: Ruth-Anne Siegel and Wo Schiffman.


As a result, six artists including Joan, who work in ceramics, textile arts, mixed media, printmaking and oils, participated in a 10-day benefit art exhibition for JCL at the Fibre Arts Design Studio in Palo Alto (JCL exhibition), which concluded on September 2.  More than 100 people attended the festive opening reception on August 23. Participating artists, along with the Gallery, donated a portion of all sales to the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, a joint project of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. Nine works sold during the exhibition, raising close to $4000 in support of JCL’s work to fight illiteracy among the most at-risk students in local public schools. The JCL serves about 1,000 predominately Latino, Asian and African American students annually, in 45 of the most under-resourced public elementary schools and after school programs in the Bay Area.   If you have just one hour a week, you can become a JCL tutor.  Register for one of JCL’s free  upcoming tutor training workshops at

The Jewish Coalition for Literacy is funded in part by a $95,000 JCF annual grant and is a joint project of Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.
Categories: Volunteering


September 19, 2012


The Federation