The following is a part of our ongoing series, Meet the Mentor. This interview with Robyn Altman, Mentor, Director of Community Engagement, and all-around friend to Hebrew Helpers, took place on a typical, sunny California day in February (pre-pandemic) when we sat down to dish about being a mentor, the voice of Hebrew Helpers, and life in general, without suspecting how much it would change for all of us in a few short weeks.
Interview by Laurie Gross
Q: Even though it is a really basic question, I always start with, how did you become a mentor?
A: The first, or the second time?
Q: “Huh?” I say quizzically. I take a sip of my tea and settle in to hear this tale.
A: I went to Hebrew school all the way through confirmation at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Bensalem. I saw Hebrew school as an opportunity for me to see my camp friends. My mom really encouraged me to continue learning into my high school years, and I’m thankful for it. It gave me skills I knew I could always use. In fact, I taught Hebrew school all through college, and I even stayed back one year in Philly after graduating and taught at Congregation Har Zion on the Main Line before moving to L.A.
Q: So when you moved out to L.A., you got in touch with Todd?
A: Not initially. I worked as a development assistant for a production company, but then they lost their contract with Warner Bros. I knew I’d be out of a job soon. At about the same time, I reconnected with Todd, who I knew from USY in Philly. Todd suggested I teach for Hebrew Helpers which was really in its infancy (in 2005). I took on one student. Then, life took over. I got married, had two kids, and I kind of fell off the radar. In 2014, Todd and I had a mutual friend who came into town and we all had lunch together. At the time, I had just returned to teaching, then at Temple Akiba in Culver City. Todd said to me, “Why aren’t you teaching with us?” So, this is when I really became a Hebrew Helpers mentor. At one time, I had as many as 7 students I’d see regularly in a week.
Q: Are you mentoring as many now?
A: Not as much as I was – I only have time for 2 to 3 students at a time now. As a mom, you know how it is. Typically the times people want to schedule are the times I would be with my own children, so it just kind of morphed into what I’m doing currently.
Q: What is that exactly? I know you’re the voice of Hebrew Helpers. I mean, when people call to inquire about it, they talk to you, right?
A: Yes, I answer the calls from people who are seeking information and I organize the newsletter among other things. I love what I’m doing for Hebrew Helpers now. Being a mentor and a parent, I can truly explain the process to people when they call. It’s also exciting, because we’re growing so rapidly; we are getting calls from Santa Cruz to the Netherlands! It is really fun to be a part of this growth.
Q: The Netherlands! I say in utter disbelief.
A: This family, in particular, is moving to D.C. and one of the synagogues there suggested Hebrew Helpers, so their mentor is Zooming with them until they move to the U.S. in the fall. We are getting these calls from faraway places and from families who are reconnecting with their Jewish heritage, and I’d say more than half of the parents who call are really looking for something more for their own children than they had.
Q: Would you say HH fulfills that wish for those parents who are searching for a different experience than they had?
A: Yes, we definitely are. What is even more interesting is we have many former students who seek out Jewish education after working with us. We give them this positive experience and a real connection to Judaism, and I know it encourages them to continue on with their learning afterwards.
Q: Being a HH parent, I concur with that. I always credit Todd Shotz for bringing Judaism back into our home. Speaking about different experiences, I love hearing about the unusual services mentors have participated in over the years. What stands out for you in your mind as some of the more unique ones?
A: I think the most beautiful service I ever officated was in Malibu at Zuma Beach. Then, there was one in Venice at this restaurant, Superba, with an entire wall of spices; that was pretty cool. When people call, I really emphasize the point you can have it anywhere. I tell them about the time I was supposed to lead a service at AJU, and at the last minute it got changed due to the Skirball Fire. We ended up holding it in a parking lot of a country club, and it was lovely. It really does come down to who is there and the spirituality of the service. It doesn’t matter in the end where the service is held, but rather it’s about the student, the learning, the people who are there and celebrating this milestone. I emphasize that to people when they call for the first time. I think it’s amazing to some of them to think they can really have the service anywhere and that it can be truly personalized to their family.
Q: In working with students, sometimes we make discoveries about ourselves. What is something you learned about yourself by being a mentor?
A: I honestly did not think I’d ever enjoy writing a D’var Torah. I have to admit now — I love it when you see a student’s face and it’s as if the light bulb goes on! It’s so cool to see this. For example, I had a student who was an amazing soccer player and she loved to bake too. When we first read her portion, she was struggling to find a way to connect with it. Part of the parashah dealt with a trumpet blasting. Then we started talking about how at soccer games the players respond to the whistle. She also realized that when she baked, she used the timer, so in essence we are still responding to sounds/signals. It was truly an “Aha” moment.
Q: Wow! That is incredible. I agree with you that personalizing the service to fit the student is such a special aspect of being a mentor. What do you think is the best part of being one?
A: I really love seeing students as they start to catch on and get more and more confident. It is incredibly fulfilling to be a part of their journey. It’s also inspiring to see students take ownership over their service. I also enjoy using parodies from the internet as a reward for students at the end of their session. I think they’re so funny. I admit it, I’m a sucker for all of them, but I think it shows students that Judaism is everywhere.
I laugh as the 613’s “A Hamilton Hanukkah” comes to mind. What a great way to reinforce the learning. I leave Robyn with, “I’m not throwing gelt in the pot” from this video playing in my head, and the idea that “Judaism is everywhere,” makes me smile.
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