Sara Lee helped transform day schools, Hebrew schools, and other Jewish institutions. Lee graduated cum laude from Radcliffe in 1955 and worked as a lay leader for Hadassah and the Heschel Day School. In 1977 she earned an MA in Jewish education from the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College and began teaching there, serving as the school’s director from 1980 to 2007. She made the school a leader in the field through research and experimentation in learning methods and her interfaith work as co-director of the Lilly Endowment Colloquium for Catholic and Jewish Educators. She also edited three books on Jewish education, A Congregation of Learners, Touching the Future: Mentoring and the Jewish Professional, and Communities of Learning: A Vision for the Jewish Future.
Sara Lee, a Jewish educator who combines charisma with caring and vision with realism, has been a central figure in the decades-long effort to improve Jewish education in North America.
Family and Education
Sara Lee was born on March 10, 1933, in Boston, Massachusetts. She was the oldest, and only female, among three children of her accountant father, Reuben Schwarz, and homemaker mother, Anna (Cohen) Schwarz. Their home was nominally Jewish, but Sara received only a minimal Jewish education as a child. She attended Radcliffe College, graduating cum laude in 1955, and, in 1954, married David A. Lee, a surgeon. They moved to Los Angeles in 1962 and had three children, Joseph (a television executive), Aviva Lee-Parritz (a physician), and Joshua (also a physician).
Lee credits her interest in Jewish education to four formative experiences: as a leader in Young Judaea, the Zionist Youth Movement, in her teen years; as a student in the Zionist Youth Leaders Institute in Israel in 1952–1953; as a teacher and educator in congregational life (during the 1960s and early 1970s); and as a volunteer lay leader in Hadassah, Congregation Ramat Zion, and the Heschel Day School in Northridge, California.
In 1974, David Lee died suddenly, and Sara, who still had three children to support, entered a new phase in her life. She enrolled in the relatively new Rhea Hirsch School of Education (RHSOE) at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), receiving a master of arts in Jewish education in 1977 and a master of science in education at the University of Southern California in 1979. Upon graduation from the Rhea Hirsch School she joined its faculty, becoming director of the school in 1980.
A Leader in Jewish Education
The Rhea Hirsch School of Education (RHSOE) soon achieved (and continues to maintain) a reputation for excellence in the preparation of leaders in Jewish education. The school’s course of study and pioneering work in clinical education set a standard for other institutions in the field. In the 1990s, as concerns about Jewish continuity came to the fore, a number of national commissions were convened, among them the North American Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity and the Commission on Jewish Education in North America. Lee represented the profession of Jewish education on these commissions and at many similar gatherings.
Lee’s influence in the field of Jewish education extends far beyond the hundreds of students she has mentored and leaders she has inspired. Believing that the work of the educational leader should extend beyond the classroom and school to the congregation and community, Lee broadened the Rhea Hirsch School’s mission to include experimentation and research on the transformation of core institutions of Jewish learning, such as the day school and the congregational school, and adult programming.
As an increasing number of foundations became (and continue to be) catalysts for the generation of new ideas and experimental efforts in Jewish education, Lee has been involved in many of these efforts, as either a consultant, reviewer, or grantee. In 1992 the RHSOE received a seven-year grant from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation for a range of interconnected projects, including change initiatives in congregational and day schools. Between 2008 and 2016, Lee served as the Director of the Mandel Fellowship for Rabbinic Leadership in Education.
In addition to initiatives that supported experimentation and change in Jewish Education, Lee did path-breaking work on a framework for inter-religious learning. A 1993-1995 grant from the Lilly Endowment led to the development of the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium for senior educators from Catholic and Jewish institutions in North America, co-directed by Lee and Dr. Mary Boys of Union Theological Seminary.
Throughout the decades, Lee gave keynote speeches and led workshops at numerous conferences and contributed a range of articles to a variety of publications. She also co-authored (with Mary Boys) Christians and Jews in Dialogue: Learning in the Presence of the Other (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2006).
Awards and Legacy
Lee’s work in the field of Jewish education has been widely recognized. She received the 1997 Samuel Rothberg Prize in Jewish Education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as a Doctor of Hebrew Letters, honoris causa, from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, in 1999. In 2005 she received the President’s Award for Distinguished Leadership of Jewish Education in the Diaspora, awarded by the President of the State of Israel and the Education Department of the Jewish Agency for Israel. In 2010, Hebrew Union College established the Sara. S. Lee Chair for an Emerging Scholar in Jewish Education, with funds raised by RHSOE alumni.
Lee retired from HUC-JIR in 2012, and moved to the Boston area, where she continues to work with congregations as a consultant and serves on the Board of the Hebrew College.
Lee, Sara. Interviews with author, Los Angeles, 1996.
updated by telephone on March 14, 2021.