Sara Lee, a Jewish educator who combines charisma with caring and vision with realism, has become a central figure in the effort to ensure Jewish continuity. In recent years the American Jewish community has recognized both the critical need for and the difficult challenge of providing all Jews with an excellent, compelling Jewish 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 filmmaker), 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 at Hebrew Union College, 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.
Under her leadership the Rhea Hirsch School of Education has achieved a national reputation for the preparation of leaders in Jewish education. The school’s course of study and pioneering work in clinical education have set a standard for other institutions in the field. 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, as well as advocacy for the enhancement of education in Jewish life. Lee has also been a major voice in the increasingly active dialogue among academics and practitioners of religious education of many faith traditions, serving as a board member of the Religious Education Association and codirector of the Lilly Endowment Colloquium for Catholic and Jewish Educators.
Lee’s influence in the field of Jewish education extends far beyond the hundreds of students she has nurtured and leaders she has inspired. In recent years, as concerns about Jewish continuity have come to the fore, a number of national commissions have been convened, among them the North American Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity and the Commission on Jewish Education in North America. Lee has represented the profession of Jewish education on these commissions and at many similar gatherings.
As an increasing number of foundations have become 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.
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. The field of Jewish education owes much to Sara Lee for her vision, skill, and commitment.
Lee, Sara. Interviews with author, Los Angeles, 1996.
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Aron, Isa. "Sara Lee." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 19, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lee-sara>.