Enriqueta “Neneng” Fassler is a 71-year-old dynamo who earned her third college degree in May. She was the oldest graduate of Pima Community College, earning her post-graduate certificate — with honors — as a paralegal. Fassler holds two college degrees in education: one in physical education from her native Philippines and one in music from the University of Arizona.
Going to school was always something she looked forward to, but in the past, “I preferred to just be quiet and hide my light under a bushel. At this point in my life,” she says, “I believe that people young and old can benefit if I let my light shine for the sake of justice. I also want to inspire others to keep learning. I’ve had a passion for learning since I was a little girl. My father was like that too.”
Fassler’s story began in Mahinog, Camiguin Island, Philippines. As a young woman she taught high school on her island for eight years. When President Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in 1972, “I experienced the suppression of freedom,” says Fassler. “Teachers couldn’t speak against the government. My students joined the civil war as rebels or in pro-government forces. Many died.” She immigrated to the United States in 1980.
Not only did Fassler change countries, she changed religions when she married Larry Fassler, who was Jewish. “I was raised by devout Catholic parents. I was very active in my church, was a choir leader, organist and a Bible teacher,” she says. “My husband didn’t want me to convert. But I believed in the saying, ‘A family that prays together stays together.’” Fassler approached Cantor Maurice Falkow at Congregation Anshei Israel. Her husband had become a Bar Mitzvah when the synagogue was located on 6th Street, and his parents, Charles and Julia Fassler, were long-time members.
Falkow, along with Rabbi Arthur Oleisky, guided her through the conversion process. Phyllis Broad was her Hebrew teacher and is still a good friend, says Fassler. “The finale was the mikvah. It was not easy to convert. It was a very moving experience, but it was difficult saying goodbye to my first religion that I was nurtured in and practiced for years.” She also became an adult Bat Mitzvah in 2002. Her family has belonged to Anshei Israel since 1982. Fassler sings in their choir, which, she says, “is a way of giving back to those folks who welcomed and inspired me when I was a new member of the congregation.”
“My two daughters, Charlene and Analynn, from an early age have been my teachers. They came home from Anshei Israel preschool and kindergarten singing Hebrew songs. We lit Shabbat candles. They went to Tucson Hebrew Academy from first through eighth grades. I was eventually hired there as a music teacher for two years.”
Fassler’s concern for social action influenced her second career as an activities director in nursing homes and assisted living facilities for 10 years, where she encountered many Alzheimer’s patients. “Gradually I became their strong advocate and defender of their needs,” notes Fassler, which is one reason why she studied to be a paralegal. “It’s not too late to gain empowerment and fight elder abuse, also to exercise my brain.” Since 2000, she has volunteered a few hours a week at the Alzheimer’s Association and she also participates in the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
As for hobbies in her spare time, joining the Tucson Women’s Chorus and learning world folk songs in an a cappella style “is also a beautiful way of understanding humanity, [realizing] that we all belong to each other,” she says. And Fassler, now a widow, has kept ties to her Filipino heritage as a regular contributor to the Filipino-American Journal, based in Phoenix, reporting on Filipino community events in Tucson. She’s also the editor of the Filipino-American Club website, teaches Filipino folk dancing and performs with a group at the annual Tucson Meet Yourself festival every fall.
Then there’s her Jewish cultural life. “My wish is to visit Israel, the home of the Jewish people,” says Fassler. “But that will be another agenda in the future.” Meanwhile, her two cultures merged when she led a drive to send money for chicks and feed to a Filipino family whose chicken farm was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in November. Fassler also sponsored a word in Anshei Israel’s new Torah in memory of the 5,200 people who died in the typhoon.
Acknowledging that aging leads to aches and pains, losing loved ones and often unexpected expenses, Fassler tries to maintain an optimistic attitude. “It can be hard but you just have to control your mind and not let your mind control you,” she says. “There is so much to do but less time. As for me, when turbulence shakes my confidence, I remember Abraham, my hero, obedient to his G-d and living in faith and humility. Living in gratitude, and counting our daily blessings, reminding me of the beautiful Shehecheyanu (blessing of praise).”