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Tikkun olam: Gail Birin

Gail Birin

No matter where she’s lived, Gail Birin says being tapped into the Jewish community has always been an essential part of her life.

“I feel I’m just continuing my life’s work, the work I grew up with and the culture I grew up with,” says Birin. “The ones who are very involved are making a commitment to the community.”

“And if we didn’t do this, what would the future be for the younger generation,” she asks, rhetorically.   

Birin was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, which she describes as “a cultural center for Judaism.” She moved to the United States with her husband, Gerald, more than 31 years ago and they always had their eyes on Arizona, Birin explains. The couple relocated to Tucson about 14 years ago.

She’s a registered nurse by profession, who got her penchant for community service as a volunteer at her daughter’s elementary school in Bedford, New Hampshire.

Although she earned her reciprocity for nursing in Arizona, Birin chose to focus her time and energy on volunteering when she moved to the Old Pueblo.

She spent nine years as a volunteer reading coach at Donaldson Elementary School through “Reading Seed,” a Pima County tutoring program for children in kindergarten through third grade who are reading below grade level.

When the countywide program decided to start charging local schools for the service, Donaldson Elementary couldn’t afford to pay for the program and Birin was left without a volunteer position, she explains.

About six months later, Birin leapt at the opportunity to join the Homer Davis Project, a community partnership launched by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and Homer Davis Elementary School, which provides after-school homework help and free reading tutoring.

The Federation also provides 80 students at Homer Davis Elementary with nutritional food packages every weekend and during holiday breaks.

“This program is truly remarkable,” says Birin. “The reading specialists are unbelievable. They’re great at their positions and they’re so encouraging to the children and students — and the students love being there.”

Birin spends two days a week as a reading tutor, helping children access the personalized computer-based lessons, and leads one-on-one reading sessions, she says.

“I just feel so good, and so happy these kids have worked with me and have made progress,” she says. “It’s just very rewarding work. In fact, I bounce out of there twice a week.”

On Aug. 30, the Flowing Wells School District named Birin the volunteer of the year at Homer Davis Elementary. “I like to give gifts and not receive them, but I have a huge smile upon my face,” Birin says, adding she was elated to call the AJP with the news.

She also serves on the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona grants committee, which distributes millions of dollars to local and global organizations annually. For the last six years, Birin says, making educated decisions about how to finance various community projects has been a laborious but enjoyable process.

“Charity is a huge part of the Jewish culture and being part of the mission,” says Birin, and determining “where charitable funds go into is a great feeling.”

Although her dance card is pretty full, she says she would like to become further involved with the Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center.

About two years ago, she and her husband founded the Birin Family Educational Outreach Program, a proceeds commitment that pays to bus students throughout Southern Arizona to the museum in order to learn about the role Jews play in the local community, race relations, and the impact of the Holocaust.

The program focuses on educating middle school children, but the center also hosts student tours for high school and college students, says Lisa Schachter-Brooks, JHM director of operations.

Because of the Birins’ generous gift, Schachter-Brooks says, 52 tour groups comprised of 1,700 students visited the center last year alone. The museum hopes to host 60 tour groups and about 2,300 students this year, she says.

“They really helped to accelerate the growth of the program,” says Schachter-Brooks.

During a tour of the Jewish Museum Berlin in 2009, Birin and her husband had noticed there were children in almost every section of the museum, she says, prompting them to ask a docent why. At the time, the city was encouraging students from every grade level to visit the museum to learn about World War II, anti-Semitism, and the Jewish community, Birin explains. Helping the local Jewish museum implement a similar educational outreach has been an incredible experience, she says.

“We feel very proud of it,” says Birin. “Working with children is a very strong commitment with me, and my husband feels very strongly about it too.”