Volume 3, Number 187
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Tuesday-Wednesday, September 29-30, 2009

San Diego Jewish Profiles

Marcia Tatz Wollner: Jewish community's multi-tasker

By Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—Although perhaps best known in her current position as director of school services and programs for the Agency for Jewish Education, Marcia Tatz Wollner has worked in a variety of capacities throughout her life to impart to fellow Jews an understanding of the richness that a fully involved Jewish life can bring.

Wollner’s family represents four generations of committed involvement with the Jewish community: her grandfather David Tatz was one of the founders of B’nai Zion, Chicago’s first Conservative shul; her father Irving was a president of that congregation; Marcia met her husband, computer scientist David Wollner, through the Israeli dancing that he teaches; and now their teenage children—Adina, Margalit and Bentzion—are active in Jewish activities. 

In fact the oldest, Adina, 18,after graduating high school, made aliyah, so that she could serve in the Israel Defense Forces with her age cohort and share their experiences before entering a university program.  She is currently in an ulpan on Kibbutz Degania, Israel’s first kibbutz.

For Marcia Tatz Wollner, the United Synagogue Youth “was my life” during her teenage years. “I was our chapter president, I was our regional president, I was national convention chairman, and I was the first girl to run for International President.”

One of the highlights of that career was a field trip to Washington D.C. where she and other regional chapter representatives stood silent vigil outside the Soviet Embassy in an effort to draw attention to the plight of Soviet Jewish refuseniks.

Wollner recalls drawing a shift in the early morning hours, and standing across from the embassy, not saying a word.   “We took it very seriously,” she said.

Another highlight was a USY trip to Israel occurring between her sophomore and junior year of high school.  Besides seeding a lifelong relationship between her family and the Jewish state, the trip prompted Wollner never to eat chicken again.

“You see them in the souks hanging, and it looked inhumane,” she recalled during an interview at her home in the University City area of San Diego.  “I started reading more about vegetarianism, reading about how Rav (Abraham) Kook (the chief Ashkenazic rabbi in Palestine during the British mandate)  had been a vegetarian, learning the basis of the idea that before the time of Noah people were vegetarians, and it made a lot of sense to me.”

“But,” she added, “I eat fish.  I am not a vegan.”  Her husband and children  do eat other foods, however, in their kosher home.

As a high school student, Wollner went to a national USY convention believing she would be elected unopposed as international president, however, that was a time when women still were coming into their own in the Conservative movement.  Opponents whispered such questions as “shouldn’t our leader be someone who can get an aliyah at any synagogue? Shouldn’t the USY president be someone who others will accept to lead the Birkat Ha-Mazon (blessing after the meal).”

Support for her candidacy eroded and she was defeated for the coveted position of international president. But Wollner, who subsequently was elected to chair USY’s international convention, had paved the way.  The year after she was defeated for president, another Chicago teenager, Pauline Okunieff, broke the glass ceiling and became the first female international president of USY.

Although Wollner was disappointed by her defeat, it didn’t lessen her involvement in the Jewish community—far from it.  As a freshman in 1975 at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she immediately became involved with Hillel, her "home away from home," while taking a double major in elementary education and secondary education-Hebrew.

She traveled to Israel again in her junior year, spending eight weeks in an ulpan program at Hebrew University.  She lived with a group of students in apartments, going out often to eat.  “You got a sense of being part of the country, being able to go out on your own," she said. We were in school to study, but we had this freedom of being part of the country.”

Earning her two bachelor’s degrees in 1979, she took a job in Omaha, Nebraska, teaching Judaic studies at the city’s community Jewish day school. Another recruit to the faculty was Rabbi Rafael Goldstein, who much later in their lives would renew acquaintances when he served as San Diego’s community chaplain.

Besides from her day school duties, Wollner returned to her roots by becoming the USY advisor at a Conservative congregation in Omaha. Additionally, she taught on Sundays at a Reform congregation, and  in the summer served as camp director for the Jewish Community Center. “It was a great first job,” she recalled.  “It gave me a sense of community, and of community boards, which included the rabbis from the different shuls who came together and made a budget.”

After two years, she decided it was time to take master's degrees—double majoring again.  She got herself a master’s in social work from the University of Maryland, and a master’s in Jewish history from Baltimore Hebrew College, today a university.  Such a schedule would keep many people busy enough, but Wollner—who is an exemplar of the word “multi-tasker” —also did an internship through the school of social work with the Jewish College Activities Board (JCAB) in Washington D.C.

The internship led to a “half-time” job as a program director with the JCAB, working with Jewish students in colleges without Hillels in the northern Virginia, Washington D.C. and southern Maryland areas.   Her other “half-time” job was as an assistant Hillel director at American University.   As is often the case with non-profit agencies, these jobs were “half-time” only in pay; they often required her to put in far more than half-time hours.  In addition, Wollner served as the lay Jewish chaplain at George Mason University.

Debbie Kempinski, who today serves as director of the women’s division of United Jewish Federation, was one of the students who frequented the Hillel at American University while Wollner was the assistant director.

Eventually, the rabbi who had been serving as Hillel director accepted a pulpit position and Wollner applied for the job as director.  Another career disappointment.  There was a debate over whether the Hillel director should be another rabbi or a lay person.  Those favoring a rabbi for the position won the debate.  Wollner decided to move to another Hillel venue, becoming assistant director at the University of Southern California, where Rabbi Laura Geller –only the third woman to be ordained as a rabbi—served as director.

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JUDAICA—Objects in curio cabinet reflect Marcia Tatz Wollner's life-long sevice to the Jewish community.

One of Wollner’s favorite Hillel programs at USC enabled parents to arrange for a fee of $18 to have a birthday cake delivered by Hillel to the dormitory room of a student.  “I delivered a lot of cakes,” Marcia said with a smile, “and even if someone never came to Hillel, through this program they knew that, one, their parents missed them and, two, the Jewish community was there for them.”

USC was also the place where Wollner would meet her future husband, David, as a result of another Hillel activity– an all night Israeli dance marathon. David Wollner had led a segment of the marathon in previous years, and as coordinator of that current year's marathon, Marcia struck up a telephone acquaintance with David. That didn’t blossom into a romance until much later, because by the time of the dance, Marcia was running a 100 degree fever and was exhausted. She barely spoke to him.  But the following year, things went better and they started dating—much to David’s surprise.

He asked her for a date on the weekend following Purim.  Besides having to run Hillel Purim activities, Marcia also had to fly to Hillel headquarters in Washington for a conference, which would get her back to Los Angeles later in the week. Afraid she might be exhausted, she told David, “I’ll call you.”

Clearly a brush-off, or so David thought. But she did call him, and they had lunch together in Los Angeles.

During their courtship, the Wollners learned that they both were descended from a founder of a synagogue.  One of David's direct ancestors had founded a synagogue in Demapolis, Alabama.  

The Wollners were engaged in 1988, and Marcia moved down to San Diego, without a job, prior to their 1989 marriage.  She found work as a substitute teacher at the Chabad school and then in 1989 she started a three-year job at the United Jewish Federation.  At UJF, she had a variety of portfolios, including staff to the Women’s Business Professional Club, working on Super Sunday and on partnership programs with Kiryat Malachi (which at the time was San Diego UJF’s partnership city in Israel), and  assisting Leslye Winkelman Lyons with the Jewish Community Relations Commission.

The Wollners affiliated with Congregation Beth El, where they became enamored of Arthur Zuckerman, an educator who was studying for the rabbinate.  After “Zucky” got smicha, he was hired as the rabbi as Congregation Beth Am in Carmel Valley and the Wollners followed him.  Eventually, Zuckerman moved to Oregon and was succeeded by a man with whom David Wollner had been friends at UCSD as  a fellow Israeli dance instructor: David Kornberg, who in the interim had been ordained as a rabbi.   The Wollners are still members of Beth Am, but Marcia has been going to Beth El—closer to her University City home—every morning to say kaddish for her father who died last December.

In 1992, pregnant with Margalit, her second child, she switched over to the Agency for Jewish Education, taking a job that is both “similar and different” from the one that she does today.  “It’s the same title but some of the programs we do are different,” she explained.  She took a break from the job for a brief period to work for Southern California Hadassah,  with her service including duties as leader of a mission to Israel.

In her AJE position, which because of the economic situation, recently was cut to 75-percent time, Wollner works in education “primarily with congregational and early childhood directors,” organizes segments of AJE’s annual Yom Limmud—or Day of Learning, and coordinates and sometimes leads the March of the Living in which teens visit the concentration camps in Poland and then go on to Israel.  Over the years, she has enjoyed other tasks, including writing a column for the now defunct San Diego Jewish Press-Heritageon Jewish activities in which families could engage.

Never one to take it easy, Wollner supplements her AJE income by working as the manager of the Waters of Eden project to build a community mikvah.  {Link}.  She also teaches a class about the Holocaust to students at Congregation Beth Israel’s congregational school. 

As a volunteer, Wollner serves on the board of Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School, which all three of her children attended, and was recently the recipient of a special honor from that Orthodox school for her service to the Jewish community.   She also remains close to Hillel, and in fact, donated a Torah from her grandfather’s synagogue (which in the interim had been merged with another) to the UCSD Hillel.

San Diego's regional Hillel director, Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, is a family friend, and as the Hillel rabbi is on sabbatical in Israel, Wollner’s daughter Adina arranged to spend Yom Kippur with her attending services at several Jerusalem-area synagogues.

Speaking of her children, Wollner said daughter Margalit was particularly imbued with the Orthodox school's ways and values, never passing a doorpost without kissing the mezuzah.  The entrepreneur of the family, Margalit and a friend fashion over-the-shoulder tote bags and sell them to earn money for college.  The son, Bentzion, meanwhile, is active in Young Judaea, a Hadassah offshoot, and likes to spend time at Chabad of University City, where he often meets friends he knew from his days at Hebrew Day School. He and Margalit now attend University City High School.

Her family obviously enjoys a rich Jewish life. I asked Wollner about her vision for the rest of the community.  She parried the question at first, telling me that other people are visionaries; whereas she is the one who can take an idea and figure out how to do it.

But after a while, she relented and told me what she believes is important.

“There are so many people who are out there … who want to feel some sort of belonging,” she said.  Yet, they hesitate about becoming involved in the Jewish community, so the task must be to “somehow open the door.”

She advocates offering people a wide potpourri of Jewish activities, so as to appeal to any interest that might lead to greater community involvement.  This idea will be what guides offerings at Yom Limmud, which will be held all day Sunday, January 31, at the Lawrence Family JCc.

“Say they are interested in meditation; how can we show that Judaism has a spiritual path for them and here there’s something for you. Or someone may be into history, Holocaust education, or bio-medical ethics.  Here’s something for you too.”

Her vision?  “I think it is trying to find what hook can work  … what can get them involved, makes them feel good and helps the community.”

Harrison is editor and publisher of San Diego Jewish World. Email: editor@sandiegojewishworld.com

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