Phyllis Berman

Profile Updated: November 15, 2009
Residing In: Philadelphia, PA USA
Spouse/Partner: Arthur Waskow
Occupation: Founder and Executive Director of Adult ESOL Progr
Children/Grandchildren: Children:Joshua Simon Sher,Morissa Nili Sher;Stepchildren:David Franklin Waskow, Shoshana Elkin Waskow;Children-in-law:Jason More…Wiener (Morissa), Ketura Persillin (David), Michael Slater (Shoshana); Grandchildren: Yonit Hannah Elkin Slater (May 2000), Elior Mayan Persellin Waskow (October 2000), Shifra Persellin Waskow (November 2002), Kalman Gabriel Elkin Slater (May 2004), Yaela Pnina Wiser (September 2009)
Yes! Attending Reunion
How I've spent the last 50 years:

Graduated with a BA in English literature and philosophy from the University of Wisconsin in Madison (great experience!). After several unsatisfying jobs in which I had to work in the summertime (horrors!), I decided my mother was probably right, and I should become a school teacher and have summertimes for swimming, dreaming, and walking.

I got an MAT in English at City College and started teaching English first at Central Commercial High School, and then ESOL at Louis D. Brandeis High School in NYC. During the summer between my two years at Brandeis, I attended an intensive NDEA funded program at Columbia's Teachers College that was specifically for teachers and administrators working with non-English speaking students. That was one of the finest educational experiences I've had -- relevant to my work -- and I enrolled in the Ed.M program at TC with 8 credits granted from the summer institute.

Once my children were born, I began teaching ESOL first in adult night schools and then in colleges (Union College in Elizabeth, NJ; Borough of Manhattan Community College; and Bronx Community College) and realized that I loved working with non-English speaking adults who are courageous and highly motivated to learn.

During this time, I joined a professional organization (no longer in existence) of adult basic education teachers called Language Innovations (LINC), Inc. We met monthly to talk about our classroom experiences and to share (and then publish) materials we were making for our ESOL and Basic Education students. Through LINC, we did some workshops at the annual international conference of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and, because of a terrific workshop on small group work in the classroom, were invited to submit a proposal to the NYS Education Department (NY_SED) to provide training to ESOL and BE teachers throughout the state.

When, in 1979, Congress voted to allow competitive bidding for adult basic education funds from public schools and BOCES to community based organizations (CBOs), libraries, and colleges, NY-SED funded LINC (with $30,000.) to begin an intensive ESOL program for newly-arrived documented immigrant and refugee adults from around the world, living in the five boroughs of NYC. Shortly afterwards, the school received an additional $70,000. from the NYS Department of Social Services for Refugees. The school, now in its 31st year, was off and running, in space first contributed and now rented from the Riverside Church on the upper west side of Manhattan.

Since then, the school has grown tremendously with federal, state, and city funds (and occasionally foundation and individual grants). Our classes run Mondays-Fridays 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. for 30-day cycles with a full-time staff of 18. We also run a part-time evening/Saturday ESOL program for the New York Public Library (NYPL) in 24 branches in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island with a part-time staff of about 30 additional teachers.

After a 12-year marriage to Fred Sher that began in 1966 and produced two wonderful children, I married a second time to Arthur Waskow in 1986 and subsequently moved to Philadelphia to live with him in 1987 after my son Josh began college. I've been commuting (with at least 100 others) each day from Philadelphia to work in NYC since then.

For about 12 summers, I directed the summer program at Elat Chayyim, the Jewish Renewal retreat center originally in Accord, New York and now as part of Isabella Freedman retreat center in Falls Village, CT. The Jewish Renewal world has been a spiritual home for Arthur and me for more than 25 years, and I was ordained a rabbi by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal in 2004, about ten years after Arthur's ordination. Both of us have been active in interfaith work, particularly after September 11, 2001 when we began annual retreats through our organization the Tent of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Arthur and I have co-authored several books: Tales of Tikkun (Stories to Heal a Broken World) and A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven (the Jewish Life Cycle as a Spiritual Path). Together and separately we have officiated at weddings (gay and straight), funerals, birth covenanting rituals, coming-of-age rituals, and other life cycle transformations.

For at least ten years, I have been a serious meditator (in the Jewish, Vipassana, and Dzogchen traditions) as a student primarily of Rabbi David and Shoshana Cooper and have led contemplative chanting services as a student of Rabbi Shefa Gold. I've also served as a spiritual director for a number of people as a student of Rabbi Avruhm Addison and Dr. Barbara Breitman.

I'm now enrolled in a two-year Contemplative Dialogue training program which I was introduced to at a wonderful interfaith retreat at Gethsemani near Louisville, KY last fall.

My favorite Erasmus memories:

I remember being in home-room with Bobby Fischer as a sophomore. I have fond memories of the annual Erasmus Sing which began, I believe, during my freshman year at the Annex.

What would most surprise friends who haven't seen me since Erasmus:

When I was 20, in my junior year of college, my hair began to fall out. By the time I returned for my senior year, I barely had a hair left anyplace on my body. Doctors called it "alopecia universalis" (that means total loss of hair) and didn't know what caused it or how to treat it. For at least 20 years I covered my head with a wig and felt terrible about myself. Then, in my late 30s, I had a transformative experience at a two-weekend EST (Earhart Seminar Training) intensive, and, as a result, began to talk out loud about the hair loss instead of trying (unsuccessfully!) to hide it. For my 40th birthday, I "came out", inviting friends to a celebration to put away my wig. These last 27 years, without wig, without hair, have been wonderful. People often choose to talk with me about what's hidden in them because they feel that I have exposed what's hidden in me. This "uncovering" has made all the difference in my life.

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