Shalom Park Freedom School: A Decade of Community Growth and Tikkun Olam

By Amy Lefkof

March 2024

After 12 summers, the Shalom Park Freedom School (SPFS) project has come to an end.

Shalom Park Freedom School (SPFS) expanded our sense of community and helped Charlotte’s Jewish Community engage in acts of tikkun olam. When SPFS opened its doors in the summer of 2011, it was the first Jewish-sponsored Freedom School in the nation. It was the brainchild of Judy Schindler, Rabbi Emerita of Temple Beth El, following her guest reading experience at a neighboring church’s Freedom School site.

Between 50 and 80 students from Sterling Elementary and Huntingtowne Farms Elementary, two schools in year-round partnerships with Temple Beth El and Temple Israel, came each summer to Shalom Park to participate in a six-week literacy-based Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom School. Freedom School’s goal is to prevent summer reading loss, the foremost contributor to the achievement gap for low-income children. The program helped 80% of the campers (called scholars) maintain or gain reading ability by the end of the summer program.

SPFS, a lay-driven initiative, was a collaboration of eight agencies at Shalom Park: Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, Foundation of Shalom Park, Temple Israel, Temple Beth El, Sandra and Leon Levine Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Services of Greater Charlotte, Charlotte Jewish Preschool, and Charlotte Jewish Day School.

Each partner agency helped support the program financially and/ or by providing space, meals, cleaning services, programs, and/or constituent donations of snacks, supplies, and volunteer hours.

“The outpouring of financial and volunteer support for SPFS, our community’s collective commitment to putting our Jewish values into action, was truly inspiring,” explained Lisa Garfinkle, a Temple Beth El member, who co-chaired the program for several years. Members of the Shalom Park community formed an impressive, multi-year donor base to fund the program, with the help of grants from Federation and Temple Beth El’s social action fund, and donations from other partner agencies.

Over the years, many from the Charlotte Jewish community touched and were touched by the program. Community members read their favorite children’s story during morning Harambee (Swahili for “all pull together”). Teen Board members became sensitive to the plight of low-income children as they assisted the scholars. Dedicated volunteers served on the steering committee, where they worked behind the scenes organizing family dinner nights, scheduling guest readers, collecting snacks from local stores, setting up classrooms, scheduling enrichment activities, hosting movie fundraiser nights, and planning end-of-summer performances.

Although space does not permit a complete listing of all those who led enrichment activities over the years, here is a sampling of the enrichment activities that defined SPFS: Artist Florence Jaffa, assisted by Linda Levy, demonstrated how to make handmade linocut greeting cards; Donna Emerson taught the art of creating paper mâché masks; Tammy Seigel’s yoga class challenged scholars to stand on one leg during tree pose; scholars fashioned oneof-a-kind tie dye t-shirts under Betsy Rosen’s guidance; Susan Jacobs lent her culinary skills to a cooking class; Lynn Jacobson, assisted by Leah Blumenthal, taught beading; Dr. Michael Rotberg explained how our eyes and brain work when it comes to optical illusions (before distributing eyeball superballs); Barb Ziegler led the Holocaust Butterfly Project; Opera Express came to Gorelick Hall where the OASIS group and Camp Mindy campers joined the scholars to watch productions. Debby Block brought stories to life in the library. Nancy Bernstein brought Hugo the Hornet and the Book Bus to SPFS. And the Levine JCC provided on-site swim lessons.

Jered Mond of Izzy’s Catering was an integral member of the team, providing warm meals to the scholars for ten summers. “Jered created lasting relationships with scholars over those years. We can’t thank him enough for all of his help in making our site a warm and inviting place,” said Annie Lord, a member of Temple Beth El, who, along with Margaret Musa, a member of Temple Israel, co-chaired SPFS for the last four years.

The sustainability of such a project depends on the willingness of new volunteers to take over at the helm, and the growth of other summer programs at Shalom Park over the years made sharing the Park’s amenities and resources harder.

In addition, the summer cost per scholar rose from $1,200 in 2011 to $2,000 in 2023. As a result, last summer’s Freedom School was the last at Shalom Park.

In a letter dated Dec. 19, 2023, the Executive Team at Shalom Park, composed of the eight agencies, explained, “[A] fter much exploration, it became evident that there has been a shift in the priorities of our lay leadership and volunteer community in recent years.” And so, after 12 years and benefitting almost 1,000 scholars, a decision was made “to discontinue hosting the Shalom Park Freedom School program.”

Rabbi Schindler reflected on the transformative and fun summer educational experience that SPFS offered to hundreds of kids in the Charlotte community: “All of us can be proud of the equity we worked to create, one scholar at a time. We helped each child to believe and internalize the Freedom School song we all sang each morning, that there is something inside each one of them that is indeed ‘so strong.’”

SPFS operated in partnership with Freedom School Partners (FSP), which still runs over 10 Freedom School sites throughout Charlotte. FSP recruits and trains site coordinators and college students who serve as classroom teachers. Anyone interested in continuing to support Freedom School Partners should visit their website at Thanks are extended to everyone who helped Shalom Park play a small part in repairing the world.



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