The Unexpected Faces of Jewish Philadelphia


They comprise just a small sampling of the non-Jewish employees scattered throughout Jewish agencies across the Delaware Valley. But without them, there’s little question things wouldn’t run quite so smoothly.

Suzanne Teleha and Temple Sinai Rabbi Adam Wohlberg know each other so well they often finish each other’s sentences. Susan Robinson was committed to the cause of the Anti-Defamation League long before she started working there. Karen Alizzi always had a soft spot in her heart for the elderly, which has only grown through her years at the Abramson Center. Chris Farrell discovered her upbringing actually gave her a better appreciation of the educational goals first at Akiba, then Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. And if Keith Jenkins doesn’t know where the bodies are buried at the Gershman Y, he probably was at least there when they were removed.
What do these five people have in common? None of them are Jewish, yet all play essential roles within the Jewish organizations where they work. They comprise just a small sampling of the non-Jewish employees scattered throughout Jewish agencies across the Delaware Valley. But without them, there’s little question things wouldn’t run quite so smoothly.
Take Robinson, who has been the office manager at the ADL in Center City for 14 years. She describes herself as “support staff,” the person who will get the computer fixed when it crashes or makes sure there’s enough office supplies.
Her boss doesn’t quite agree. “Without Susan, the office wouldn’t run as well,” said ADL regional director Nancy Baron-Baer. “She is the person who does everything to make sure things run both from the standpoint of the machinery — the computers and copiers — to us.
“She makes sure guests feel welcome, that all the appointments are set up appropriately and that we have the right resources — always with a smile on her face.”
Having experienced some traumatic events in her life, which she prefers to keep private, that couldn’t have always been easy. But the Frankford native — who worked in Philadelphia before she, her then husband and their two young children moved to Bangor, Pa., then eventually returned to the area and began working at the ADL — feels a true commitment to their mission.
“The mission here is, everyone is equal,” said Robinson, who started out as a legal secretary in Center City, then worked for a firm headed by ADL board member Arnold Dalin in Bangor, which made the transition to ADL relatively seamless. “Everyone is entitled to justice and fair treatment. It’s nice to know there’s an organization like this.”
Working for a Jewish organization was the last thing on Suzanne Teleha’s mind when she sat down to meet with Rabbi Wohlberg almost nine years ago. A native of Cincinnati, whose previous work experience included managing a CVS in Rochester, N.Y., being a preschool and Montessori teacher in Delaware and working at the Upper Dublin Library — in between spending a year in Belgium — she needed a job when a friend suggested she contact the rabbi at Sinai.
They hit it off right away. “One of my friends said, ‘Our rabbi needs an assistant,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘You do know I’m Catholic?’ She said, ‘No, it’ll work.’ I came in for an interview with the executive director and the rabbi on a Friday. The rabbi called me a half-hour after I left and said, ‘Can you start on Monday?’ I’ve been here ever since. I honestly don’t know what made me take this job or even apply for it. Something just felt OK. In talking with the rabbi, I said, ‘I can do this. I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know why it will work, but I can do this.’ ”
She was right. Not only does Teleha handle the often delicate job of a being a rabbi’s assistant almost effortlessly — comforting congregants who’ve suffered a loss or balancing his demanding schedule, but she’s even learned the Hebrew font on the keyboard and can write the months in Hebrew as well.
Wohlberg had no idea what a treasure he was finding. “Until Suzanne became my assistant, I’d never had a non-Jewish assistant at my first congregation” — Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Ill. — “or here,” he revealed. “I recall knowing I wanted someone who’d become familiar with Jewish idioms, the cycle of the Jewish year, maybe learn a little bit of Hebrew. Suzanne seemed willing to learn.
“At this point, I don’t feel if I had hired a Jewish assistant, he or she would’ve been any more capable than Suzanne,” he continued. “She has a wonderful personality: very upbeat, kind and gracious. Certainly the face and attitude I’d want for someone who represents me in synagogue. I’ve been impressed by just how much of herself she has given to the synagogue and how much she cares about this congregation.”
On the other hand, most of the folks Keith Jenkins deals with at the Gershman Y probably don’t even know who he is. After all, it’s easy to take the janitor for granted, even someone who’s worked in the building 38 years.
The 58-year-old Jenkins wasn’t always a maintenance man. He started out in 1978 as a private bodybuilding instructor when the place on Broad and Pine streets was known as the Jewish Y’s and Centres of Philadelphia — back when it had a gym, basketball court and swimming pool.
But as he got older, he had to shift gears. “I was an instructor until maybe 1991,” said Jenkins, who then — as he still does now — worked a complete shift at the Y before heading to a second job — then at JFK Hospital in the Upper Northeast. “Then I came over to the maintenance department. They needed somebody for the floors — to strip, paint and buff them. But my whole thing here was mostly doing setups. I set up for all the meetings — we were always on the move, jumping from one thing to another. At one time, we had three shifts — morning, afternoon and night. I worked all three of them. And I always had to work the Jewish holidays.”
It wasn’t as if Jenkins had nothing going on in his life, either. Between all those shifts, he and his wife, Brenda, managed to find time to raise 12 children — 10 of whom are foster children — ranging in ages from 9 to 41. Even now, he and his business partner, Theresa Filder, run a day care center in West Philadelphia.
“I wasn’t too much of a hater of different religions,” said Jenkins, whose son, Keith Jr., once worked at the Y as a lifeguard. “I’m a Christian, but whatever a person chose, I always respected that. I never cared what people would think. I never thought I’d last this long there, but I got dug in. There were other jobs I could’ve gone to, but I chose to stay here; I liked the organization and the work.”
Plus, he learned some valuable lessons. “I hung around older guys because I wanted to learn a lot about life,” he explained.
Karen Alizzi has learned a great deal from seniors as well. The vice-president for residential care at the Abramson Center for Jewish Life discovered early in her career this was her passion. “I absolutely love having contact with the resident population and building those relationships,” said Alizzi, who graduated from Penn with an MSW and immediately went to work at Philadelphia Geriatric Center. “It’s exciting to be a part of that and the growth of the center.
“The culture here is focusing on caring for older adults. I have a real passion for that — when you’re able to work with people for a long time, you build those relationships and share in those memories.”
And religion has very little to do with it. “I definitely didn’t feel like an outsider,” said Alizzi. “I’m a Christian, but I participate in the residents’ services. I’ve definitely learned a lot over the years. I think I have a passion for caring, but I think we all share the same values and commitment here to working with older adults.”
Chris Farrell, who attended Catholic institutions straight through graduate school, also quickly came to realize she shared the same values and commitment as her Jewish counterparts at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. Now in her 15th year teaching the core group of classes — a combination of history and literature — in addition to serving as the dean of students, she says it’s been a mutually rewarding experience.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that was ethnically diverse,” said Farrell, whose Roxborough neighbors included Ukranians, Italians, New Zealanders and a Dutch man who would garden in wooden shoes. “Ethnically, I had a good appreciation of the importance of diversity. My family taught me a lot about understanding differences and being respectful of what each person brings to the table.”
After graduating from St. Joseph’s and getting her master’s in education from Cabrini, she taught at Merion Mercy Academy and ran a nursery school program on a corporate level before hearing about a part-time opening at what was then Akiba.
That would evolve into a full-time teaching job, followed by the administrative duties when she became head of the middle school and dean of students. Now, with the middle school expanding to over 175 students, she’ll give up teaching next year to focus on those administrative tasks.
There have been no regrets for the woman who also found time to raise two children, Shane, 28, and Laura, 25. “This has been a great experience,” she said. “The core curriculum is about ethnicity. We have a lot of opportunity to understand how we’re alike — and how we’re different. It’s been different than my Catholic school experience, but an experience I have embraced.”
That sense of inclusion is something that the other four allude to as well.
And that feeling of being part of a family would loom large for Suzanne Teleha when she received the phone call on July 28, 2012, telling her that her 20-year-old son, Peter, who was attending Hofstra, had been killed in an accident. There was no way she could have been prepared for the outpouring of love that followed. For starters, Rabbi Wohlberg dropped everything to come to Long Island and be with the family, even saying Kaddish over Peter.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, her Fort Washington house essentially turned into a “shiva” house. In addition to countless visitors trying to comfort her, her husband, Chris, and their 22-year-old daughter, Elizabeth — just as she might comfort them — the place was filled with baked goods, flowers and the usual assortment of condolences associated with a death in a Jewish family.
Even today, people are still reaching out. “When I look back, it’s almost as if eight-and-a-half years ago, someone was saying, ‘We know something so awful and terrible is going to happen to you that you’ll need two congregations to take care of you,’ ” said Teleha, who says she intends to learn Hebrew one of these days. “That’s what happened. St. Alphonsus (in Maple Glen) wrapped themselves around my family, and so did Temple Sinai. And I know I still have people here walk into the office and say, ‘I just wanted to say “Hi” and give you a hug.’
“That’s lovely.”
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