Berta Schwartz, a longtime Jewish educator at both Perelman Jewish Day School and Adath Jeshurun’s Hebrew school, was among four killed in a bus crash near Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel on Dec. 22.
The bus driver, Alexander Leibman, was taken into custody shortly after the accident. Haaretz has reported that police suspect the driver, had not sufficiently rested between trips and had driven for at least seven hours without taking a break. Israeli law requires a half-hour break every four hours.
Schwartz, 71, and her husband — wedding, bar mitzvah and special occasion photographer Baruch Schwartz — recently celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary and had returned to Israel, where they had both once lived, for the first time in nine years to celebrate the impending birth of their fifth grandchild.
Their son, Michael, who, along with his wife, is expecting the new grandchild, bought the tickets for the couple, said Chagit Nusbaum, the principal of Perelman’s Forman Center campus in Melrose Park, where Schwartz taught for 28 years before retiring in 2018.
Not just colleagues, Nusbaum and Schwartz were close friends since the day nearly 40 years ago when Nusbaum, new to the United States from Israel, heard a woman speaking Hebrew to her children in the Cheltenham public library. The two quickly struck up a friendship and discovered a coincidence: They both settled in Cheltenham from the Israeli city of Petah Tikvah and attended the same famously rigorous academic high school there, though Schwartz had been a few years ahead.
“She was bright — very bright — and creative, but very humble,” Nusbaum said. “She excelled in high school, in the math and science track. She was one of the only girls in that track many years ago.”
After high school, Schwartz (née Rosenblatt) served in the Israel Defense Forces where, said Perelman Head of School Judy Groner, “she became a medic, which is also one of the more challenging aspects of being in the Israeli army.”
When it came to learning, she was ever-curious, fearless and often ahead of her time, both Groner and Nusbaum noted.
“The whole idea of ‘making the mitzvah’ … before people were even talking about experiential learning, she was just doing it,” Groner said. “She was a teacher’s teacher because she was always learning. She was one of the first people to pilot the technological aspects of teaching Hebrew language. Even at that time, she was one of our more veteran teachers, but she jumped in as if she were a millennial. She had no fear of newness and was always thirsting for more knowledge, and the children really picked that up from her.”
Schwartz, who was born Berta Rosenblatt in Sighet, Romania, made aliyah with her family when she was 15, initially living on a kibbutz and ultimately settling in Petah Tikva.
She immigrated to Philadelphia in 1976 and enrolled in English classes at Temple University, where she met Baruch Schwartz, another student who’d come from Israel. Two years later, they’d marry.
Schwartz earned a teaching certificate from Gratz College, which led her to Perelman, then-Solomon Schechter, in 1990. Over 28 years, she taught Hebrew language and Jewish studies to first-, second- and third-graders and also taught classes for children with learning disabilities.
“She loved the school,” Nusbaum said. “One of her passions was talking about the school, and she loved to teach the parshah.”
Though by all accounts a formidable intellect, school was more than just academic for Schwartz. Friends say she had a rabbi’s gift for connecting with students and families and remembering the things that time erodes in most teachers.
“She knew her students so well that, over the years, parents of students who were long graduated would come back into the building and she’d immediately ask, by the name of the child, ‘How is he doing? He must be in college by now,’” Groner said. “She was intensely personal and, at the same time, a number of parents said how much she inspired their children’s interest in Hebrew language and Jewish studies.”
Schwartz also was a private person, Nusbaum said.
“She shied away from publicity or being in the limelight,” she said. “It is ironic and unfortunate that her death is so public.”
Berta Schwartz is survived by two daughters, Dana Rosner and Yael Schwartz Reichert; one son, Michael Schwartz; and four grandchildren, with a fifth expected in the coming days.
“What hurts the most is that in two weeks a grandchild is supposed to be born to our son, and she was looking forward to that so much,” Baruch Schwartz told The Times of Israel.
Baruch Schwartz was also on the bus but seated a row farther back. He was uninjured.