Orange County’s Jewish community is woven into the fabric of Miriam Van Raalte’s life. Born to Holocaust survivors, she moved with her family from Chicago to Anaheim at the age of six. She lived on the same street as the aunt and two uncles who sponsored them. Her early memories are of walking by Temple Beth Emet, then on Emily Street in Anaheim, and hearing singing that sounded like Haynu (Ein Keloheinu). She would proudly sing along … “haynu, haynu” all day long. Her mother would make Shabbat dinner complete with Kiddush and a T-bone steak, and afterwards she and her father played duets, she on the organ and he on his accordion. Her family joined the newly founded temple where she studied and developed a love of Hebrew from her first mentor – Nira Roston (z’l), her first grade teacher.
In 7th grade, the family moved to Fullerton. They attended a service at Temple Beth Tikvah, then meeting at a YMCA, to check it out. She was enthralled with the choir’s long blue robes with wide-flared sleeves and immediately decided to become part of it. She developed her first crush on a young student Rabbi – Rabbi Lewis. By her 8th grade year, Sam Silverstein (z’l), then Principal of the Religious School, noticed Miriam’s enthusiasm and asked if she would be interested in leading Junior Congregation. He also encouraged her to write her first sermon. She continued learning Hebrew and distinctly remembers when the album Yerushalayim Shel Zahav came out after the Six Day War in Israel. She learned every word and its meaning. By 9th grade she was a teacher’s aide and by 10th grade the Religious School Secretary. Although her parents were not particularly Zionists, Sam was. He imbued his love of Israel into the curriculum. Larry Genow (z’l) and Mark Geller (z’l) on the temple board, taught young Miriam the ins and outs of running a business, from writing checks to developing her leadership skills.
She graduated and went on to Cal State Fullerton where she took a liking to Religious Studies. She devoured classes in the Prophets, Catholicism and world religions. She joined Hillel which became her new home. Every Sunday she and her friends held Israeli dances in the gymnasium. On other nights, they found local haunts and danced there as well. She lived and breathed Judaism at the university until her graduation in 1975 with a double B.A. in Sociology and Religious Studies.
After college, she took a secular trip to Israel with Holy Land Tours. She remembers looking at the Mediterranean and thinking – wow – this is not just a biblical place – this is my place. She cried the entire way home. She taught Religious school at Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana and Israeli dancing in Irvine. Then a call came in. Would Miriam like to interview for the job of Religious School Director at Temple Bat Yahm. She remembers Rabbi Miller with his red beard asking the first question of her interview – “What is your view of G-d?” Not really having definitive beliefs, she quoted Buber and Heschel. That sealed the deal. She taught for seven years, worked with some incredible teachers and helped with the new building design. Following this, she served three years as Education Director at Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo. When a position came open in 1989 for a Director of Education at Temple Beth Tikvah, she followed her heart home.
This was during the tenure of Rabbi Haim Asa (who she lovingly referred to as Abba) and Temple President Mitch Goldberg. Her professional mentor at the time was Ron Wolfson, a proponent of using the power of relationships to build Jewish connections. He authored books including The Spirituality of Welcoming. Miriam fondly remembers his striking resemblance to Robin Williams and his matching sense of humor. He told her that he always assumed his Hebrew name was Sheket (Hebrew for “be quiet”) because that is how teachers always addressed him. But his teaching was impactful, and he even made the schlep from LA to Fullerton to observe her progress as she directed the Hebrew School.
Miriam’s happiest memories revolve around CAJE, an organization of Jewish educators and musicians. Here she established lifelong friendships with Debbie Friedman (z’l), Sam Glaser, Robbie Sherwin and others dedicated to teaching prayer through musical interpretation. The summer conferences involved 2000 people from around the world. This served as an annual shot in the arm to keep forging new ways of thinking about making Judaism relatable. At the convention, groups would perform song numbers to introduce the next year’s conference location. Miriam volunteered to go to Tijuana, Mexico to pick up 200 sombreros to prepare a song announcing the San Antonio venue for the following year. At the border, she was pulled aside by border patrol and drug sniffing dogs and asked what she intended to do with the so many sombreros. After assuring them they were not for resale, she was allowed to pass. The group happily wore their sombreros and sang Oy-Yoy-Yoy-Yoy while riding stick horses. Then it was back in the saddle again for another year of educating Jewish youth.
Her children Rachel and Eric grew up as temple brats under the watchful eye of Chaim and Elaine Asa, their surrogate grandparents. Both were involved in temple youth programs and traveled to Israel with the BJE T.I.E.S. program and Birthright. Miriam returned to Israel, this time as an adult with Rabbi Kenneth Milhander, who was serving as Temple Beth Tikvah’s rabbi at the time. Now she was able to see the country through the eyes of congregants, some who had waited a lifetime to visit. Her most lasting memory was of a grove of olive trees that she was told can live up to 2,000 years. Here was her living history.
Many community events took place during Miriam’s time at Temple Beth Tikvah. The grandest was the 2012 Yiddish Festival with workshops and events for 800 people. The temple also hosted two Debbie Friedman concerts with over 400 in attendance. She is proud to have been given the opportunity to lead services in the absence of the Rabbis, teach Hebrew trope to adult congregants wanting to read Torah, as well as conduct funerals and cook congregational Shabbat and holiday meals. Her fondest joy as a teacher was having three students each week from her class plan and prepare Shabbat dinner at her home, then attend services. Occasionally she still runs into students at various congregations, now with families of their own. One student, Ilan Wolf, told her he remembered hearing a story of the difference a teacher made by holding children on her lap to read. Her name was Morah Henya. “Miriam”, he said, “You are my Morah Henya.”
She is proud that Temple Beth Tikvah under Rabbi Nico’s current direction is participating with more communitywide functions such as partnering with Pathways of Hope for those experiencing homelessness, walks for Organ Donation and engaging Civic Leaders. Her present job as Communications Director has brought her even closer with congregants. She visits Senior Homes such as Emerald Court in Anaheim with her granddaughter Maya who loves to chat with them. Maya’s younger twin siblings love to do impromptu performances, dancing and hugging the residents. She visits hospitals and tries to emulate another of her mentors Rabbi Stephen Einstein of Congregation Bna’i Tzedek, who she says is a vision of compassion.
Upon retirement, she plans on pursuing her studies to become a Rabbi, a lifelong goal of hers and spending more time with her three grandchildren who are her pride and joy. When asked what impact she hopes she has shared with the Jewish community, Miriam notes that she has always strived to be a peacemaker. From of all of us in the Jewish community – we wish you Shalom in all your future journeys Miriam. Temple Beth Tikvah invites the entire Jewish community to grab your timbrels and dance with “Our Miriam” and all her children at a Gala Celebration on Saturday, February 23rd. For reservations please contact 714.871.3535 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I have had the privilege of working with Miriam as a colleague for many wonderful years. Together we attended conferences, planned community educational events, studied Torah, and discussed curriculum. Miriam is a loyal friend and colleague who weaves Jewish values into every area of her life. She is a true mensch and I know that she will continue to succeed with whatever new path she chooses to follow.”
“Miriam twice served as the President of the Jewish Educators’ Association of Orange County, and also as the treasurer. She is an Educator’s Educator and we are all her students. Her impact on our community is priceless and enduring.”—Robin Foonberg
“It was nearly thirty years ago, and I was new to the Orange County Jewish community. I was attending an evening event where I knew no one, and probably had that look of a lost lamb on my face. One person came up to me after reading my name tag and introduced herself. That person was Miriam Van Raalte. That moment best describes Miriam: a warm, friendly, and funny woman of valor who “welcomes the stranger” wherever she goes.” —Barry Koff
“I first met Miriam when she was a senior at Cal State, Fullerton. At the time, she was leading Hillel’s Israeli Dance Group, which I invited to enliven my congregation’s Oneg Shabbat. I was wowed then…and have remained so ever since.
Through the years, she and I have studied together, shared wonderful meetings, workshops and conferences together, and have enjoyed a meaningful friendship.
Miriam’s love of Judaism is infectious. She has inspired generations of students, teachers, fellow congregants, and members of the community. In so many ways, she has been the glue at Temple Beth Tikvah—helping to create a strong bond amongst the people.
She has been…and will remain…a great blessing to her family, her friends, her congregation, the Orange County Jewish Community, and the entire Jewish People.”
—Rabbi Stephen Einstein
“Miriam has been my professional colleague and dear friend ever since we met at an Orange County Jewish Educators Association meeting thirty-two years ago. We have shared many study sessions, local workshops, leadership opportunities and national CAJE conferences through the years. Miriam is a true mensch and has given much to our Jewish community. I wish her many blessings as she moves forward on her next adventure.” —Linda R. Kirsch, RJE, MSJE
ALAN KALAN is a contributing writer Jlife Magazine.