Twenty eight years ago, when Dr. Anne Berkman decided to retire from academia and start teaching high schoolers at Yeshivat Frisch, university colleagues and friends alike cautioned her that she was taking a step down professionally. “But in reality, it wasn’t a step down, it was a step up,” says Dr. Berkman. “It was a step up.”
Dr. Berkman graduated from Russell Sage College and the University of Pennsylvania before completing her PhD at Columbia University. Her sons, Jonathan and Sacha, were small children at the time. She taught college in Philadelphia, then at Westchester State University in Pennsylvania, and then made her academic home at Pennsylvania’s East Stroudsburg University for 28 years. “I retired at 51, took a year off, decided I was too young to retire, and began to look into interesting teaching jobs near New York City,” she recounts. In 1995, she drove up to Frisch and saw the Hebrew lettering on the building. “I almost fell over,” she quips. She had no idea she was interviewing at a yeshiva high school.
And she hasn’t looked back. “When I first came to Frisch, I was amazed at the high quality of the students. They weren’t afraid to challenge their teacher and share their novel perspectives and ideas on the Odyssey, or any other texts. My first year here I had a 9th grade honors class, and it was by far full of the most intelligent, knowledgeable, intellectually curious students I had ever taught.” She remembers expressing doubt when a student in the class wanted to write an essay comparing Odysseus with Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. However, the student made such a compelling case for the literary parallels between the two protagonists–both far from home, meeting a surreal cast of characters–that Dr. Berkman retracted her skepticism.
“I said, ‘Sharon, I apologize; you go write that paper,” recalls Dr. Berkman. “And that paper was outstanding. It was original, thoughtful, extremely well-written. It was amazingly wonderful.”
Today, Dr. Berkman’s favorite novel to teach is Catcher in the Rye, and her favorite novel of all time is Jane Eyre. “My goal as a teacher is to help my students become the most incisive readers they can be, and the most articulate writers they can be,” she says.
Over nearly three decades, Frisch has changed locations, the student population has doubled, and generations of students have graduated. “In all these years, I never had a disappointing year at Frisch,” she says, though she has long considered retiring. “At first, I was only going to teach till 60, then 65, then 70,” she says. “But when I think about what I’d really like to do, what I’d really like to do is teach at Frisch.” She also enjoys traveling to visit her sons and grandsons. Jonathan lives in Portland, Oregon, and Sacha lives in Chicago with his wife Ruth and their children, Jasper and Benji. “I can tell you objectively that Jasper and Benji are the two best grandchildren in the whole United States, if not the world,” states Dr. Berkman.
This year, Dr. Berkman celebrated her 80th birthday at the yeshiva, complete with cupcakes. “I’ll tell you what was amazing on my birthday here: yes, kids I didn’t know wished me happy birthday, but kids I didn’t even know said, ‘Can I treat you to a coffee in The Den to celebrate?’ I was extremely moved.”
The warm environment, community of kindness, and the way the yeshiva values each individual is what she loves most about Frisch. “We have these wonderful kids, on the human level, and on an intellectual level, and it’s a combination you can’t beat,” says Dr. Berkman, who says she witnesses the students’ kindness to one another every day. In addition, Frisch colleagues have become close friends, and have been there for her in times of need. “When I came here,” she recounts, “both of my sons were in college and they called each other up and one of them said to the other, ‘Mom’s going to go to a whole new region, she doesn’t really know anyone close by. What will happen if she gets sick or something like that? The other one said, ‘Think about where she’s teaching. The school will take care of her.’ And sure enough, when I was sick as could be with covid, Lauren Burstein and Elana Lefkovitz rallied to the occasion. In truth, to this day, Elana Lefkovitz texts me every morning to check I’m okay, and if she doesn’t text me by 7:30 I text her to make sure she’s okay!”
“I loved my university position, but I truly adore working at Frisch. It is a wonderful place to teach and a great community to be part of.”