Dear Neighbors, when I was editing the Valley View Newsletter 10 years ago, I wrote a popular column titled "One of Our Neighbors." The articles told the stories of the everyday accomplishments and interests of our own people. As an effort to rekindle some enthusiasm for knowing about our neighbors, I am revitalizing the column for the Madison Valley Facebook page and the Madison Valley website. They should appear monthly or thereabouts. Please contact me if you know of someone who would agree to be featured! —Cathy Nunneley
Those of us who have lived in the neighborhood for many decades know Jerry Sussman as a community icon. He has worked as a social activist for most of his 89 years. Jerry was the founding co-president of the current Madison Valley Community Council and savior of the Harrison Ridge Greenbelt. He organized our traditional annual spaghetti dinner and rummage sale. Together with his wife, Peggy, the Sussmans were the “go-to” people for getting anything done in the neighborhood. Their home was a hub of community activity for all of us. What dinner parties we had!!
Many of those efforts are in the past. This year Jerry transitioned from a post he has held for many years.
When he retired from a long career in schools around the Puget Sound, Jerry Sussman thought he was through with teaching. However, a call for volunteers caught his attention and he was once again immersed in the class- room. After over twenty-five years, and at the age of 89, Jerry has said a poignant farewell to his students
In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union dissolved and our country was flooded with Russians, many of them Jews desperate to flee the ensuing chaos. The United States primarily honored visa requests from applicants who were joining other family members. Many of these immigrants found themselves in Seattle and were anxious to begin life again as useful citizens. However, the Russians lacked an integral factor for an independent life: English language skills. Jewish Family Services put out a request for “English as a Second Language” (ESL) teachers and Jerry volunteered.
Jerry had had previous experience teaching ESL in our public schools and also taught high school history. His grandparents were Jewish Russian immigrants and this coupled with his extensive knowledge of that country’s history helped him establish a bond with his students.
Initially, the students were young adults eager to join the work force with acceptable language skills. As they found employment, this population gradually gave way to an older group who wanted to function well in the new society but for many reasons were unable to find jobs. Many of the older immigrants were professionals who did not have acceptable credentials to resume their past jobs in this country. Physicians, musicians, engineers, and scientists were among Jerry’s pupils.
Jerry found that all his students had some English language education in the Soviet system. They knew the alphabet and understood the basic structure of English. However, they lacked vocabulary and grammar skills and their heavy Russian accents made it difficult for them to be understood.
To build vocabulary, Jerry encouraged discussion of the students’ experiences in the Soviet Union. They had great fun recounting their childhoods. More seriously, the men told stories of World War II and their time as soldiers in the Red Army fighting the Nazis. Everyone had a tale to tell of life in the Soviet era. Education and housing were guaranteed but they all experienced widespread anti-Semitism. Fear of the secret police made any political discussion dangerous. There was no tolerance for dissent.
Life in the American city of Seattle has also been a topic of great amusement. The students were often baffled by American liberalism especially concerning the upbringing of children. As with many other immigrant cultures, the Russians felt that Americans are too lenient and that the young are far too independent.
Jerry and the students read books together, especially ones that chronicle immigrants journeys in American. They appreciated the shared experience and the points of discussion it engendered.
After 25 years, Jerry has grown old along with his students. Several have passed away. The few remaining students are now all in their late 80s and beyond, and the group has become an extended family to each other. Children, grandchildren and life’s everyday tribulations are shared. In this way, their lives have become intertwined.
The Russians’ “school year” coincided with the Seattle district’s and Jerry’s students put on a great lunch in June to celebrate the end of each term. The women cooked a multitude of traditional dishes loading the table with Russian specialties. The musicians played their old favorites and sang folk songs. This festive luncheon was their way to pay tribute to Jerry for his steadfast commitment to them over the years.
He had become one of them.