But that isn’t because he’s unimportant. It’s because he is important. Like millions of Americans who toil largely in anonymity, participating daily in acts of courage and generosity, Phil has never been on CNN or Fox News; while he subscribes to The Wall Street Journal, he’s never had his picture dot pixelated. That’s because he, like so many other Americans, is too busy making the country work.
Phil was born at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston in 1951, just down the block from Fenway Park, and grew up a diehard Red Sox fan (of course). He began working as a kid, selling papers on a street corner for eight cents a pop, shoveling snow for neighbors. He headed his junior congregation while still a kid at Hebrew school — where his future wife, Cheryl, saw him, although she had no clue she’d end up marrying the tall, goofy guy who was leading services.
Phil knew early on he wanted to be a teacher. He majored in education at Boston University, got another bachelor’s in Jewish education simultaneously at Hebrew University, and then studied Jewish history at Jewish Theological Seminary. He worked his way through college on work study as a janitor, flipped burgers and sold Drake’s cakes to other starving students. Phil actually met his wife, Cheryl, when they were both students at Hebrew College. They were best friend for six years. Then they realized what they had, and decided to get married. Their life was just beginning.
Phil and Cheryl moved down to Tampa, Florida, where Phil taught at a Hebrew day school. His teaching career took him back to Boston, then to El Paso, Texas, and finally to California — he earned two more master’s degrees in Texas and California. That’s where he got out of Jewish education and into general education at the Los Angeles Unified School District. One of the roughest school districts in the country, LAUSD is perennially underperforming; its student population includes some of the most poverty-stricken areas in the United States.
Phil jumped in with both feet. He taught special education, a self-contained class for children with specific learning disabilities — but since LAUSD was badly administered, the district threw all sorts of children in Phil’s classes, including autistic kids, developmental delays and emotionally disturbed children.
Despite the challenges of LAUSD’s administrative chaos, Phil sought to teach these kids, many of whom had parents who either couldn’t or wouldn’t raise their children. He taught the children, many of whom were immigrants to the country, patriotic songs, even though the district disapproved of such political incorrectness. He read them stories, making sure to play all the parts. He created specific goals and reports for each student.
These kids were his kids.
Phil and Cheryl were never able to conceive naturally, so they adopted a son. Their son was troubled, but they poured their heart and soul into raising him, just as they pour themselves into everything they did.
Phil is my uncle — not the brother of my mom or dad, but an adopted uncle. He is best friends with my father. And my father only has one rule for his friends: They must treat his children with kindness and generosity. Phil is the epitome of both.
My father always said as we were growing up that surrounding your children with good people is one of the chief tasks of a parent. My parents certainly did that with Phil. He is an intellectual, a brilliant man, well-read, soft-spoken. He always provides information, but he is never strident, never arrogant. He is a friend, an advisor, and a mentor. And he is never happier than when I or my sisters tell him about what we’re achieving and what battles we’re fighting.
I’m writing about Phil now because he’s in a hospital in California. He’s been battling cancer for several years; last week, he had a stroke. He’s still fighting, and he’ll still keep fighting. Because that’s what we do as Americans. We may never get our 15 minutes of fame. We may never get our headshot on cable television. But we will make the country work, teach the next generation, and do so because we are a generous and forgiving people, willing to slog in the trenches without fame or fortune.
That’s my uncle Phil.
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