Zoe Hertz can’t seem to help orienting toward the communal. When we spoke, she rebelled against the default nature of a q&a interview, in which the interviewer mostly asks the questions, and had tons of questions for me as well, reminding me that I’m a part of the community, too. Turns out she’s got lots of ideas about catalyzing that inclusive feel, no matter what space she’s in.
Over Zoom, we discussed growing up between Israel and Philadelphia, the language of dreams, what it means to tutor the “whole person,” and modern wedding prep. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason: What brought you to the Bay Area?
Zoe: My fiancé, Joshua, and I arrived here last August. We were living in Pittsburgh and before that in Boston. Joshua was working virtually, and I had just finished a fellowship, so we didn’t have anywhere we had to be! We thought, “Where do we want to go?” Joshua was from here, originally, and he wanted to experience the Bay as an adult. I’m from the east coast and always wanted to see what the California Dream is about.
Even in just a few minutes of meeting you, I know you as someone who actively tries to create community. Where do you think that comes from?
I was born in Israel and moved to the States when I was six. My mom is American and my dad is Israeli, so I grew up going back and forth. In Israel, we lived in a village called Kfar Yona. It was really small and there was this feeling of community ingrained in living there, almost Kibbutz-style, but more socially and emotionally than economically. I knew everyone who lived on my block, and there was a playground in the middle of my street. By the time I was four, my parents knew that they could let me go to the playground on my own because any number of other parents would be there to watch over me.
That was different from my experience outside of Philadelphia. We lived in a very normal suburban neighborhood where the houses were pretty far apart; everyone lived on half an acre of land, and I only knew two or three of my neighbors. Even at age six, I knew I felt much more comfortable in the village mentality. Starting in late elementary school, I realized that type of community feeling was something I could create in little ways. I got really involved in clubs like choir, Jewish heritage, and a foods-around-the-world group, and the inclination grew from there. Seeking out groups with some overlap has been a way of recreating that community feeling I had when I was little in Israel.
How’s your Hebrew these days?
I’m fluent. For a long time, I lived a dual life: up until I was 18, I would travel with my family to Israel every summer. That made it easy to keep my Hebrew up to date. When I first moved to the States, I went to Jewish day school, and I always got along very well with the Hebrew teachers. When I struggled with my English, I felt like I could go to them. They would help me figure things out and they advocated for me. It was really nice to know that although I left Israel, I didn’t fully leave the Hebrew-speaking community.
I’m curious: do you ever dream in Hebrew? Or mostly English?
It’s really interesting that you ask that! I tend to dream in whatever language the people in my dream are speaking. If my dad shows up, we’re talking in Hebrew, or if it’s my fiancé, for instance, we mostly talk in English.
I know some people have dreams where it’s not in first person and there’s more of what I call an “overvoice,” kind of like a free-floating narration. If I had a dream like that, I’m not sure if it would be in English or in Hebrew! I can tell you that even though I’m more fluent in English these days, I find that when I’m feeling a big, emotional feeling, I want to explain myself in Hebrew.
That’s fascinating. Like it’s still tied to a more instinctual part of you.
It’s deep down in there.
I wanted to ask about Spokes on a Wheel, your tutoring business. Tell me about the “whole person” approach, which sounds innovative and cool.
When Joshua and I started the business, we thought about what we felt people really needed from their tutors. On a surface level, we knew that people need help with academics or a resume or a standardized test, so those are services we provide, but those services can sometimes feel very transactional, and like a band-aid. That band-aid isn’t really a solution to a deeper issue, which is that people need resources and support that respond to their individual way of learning.
We wanted something that could actually go past the individual service, and that’s when we started talking about the whole student or whole person. A lot of the work we end up doing relates to self-esteem and confidence. We help students find and develop internal motivation to do things and ensure they enjoy the sessions and actually have fun. We always try to teach our kids transferrable skills and to see connections between things. We want them to see how something about math applies to something about learning music, for example!
I love that you say “Our kids.” That in itself feels so communal and warm to me.
During all those hours over weeks, months, and even years of working with someone, you really get to know each other. And we work closely with parents, too. All of that puts us in a position to bridge some gaps, whether that’s through us, or a referral. We’re not trying to be everything, and that’s where my community mentality comes in. Our position is as tutors but that doesn’t mean that we can’t metaphorically hold hands with other community members who are here to support that student through their education and hopefully onwards into their life.
That’s really wonderful work broadening what “help” can mean in a tutoring context. On another note, what is your Jewish life in the Bay looking like so far?
I really like volunteering with Urban Adamah, and I’ve really been enjoying OneTable. I’ve been a participant in the past, but I had never been a host until I moved here. I started working with Congregation Beth El, teaching Hebrew and Judaic Studies for their Hebrew school, and have loved being part of that space. And through Gather, I got connected to a Shabbat Club, where a group of six couples who are all in a similar stage of life meet once a month for Shabbat dinner. That’s been so great.
Go Gather! Okay, now onto our in-house Proust Questionnaire. Tell me a poem, book, movie, play, or piece of art or media that you love!
I’ve been really enjoying thinking a lot about Anita Diamant and her books. My favorite is The Red Tent. She also has a grouping of books about Jewish life and I’ve started reading the New Jewish Wedding. As someone who is getting married, it’s been a helpful guide to figure out all the Jewish traditions around that.
What’s the best-kept secret of the Bay?
Schmidt’s Pub on Solano! That place is awesome. Great drinks, great environment. They have books, a fireplace, games. It’s unheard of to find anything around Albany or that part of Berkeley that’s open past 10 o’clock, and Schmidt’s is open until 12!
When was a recent time that you felt some kind of spiritual connection?
Joshua and I went up to Loyalton, near Truckee, recently, which is a very quiet area with not a lot of people. The nature is beautiful and full of mountain escapes. We went on a hike there to see the sunset and just spend time together. Especially coming from the east coast, you hear about California and how beautiful the land is here. That type of place is what they mean.
GatherBay Profiles is our interview series spotlighting the vast array of community members doing rad things! Released twice per month, the series aspires to celebrate GatherBay’s greatest treasure—the people around us. Want to be profiled? Email email@example.com.