The word “education” was first used in the 1580s to mean “to provide schooling.” In the year 1997, the first tax credit was given to provide schooling for children attending private schools in America.
Arizona was the first U.S. state to provide such a tax credit.
It’s fortunate that Linda Zell was in Arizona in 1997 – and not still in Rhode Island or South Africa – because she played an important part in the management of Jewish Tuition Organization of Greater Phoenix. She’s been its executive director since 2005.
Linda was born in Cape Town, the eldest of five children, to parents who were also natives of that city. She remembers living “a privileged life, with lots of household help, in a large home with lots of family around.” Spending time with all four of her grandparents as well as her aunts and uncles enriched her early years. She lived in Cape Town until she was 12, then emigrated with her family to Israel, where she lived until 1967 when Africa lured them back to Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
In 1968 Linda moved back to Cape Town to meet her fate – her husband, Howard, with whom she had a son, Steven, and a daughter, Karin. She worked for the Zionist Federation there and experienced another fated event. “David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, came to town, and I had the honor of spending four or five days with him and his entourage.” Because she was fluent in Hebrew and English, she was their liaison to the community. Also on that visit, she met Professor Christian Barnard, the first heart transplant surgeon (his patient was Jewish), because Ben-Gurion had asked to meet him.
The year 1975 found the Zell family traveling in South Africa, following Howard as he served one year of compulsory service in the army as a pharmacist. Of that era Linda says, “In every town we were welcomed with open arms by the small Jewish communities. They were very cohesive, strong Zionists (as most South African Jews were) and traditional. Every little town had an Orthodox synagogue where Friday night services were the highlight of the week. Shabbat dinners were very important family events.”
Linda moved with her family and all their belongings in the year America celebrated its bicentennial. Their first stop was Worcester, MA, where Howard’s cousins welcomed them. After a short time, they moved to Kingston, RI, so Howard could attend the University of Rhode Island to earn a master’s degree in pharmacy administration. That’s where they stayed for the next 22 years – and welcomed their third child, daughter Lauren.
While in Kingston, Linda was active in the Jewish community. “I ran a community religious school for 20 years, was vice president of our shul, served on the bureau of Jewish Education as president of the school board, was area vice president of our Zionist Federation and I served in many roles in Hadassah, including president.”
Although they met many friends and were very involved in their community in Kingston, the Zells did not like winter. “All three of our children went to colleges in warm climates, and when the last one left home, we did too,” Linda says. “We moved to Arizona at the end of 1997 and have never looked back.”
Unlike in Rhode Island, the Zells found a community of South Africans in Arizona. Although they knew no one when they relocated, the couple happened to meet someone Linda went to school with in 1961 in Cape Town, which opened a new door in their social lives.
The Zells’ life in Arizona includes attending community events, especially those put on by the Israel Center, Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center, Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and other pro-Israel organizations. They are members of Hadassah (Howard is an associate), the JCC, Congregation Or Tzion, AIPAC and others. Linda says, “Involvement in the community is of utmost importance – to set an example for our children.”
As for setting an example for children, Linda herself did that in spades. For years, a passport, tickets and boarding passes stood in for Linda’s college degree. “I did not have the opportunity to go to university as a young girl, but when my children went, I decided it was time for me to do the same,” she says. “I started in Rhode Island and finished at ASU, graduating at the age of 50 one day before my youngest daughter who was at the U of A. I am very proud of this accomplishment and thankful for the support I had to do it.”
The federation’s Bureau of Jewish Education hired Linda to market Jewish day schools in the Valley. “In the process of doing that, I found out about the private school tax credit program, which at the time was run on a very part-time basis by a federation staff person,” says Linda. She recognized its potential and asked to take on that responsibility on a part-time basis. After about a year, it evolved into a full-time position, and the day school marketing work reverted back to the schools.
In the beginning, the tax credit tuition program was called the Jewish Community Day School Scholarship Fund. After a couple of years it became the Jewish Tuition Organization of Greater Phoenix. In 2014, close to $4 million was raised by JTO to help more than 500 students attend seven Jewish day schools. Linda says, “I am extremely proud and passionate about this and hope to see it grow even more.”
Now a grandmother of seven (five of whom live in Arizona), Linda’s life and work – to provide schooling and to uphold the value of education – is a legacy.
And there are many beneficiaries.
Jewish Tuition Organization of Greater Phoenix
12701 N Scottsdale Road, Ste. 203E
Scottsdale, AZ 85254
Jewish Day Schools in the Valley of the Sun:
Phoenix Hebrew Academy
Pardes Jewish Day School
Desert Jewish Academy, K-6
Shalom Montessori, K-6
Shearim Torah High School for Girls
Torah Day School of Phoenix, K-8
Yeshiva High School of Arizona