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Rita Wodinsky

Teacher, tireless volunteer, Claremont Honored Citizen

Rita Wodinsky died December 23, 2019, at the age of 94 and-a-half, in her home, with her family by her side. 

Born in Jamaica, New York on June 8, 1925, to Joseph and Bessie Bernstein, Rita graduated from Jamaica High School in 1940, and earned a bachelor’s degree from Queens College in 1944.

As student body president at Queens College, she welcomed Eleanor Roosevelt to the school and proudly pinned a corsage on her jacket. After graduation, she moved to Portland, Oregon, where she took a job as a preschool teacher for the children of World War II shipbuilders. 

In 1951, she moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where she earned her master’s degree in early childhood development at the University of Iowa. She later taught graduate school at UI. There she also met her future husband, Dr. Abraham Wodinsky, in 1953. They were engaged in two weeks, married three months later, and immediately moved to California.

The new couple started their family in 1954 with the birth of their son, followed by four daughters. She was a warm and loving mother, always involved in her children’s activities from schools to scouts, from sporting events to theatrical performances, among other activities.

While busy raising her five children, she began her lifelong commitment to the Claremont community, where she helped found a preschool at Claremont United Church of Christ, and promoted her commitment to civil liberties through her involvement in the Pomona Valley Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

After Dr. Wodinsky died in 1975, she returned to the classroom, first as an elementary teacher at the ATID Hebrew Academy in West Covina, then as a kindergarten instructor at Mountain View Elementary School in Ontario. Eventually, she was lured away from teaching to take on the role of volunteer coordinator at the Claremont Colleges Office of the Chaplains, where she worked for 17 years.

Through her work in the chaplain’s office, she introduced hundreds of college students to the satisfaction—and fun—of helping others. Notably, in the mid 1980s, along with several students and the rabbi, she founded the SOVA Food Pantry in Ontario, which has since provided food to thousands of people.

For many years, she organized food collection campaigns to enable college students to interact with the Claremont community, and shepherded countless students to the Ontario food pantry so they could volunteer directly with the Inland Empire’s most needy. She also served as the chair of the SOVA Advisory Committee for the Inland Valley Council of Churches.

The Jewish concept of tikkun olam  (“repairing the world”) was a way of life for Ms. Wodinsky. She was a founding member of the Sharon Chapter of Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization that is committed to supporting health and wellbeing in Israel and sharing Jewish values and continuity with the community.

Over the 50 years she was active in the Sharon Chapter, she held almost all board positions, including serving as the chapter president multiple times, and also as co-chair of the governing board. She has been recognized by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys with their “women of distinction” award for her work on behalf of Hadassah.

Throughout her life, she cared deeply about the Claremont community and its schools. She supported many local candidates and was a model of civic engagement. She served on the board of the Claremont chapters of the American Field Service (serving as a host parent twice), the American Red Cross and the Claremont Coordinating Council.

As an active member of the Claremont Colleges Community Friends of International Students, you could find her running the kids’ booth at the International Festival for many years, bringing together her interest in the world and her love of children, while also bringing many community members in as volunteers.

She also was a board member of the Claremont After School Programs (CLASP) and tutored students well into her 80s. In 2010, she was named one of Claremont’s Honored Citizens, and proudly rode in the Fourth of July parade with three of her grandchildren. She never missed a parade and the chance to say hello to her many Claremont friends.

In her retirement and well into her 90s, she loved to walk on Thompson Creek Trail, where she could be found most every morning for many years. She loved the beauty and serenity of the trail, and perhaps more so, enjoyed being able to catch up with old friends, make new friends, and bring people together on her daily walks. Many friends from the trail have shared that they found her to be an inspiration to them in so many ways.

She also enjoyed traveling with family and friends, with memorable trips to Ashland, Oregon, Washington, DC, Ireland, Israel, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, China, Hong Kong and Japan.

“Those who knew Rita well know that she most enjoyed meeting and getting to know people, wherever she went,” her family shared. “In meeting with someone casually in line at the store, Rita would learn their life’s story: where they were born, where they went to school, their current profession, their children’s names and histories. She also became a ‘mom to all,’ including many college students, friends of her children, and others who appreciated her wisdom, knowledge and support.”

Conversely, to know her was to know her family. She was very proud of and loved to share all about her five children and their extended families.

She is survived by her son, Peter Wodinsky (Carol Unruh, who predeceased her in March), her daughters Erika Wodinsky (John Dresslar), Natanya Wodinsky (Michéal O’Connor), Jessica Wodinsky, and Jenny Wodinsky (Martin Johnson); grandchildren, Eamon, Liam and Kathleen O’Connor, Aaron Dresslar, Carly, Ryan and Hannah Johnson; as well as numerous loving nieces, nephews, and great nieces and nephews. 

Ms. Wodinsky’s family would like to thank her longtime doctors at Kaiser, the nurses and doctors of VNA Hospice and Palliative Care of Southern California, as well as the loving and compassionate caregivers from Comfort Keepers.

A service in her memory is being planned and will be announced in a future edition of the COURIER. For information email tanya.wodinsky@ gmail.com.

Donations may be made in Ms. Wodinsky’s name to the Sharon Chapter of Hadassah, P.O. Box 745, Claremont, CA 91711; Claremont After School Programs (CLASP), 1111 N. Mountain Ave., Claremont, CA 91711; or a food bank of your choice.

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