The man, the myth, the legend …
Born at Sinai Hospital in 1965, the youngest of six siblings, Sol began working at the J in 1982, 35 years ago.
As a student at Franklin High School, he began volunteering his time doing what he’s always done best: helping out others, distributing lunches to seniors on Tuesdays and Fridays.
In 1986, on a break from the J, Sol began a six-month training program at Sinai Hospital’s pediatric department, working with two year-olds and teenagers. There, he helped two year-olds who could not sit up; he also worked with teenagers who had tried to commit suicide - he shared with them lessons in life.
A young Sol had already experienced some lessons in his own life.
Sol was born without a right arm, and has worn a prosthetic arm since he was 5 years old.
“Back then,” Sol says, “I did not want to wear it. It was the worst thing, I would throw it all over the house, I didn’t want to put it on, I would walk out without it.”
“But you get used to it, and you wear it and it becomes a good thing. During Baltimore County Disability Awareness Week, for example, I used to talk to my school and explain to them that ‘Everyone has a disability - mine just shows.”
“Remember,” Sol says, “Everyone’s not perfect in this world.”
The J executive team, recognizing a welcoming, smiling face and good worker, offered Sol a full-time position at checkpoint that same year – 1986 - where Sol reviewed folks’ membership cards and presented locker keys.
Sol worked checkpoint positions at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills J and what is now known as the Shapiro Aquatics Park, and soon-after, took to working with JCC youth and teens.
“I not only did checkpoint, I oversaw the game room where kids would come in,” Sol recalls.
“If the children didn’t have anybody to play with, I would play table tennis or pool with them. I became a real good table tennis and pool player back then!”
Following a stint at checkpoint, in 1990, says Sol, “I started teaching gym classes with a woman named Debbie ’Z’, Debbie Zylberberg. She was a great mentor to me and to this day, I still think of her. She worked with me for many years and then once she left, I became the gym teacher.”
In the intervening period, Sol, or Mr. Sol, as he has become affectionately known to his students, has taught gym classes not only at the Owings Mills J, but at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Yeshiva Rambam, and Krieger Schechter.
Sol has also taught at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC the last two years, teaching four classes/week on Wednesday mornings, in addition to the 28 classes/week he teaches in Owings Mills.
In 2000, Sol was named “Baltimore’s Best Gym Teacher” in Baltimore Magazine’s “Best of Baltimore” issue, “a huge compliment,” Sol recalls.
The JCC is a great community, and I’ve always wanted people to feel that they were comfortable here no matter what they did here.
“I’ve worked with infants through teenagers, and I’ve always wanted everyone to know, that when they came to the gym, it was like opening a curtain on a show, and as soon as I opened those curtains, it was like ‘Okay, let’s get to work!’”
Sol’s last day is April 3. He is retiring to Jacksonville, Florida. He’s excited, he loves his new house, and he’s moving close to his brother Gil, a former executive director of Beth El Congregation.
He’s full of emotion, and is reflecting on his teaching philosophy and life.
“Each class is different, every child is different,” he says.
In his gymnasium classroom, Sol has always tried to impart to his charges values, such as respect and the difference between right and wrong.
“Listening,” Sol says, “Listening is real important. And respect.”
“I always teach kids, if you’ve noticed, they always call me ‘Mr. Sol’. They will never call me “Sol’, because I was always brought up to understand that anybody older than you should be called ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ unless they want it otherwise. Even parents these days call me ‘Mr. Sol’, parents who’ve had me as a kid.”
“Over the last eight years, I started giving out baseball cards because I wanted the kids to feel that they were aspiring towards a goal, and if you do a great job, you get rewarded for it.
But you can also lose that baseball card by not listening and not following directions.”
“My kids understand that and I get a lot of comments from the parents stating ‘You know, I know my child didn’t get a baseball card and I’m glad you did that because he or she knows if you do something wrong, there’s a consequence.”
“But then there are some children who can barely walk or talk who come rushing up to me and want to give me a hi-five or knuckles or a little girl that blows me a kiss goodbye when she leaves the gym -- ‘see you next time, bye!’ -- and the little boy that can’t talk but he knows my name, ‘Mr. Sol!’ - it is amazing. It’s amazing what you teach them.”
Are you sad to be leaving?
“Yeah, I’ll be sad,” he says. “When it gets closer to April 3, I’ll be real sad when I see the kids for the last time. That’s going to be the sad part.”
“Am I relieved?”
“Yes, I think I did enough time here where I’m ready to hand the torch over to someone else and let him or her know that life goes on.”
“Did I do a great job?”
“Yes, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been here for 35 years.”
“Three decades being somewhere and then you’re no longer going to be here?”
“I’ve taught the parents, and now I’m teaching their kids. That’s amazing.“