Alum Profile: Hon. Ellen Chaitin ’66
Ellen Chaitin’s childhood “argument skills,” combined with a social conscience groomed in part at BFS, set her on the path to becoming a judge in the California Superior Court.
“My parents didn’t want a school with social pretensions and they liked Quaker education,” recalls Hon. Ellen Chaitin ’66, a judge in the Superior Court of California. She grew up in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, and entered BFS in ninth grade, but even before her arrival at the school, her parents had groomed her to be a lawyer, she says, because of her “argument skills” as a child. Coming of age in the ’60s, she was well aware of the civil rights movement and the issues surrounding Vietnam. “My later connection to Quakerism jelled into my desire to be a lawyer.”
She admits that she found her first days at BFS “a little strange,” but that she felt drawn to the building’s history, and to the Quakers’ history of social and political activism. “It was a tiny school then,” she says. “Only 21 kids were in my class. It was a challenge to have a party with so few kids although we managed to have a lot of fun. We hung out at The Shack and we treated Manhattan as our backyard. The homework was endless. I never finished my daily history reading in Ms. Magzanian’s class. The Peloponnesian War, are you for real?”
She also recalls her English teacher, Phil Schwartz, whom she credits for her placement in advanced English Literature during her freshman year of college. By 11th grade, the class was reading Paradise Lost. A few years later in a college English lit course, she would realize that her marginal notes in her copy from Mr. Schwartz’ class “were far superior to my professor’s lecture notes.”
After graduating BFS Ellen “attended Skidmore for a nanosecond” where she recalls being the only brunette. She soon transferred to NYU where she met V.Roy Lefcourt, her future spouse, on a blind date during her junior year. He was attending law school at UC Berkeley and was in New York visiting a college friend from Cornell. She joined him in San Francisco in 1970. Her parents moved to southern California ten years later which weakened her ties to her life as a child and young adult in New York. V.Roy is today a well-respected criminal defense attorney, which also was the focus of Ellen’s law practice. When they weren’t busy in court, Ellen and V.Roy spent many years traveling the world and eating in the best restaurants before settling down and raising two children, Adam and Juliet – Adam graduated University of Southern California, where Juliet is now a junior. They are “a loyal Trojan family, always hoping that USC will beat CAL, UCLA and Stanford in football and every other sport.”
Ellen graduated from Hastings Law School at the University of California in 1973. That year, seemingly ahead of her time, she also co-authored the first article to appear in a law review arguing for expanding equal rights protections to gays and lesbians. Ellen practiced criminal defense for almost two decades, becoming active in the political life of San Francisco. She has taught law school and college students, and co-taught one of this country’s first Women and the Law classes at Hastings. Twenty years later she was elected a superior court judge, and is now in her 18th year on the bench. Among her proudest achievements is her role in creating and presiding over California Superior Court’s Mentor Court Diversion, an educational program for young adult defendants accused of selling small amounts of drugs. Though it is sadly no longer in existence, the program – and Ellen – did receive special recognition from the California State Assembly and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Again, reflecting on her experience at BFS, “Spending three years with Phil Schwartz impacted me in ways that are still unfolding. I experienced, through literature, values that I have carried with me all my life. In 9th grade, our theme for the year was the quest for identity: beginning with Odysseus and culminating in Holden Caulfield. Flash forward forty years later, when I was assigned to preside over cases involving dependent children, kids who have been abused or neglected. For the previous 15 years, I had alternated presiding over criminal and civil cases. I fell in love with this assignment because I could improve these kids’ lives. An image from 9th grade kept returning to me: Holden Caulfield saving all the little kids from falling off the cliff as they ran through the rye. I wanted to do the same. I felt I had an opportunity to make a difference for the children before me. That novel, and the others, became a part of me at BFS and still are. I carry their lessons with me. Phil Schwartz’s brilliance and sensitivity made it possible. He was a very important person in my development.”
She keeps in regular touch with several of her classmates “Ted Steingut ’66 and I remain close friends, and about a year ago I reconnected with Lisa Meisel Burlingham ’67,” Ellen says. “When I’m with Lisa it’s as if 40 years didn’t intervene.” While in Boston visiting colleges with daughter Juliet, Ellen and V.Roy also had a long overdue dinner with Charlie Alesi ’66 and his wife.
Ellen still maintains ties to her alma mater, recently hosting a BFS reception in her home for BFS alums and friends in the San Francisco area. “It made me realize again, because I had not thought about it for a long time, how terrific Quakers schools are. It also made me realize what a deep connection I have to my BFS experience. Two of my classmates came: Jim Yglesias, who I had seen 12 years ago and Ed Fields, who I had not seen since BFS graduation. It was joyful to reconnect with them. After folks left, I had a chance to hang out with Head of School Larry Weiss. It was great to hear Larry talk about Quaker history and schools. I felt proud (and I always do) that I went to a Quaker school.”
Does what she learned at BFS influence her professionally or personally today? “I appreciate the Quaker legacy and I carry a bit of it with me,” she says, “and I feel connected to its leadership in the abolitionist and educational movements.” Her advice to the current generation of BFS students: “Try to find who you are. Be yourself. Your individuality is special.”