“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting.” (Kohelet 7:2)
This past week, I attended the funeral of Yossi Hershkovitz z”l, standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of mourners at Mount Herzl. Though I hate going to funerals (I prefer the Hebrew word “levaya” — “accompanying” [the dead — on their final journey]), and though it was heartbreaking, I emerged not depressed, but inspired by the stories told, by Yossi’s personality, ideals, and passion; by the dignity, the love, and the faith of the family.
I want to share two memorable anecdotes told about Yossi z”l because I think that we can all become better people by reading them and absorbing their message.
Yossi was a revered high school principal, wise and gentle. He was a talented violinist who regularly played in hospitals — cheering the sick. He loved his family, his five beautiful children, his wife. He loved Torah study. He had a hilarious sense of humor, was a loyal friend to many, and volunteered to serve in Gaza though he was beyond the age of service, out of sheer idealism. I never got to know Yossi, but I work closely with his wife, Hadas.
One of the educators in the school, Chaim Nachman Kowalsky, related the following:
“This year the principal, Yossi Hershkovitz, introduced something amazing: an app called “nekuda tova.” Each teacher devotes a few minutes each day to writing good points about several students and the app immediately sends them — with associated emojis and graphics — to the students and their parents.
It’s impossible to describe the positive vibe that this little innovation has brought to the school and how it has influenced the relationships between teachers and students and their parents. Generally, when a school contacts parents, parents ask themselves, ‘What happened this time?’ Now they are made aware in the middle of the day that their child excelled in physics class or helped another student during break. When the student returns home, their parents already know about their good points for that day and we, the teachers, appreciate that we are not only preoccupied with criticism, but with compliments too.
There is a lot of talk about the dangers of shaming and lashon hara (insulting or derogatory speech), but not much discussion about the obligation to increase “lashon hatov” — uplifting speech and positive reinforcement. With this change in emphasis, there would no longer be any room for negative speech. As the Hasidim say: Darkness is not chased away with sticks, but pushed away with a little light” (shared by סיון רהב מאיר – Sivan Rahav Meir).
And then at the levaya, the former principal of Ort Pelech school, Shalom Weil, related the following incredible episode:
“Once, when I was the school principal and Yossi z”l was the deputy principal and head of pedagogy, we heard a report that a student from one of the older grades had bothered the younger students while they were playing basketball during the break.
“This cannot be!” said Yossi. He decided to get to the bottom of it all and put all the meetings in his busy day on hold. He was always thorough. He had conversations with students and teachers, asking probing questions. He sat for hours examining the surveillance footage from the playground, and, in the end, he felt he had a handle on the situation. It was true! Indeed, an older student had bullied the younger students.”
Shalom continued: “Yossi invited the student in question to our office, he closed the door, and the student sat in the armchair, ashamed.
He approached him, up close, and to his surprise, put a genuine and fatherly hand on his shoulder, he looked him in the eyes and asked him, in a soft, sweet tone and a loving way: ‘What happened? What made you do it? I have known you since 7th grade? I know that this is not the type of thing that you would do! How are you? Are things alright at home? How are things with your parents? Maybe a girlfriend? In your youth movement? How is the dynamic with your classmates?’
The boy began to tear up. He shook a little. He talked about his difficulties at home with his younger brother, and his parents who don’t understand and pay no attention to him. He spoke about his feelings and his difficulties.
“How can I help you?” Yossi asked, “How can I help you cope with the situation?”
The student was totally wrong-footed, and then he said: “I want quality time with my parents!”
He gave the student a hug, and called his parents, and spoke to them, with the student’s agreement and in his presence — a sweet, fatherly tone; recommendations, advice, direction.
And then he turned to the student and posed the question: “Now, how are you going to express your care for your parents? And how are you going to make amends for the way you treated the kids in the younger grade?”
Yossi spoke about what it means to be an adult, and what it means to have a role in the world. That each and every act that we do is a decision about a person’s future — our future and the future of others — and he said: “You may not believe it, but every action can have an effect on your family, on the entire school.”
When the boy left the room, his eyes were bright, as if he was determined to make the world a better place, with Yossi’s inspiration and assistance.
“Yossi turned to me,” Shalom reflected, “and said, ‘There is a possibility that this episode will influence and change his entire life. But if it doesn’t, at least it should change our lives.’”
One of the things that pained Yossi z”l over the past year was the divisions and infighting between sectors of our country and nation. In a video message to his students at the start of the war, he urged them not to speak badly about one another, about the Jewish people. In the video he said: “There are no right wingers, no left-wingers, no Haredim, no nothing — we are just Jews! Hamas made no difference between people on the basis of who they voted for. Let’s keep it in mind all the time — not to speak badly about anybody — no lashon hara.”
These stories give us insight into a talented educator, and an extraordinarily positive person whom we can all learn from. Let us take on Yossi’s legacy, becoming better human beings, and always, always seeing the good points — the nekuda tova — in the people around us, to be slow to judgment and to treat everyone with respect and love.