The eulogies and obituaries for my grandfather, Rabbi David Eliach, have stressed how he shaped the Yeshivah of Flatbush into a model of Jewish education for countless other institutions. As students at Flatbush, my siblings and I experienced first-hand the lifelong impact of learning Ivrit b’Ivrit (Hebrew as the language of instruction for Judaic Studies courses), of demanding excellence in both secular and Judaic Studies, and of cultivating love for the Jewish people, Israel, and the world. If my sabba’s contributions to formal Jewish education were his only legacy, it would have been more than most of us could accomplish in many lifetimes.
But my sabba was not just an educator professionally. Learning permeated every aspect of his being. That included our weekly phone calls before Shabbat, which I miss sorely already, and which followed an unspoken rhythm.
He would begin by asking me what was going on in my life and telling me about any developments in his. He would then share with me a chiddush (new insight into Torah) or poem he had written and ask for my reactions. Next, he would ask if I had published anything recently or had any other learnings to share. And finally, we would discuss potential solutions for the challenges facing Judaism, America, Israel, and the world, always ending with him charging me to take concrete steps because the next generation is tasked with healing what is broken in the world.
Aside from the deep, loving connection and all of the substantive wisdom I gained from our conversations, they taught me lessons about what it means to be an educator in all aspects of life:
- Education begins where you are. No matter how excited my sabba was to share a new poem or insight with me, he always checked in first. If I was in a good mood, he would build on my enthusiasm. If I was going through a rough time, he would share a teaching that spoke to my particular pain. Our learning always started with a meeting of our emotional states.
- Embrace questions and disagreement. My sabba was happy when I liked what he shared, but he seemed even more excited when I had questions or disagreed. It demonstrated that I was truly grappling with what he was teaching me, that I wasn’t just accepting it blindly. And it always made clear to me in a very visceral way that his love and concern went far deeper than agreeing on any particular issue.
- Remain curious. Even though he was 61 years older than I, my sabba always wanted to hear my thoughts. Education was a two-way street. He believed there was something new to learn from everyone he encountered.
- Learning should have a higher purpose. My sabba always made a point of explaining why his teachings mattered. Information for the sake of information was never enough. It needed to better people’s lives or the world in some way in order to truly be worthy of deep engagement.
- Trust in future generations. While my sabba had many concerns about the trajectory of the world, he also had deep confidence in the ability of future generations to not only fix existing problems, but to create unimaginable opportunities. He never lamented “the youth these days,” and instead saw me, my contemporaries, and those younger as the hope for humanity’s future.
The biggest lesson though was something he both shared with me explicitly and which he exuded without saying a word: Do something you love. This wasn’t just a way to be happy. It was a pillar of a worldview that, no matter what we do, we are always learning and teaching; and if we want to be the best educators we can be, we need to connect deeply with the subject matter.
When I was unhappy in my legal career, my sabba encouraged me to do something I was more passionate about. That advice would have been helpful on its own. But simply observing him was an even bigger inspiration. He traveled to the Yeshivah of Flatbush on a weekly basis until COVID began, when he was 97, because he so enjoyed training young teachers. And the excitement in his voice when he would call me out of the blue to share a new chiddush or poem he had written reflected the type of passion I wish for us all.
As my sabba saw it, the world is one large classroom and we all are forever learning or teaching. I hope that even though he is no longer with us, his modeling and genius as an educator, both in and out of the school setting, can continue to guide the future he cared about so deeply.