Late last night (Thursday, September 30), I received word of the passing of Rabbi Dr. David Eliach z”l, a pioneer in Jewish education. As an educator and principal, Rabbi Eliach left his mark on me personally and I’d like to share some thoughts about his influence on generations of teachers and school leaders, and the day school enterprise in general.
Rabbi Eliach understood that Jewish education is a serious enterprise, and brought professionalism and respect to the field. He taught so many of us how to teach, and modeled for us how to lead. His standard of excellence and commitment to Jewish education reached so many and he had a significant impact on me.
As a young semicha student at RIETS, I registered at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education & Administration as part of my semicha (ordination) requirements. The first class I took was the famous class taught by Rabbi Eliach. There, each week, a different student would present a model lesson and it was broken down, methodically, respectfully, but firmly, by Rabbi Eliach.
He taught us that every lesson needed a “motivatzia,” or a “hook” to engage the students. Every lesson. Every day. Because if a student is not engaged in the subject being taught, s/he will never internalize the content and will not develop the skills we as educators were entrusted to impart.
After completing semicha, I applied for my first teaching position at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, where Rabbi Eliach served as principal for decades. I was honored to be offered a position and to be encouraged by him to accept it. Rabbi Eliach would begin his day by walking the hallways and peeking into classes for 1-2 minutes.
Once, when visiting my class, he observed that, while I was teaching in Hebrew, I allowed a student to ask questions in English. He called a meeting of all faculty to immediately address this observation, which, thankfully, he found in many of the classes he visited that day. He reminded us that Ivrit b’Ivrit was both a pillar of the values of the school, as well as a contractual obligation on the part of the teachers, and implored us to stay the course. He was sure that the long-term benefits of Hebrew proficiency far outweighed the short term discomfort of teachers and students. Generations of Modern Orthodox adults credit this “obsession” with Ivrit for their success in Jewish learning.
After his retirement from the principalship in the late ’90s, Rabbi Eliach continued to mentor teachers with the same vigor and passion as always. I understand that this practice continued for many years, and, until very recently, he continued to make the trek to Brooklyn multiple times a week to do what he did best, and what he loved.
Rabbi Eliach’s work ethic was unparalleled. He began his career as a Judaic Studies teacher and ultimately became the principal of Yeshivah of Flatbush, an exemplary educator, mentor, beloved by all those who were fortunate to learn from him. He was infinitely patient, while maintaining a true standard of excellence and never tolerating mediocrity or complacency. He fought for the values that he believed in, but never made himself the center of attention.
Rabbi Eliach brought his love of Zion to the shores of New York, celebrated a love of Israel, the importance of Jewish identity, and promoted the value of the Ivrit b’Ivrit teaching model rooted in his true love for the Hebrew language. He taught the importance of teaching each child according to their way. His approach to education went beyond just teaching text to students; he taught us that our responsibility as educators is to also teach our students how to become better people and that in order to effectively reach our students, we must find a way to connect with them. Rabbi Eliach believed that Jewish education lived beyond the classroom, and introduced chesed projects as a requirement for graduation, the concept of shabbatonim, and the post-high school “gap” year in Israel. He was an innovator who stimulated not only Jewish education, but the Jewish world, yet the most modest man.
I know that my experience as a student in Azrieli, and as a teacher at the Yeshivah of Flatbush for four years, was deeply enriched and influenced by Rabbi Eliach. It is hard to quantify that experience and the impact Rabbi Eliach had on others together with his beloved wife Yaffa z”l. Imagine how many students have benefited from his wisdom and counsel over the span of 60 years. And how many thousands of students and teachers have been impacted by the presence of one person. I feel privileged to continue to pass on the mesorah, the tradition, as at SAR Academy, where I now serve as principal, we now educate some of Rabbi Eliach’s great-grandchildren and strive to continue his legacy.
Yehi Zichro Baruch.