Rabbi David Eliach, who passed away just last week, may have been one of the most influential Jewish educators of the 20th century. Aside from his early work in Israel, where he helped pioneer the Bnei Akiva school system, and the twenty-five years he sat at the helm of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, one of the largest and most professionally run Jewish day schools in North America, Rabbi Eliach had a profound influence on hundreds of teachers he taught and mentored for more than fifty years.
Here’s one sample of a multigenerational interaction revolving around Rabbi Eliach. I studied with Rabbi Eliach at Yeshiva University’s Azrilei Graduate School in the early 1980’s. In a recent professional development program I co-conducted at The Lookstein Center, I overheard a conversation between one of my collaborators running the program – a younger colleague who was mentored by Rabbi Eliach in the early 2000’s – and one of his students, now a teacher, who was mentored by Rabbi Eliach when she began teaching more than a decade later. For each of the three of us, Rabbi Eliach was a profound influence on our educational practice and thinking. (In a fitting twist, a few years ago I had the honor of teaching and mentoring his granddaughter, who was studying to be a Jewish educator.)
One of his most lasting educational messages is that the best form of classroom management was a lesson that was intellectually engaging and personally meaningful for the students. He saw each student as someone who would eventually be making choices about what level of Jewish involvement they would have, and to that to maximize that it was essential their encounter with Jewish texts be one in which they discovered demonstrated just how deeply those texts understand and touch their lives. When asked what to do with texts in which the teacher could not find meaning his response was simple – don’t teach those texts.
One conversation I had with him remains with me after forty years. His graduate school class was very demanding. Each week we had to prepare the transcript of a class we imagined teaching. What would the teacher say or do, what did I expect the students would respond, how would I respond to those students, etc. It was labor intensive – it demanded a minimum of four-to-five hours each week to prepare a single lesson plan – and forced us to understand that to teach well we needed to understand our students deeply. In class one of us would present our lesson, after which he would demonstrate a completely different way to present the same material, seemingly effortlessly. One day I asked how he could do that, and what should I do if I could not do that. He looked at me and smiled. “You are young and have energies unique to you. I cannot do the kinds of things that you can. But over the course of time you will learn to do things differently, your repertoire will grow and change. And eventually you will do your own things masterfully and seemingly without effort.”
His sage advice calmed me then and has guided me ever since. His passing is a loss for the Jewish people, and may the many teachers he mentored be a living testament to his impact on Jewish education.