Rabbi David Eliach, who recently passed away, 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 25 years he sat at the helm of the Yeshivah of Flatbush and began the professionalization of Jewish day schools in North America, Rabbi Eliach had a profound influence on hundreds of teachers he taught and personally mentored for more than 50 years.
Here’s one sample of a multi-generational interaction revolving around Rabbi Eliach. I studied with Rabbi Eliach at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School in the early 1980s. 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 2000s – and one of his students, now a teacher, who was mentored by Rabbi Eliach when she began teaching more than a decade later. Rabbi Eliach was a profound influence on each of us in our educational practice and thinking. (In a fitting twist, a few years ago I had the honor of teaching and mentoring Rabbi Eliach’s granddaughter as she 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 called this motivation, but it was much more profound than a trick with which to catch the students’ attention. He understood that every student would eventually make choices about what level of Jewish involvement they would have, and that to maximize that, it was essential that their encounter with Jewish texts be one in which they discovered just how deeply those texts 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 40 years. His graduate school class was very demanding. Each week we had to prepare an imaginary transcript of a class we planned to teach. What would I say or do, how did I expect the students would respond, how would I respond to those students, what would I do if the students didn’t respond as expected, 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. One of us would present our lesson in class, after which he would demonstrate a completely different way to present the same material, which was significantly more engaging than anything we prepared, and was seemingly effortless. One day I asked how he could do that, and what I should do if I could not. 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, and you should use the energies you have now to do the things that you can. 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 life was transformative for the entire field of Jewish education; the many teachers upon whom his imprint remains are his legacy. May his memory be an inspiration for generations to come.