Contributors recall teachers who left a lasting impact on their lives.
Winning the Battle
By Lillie Mermelstein Epner
As a child of twenty months, I was stricken with polio; the vaccine arrived in New York City six weeks after I had contracted the virus. Doctors said I would never walk. Despite that pronouncement, I was ultimately able to begin walking with braces and crutches. In an era when there were no accommodations for the physically disabled in many institutions, including Jewish day schools, that should have meant the end of any notion of my attending a Jewish school.
By the time I was getting ready for first grade, I no longer required crutches, but I still needed heavy metal braces. I could walk steps, albeit slowly. My parents started the battle to get me admitted into a Jewish school. The English principal and the first-grade English teacher were adamantly opposed to my attending the school, while the Hebrew principal and first-grade Hebrew teacher believed that for an observant Jewish child a Jewish school was the only option. After months of fighting, Mrs. Ruth Kalish, a”h, who was to be my first-grade teacher, won the battle when she proclaimed that in the event of a fire she would carry me down the stairs. Thus began my yeshivah education, ultimately leading me to two master’s degrees and a career in education as a speech-language pathologist.
And it’s all because of a teacher named Mrs. Ruth Kalish.
Lillie Mermelstein Epner lives in Brooklyn, New York.
By Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, as told to Leah Lightman
Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Warshavchik, a”h, was my rebbi when I was a post-high school bachur in the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva (RJJ) on New York’s Lower East Side. The product of pre-World War II Lithuanian yeshivos, he had learned in Baranovich under Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman and in Kaminetz under Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz. After securing a visa from the famous Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, he spent the war years in Shanghai, his days filled with Jewish learning and teaching. Arriving in New York after the war, he met with Rabbi Dr. Hillel Weiss, who recruited him to join the RJJ faculty.
Rabbi Warshavchik introduced me and my classmates to the “power of hasbarah.” His shiur wasn’t simply about explaining the Gemara. He possessed a clarity in learning, the ability to give over knowledge with lucidity and precision—which he instilled in us. He was adamant that if you cannot explain a gemara to others, then you don’t understand it. When you understand it and give it over, you can take pride in what you’ve done.
Hasbarah came to life on Friday mornings when Rabbi Warshavchik’s shiur would become a chaburah-in-rotation. We each had to prepare the gemara in advance in order to present the material to our classmates. Rabbi Warshavchik critiqued us, and he did not hold back an iota of criticism, but it was all done with warmth and love. These Friday mornings fashioned my foundation for developing and conveying clarity in all areas of life.
My rebbi’s influence extended beyond the shiur. He emphasized the importance of how we presented and comported ourselves; he spoke about the need to conduct ourselves with class and refinement. He insisted that we refer to one another by our formal names—I had always been “Heshy,” but in his shiur I was “Tzvi Hersh.” And he maintained that we must speak with proper diction, grammar and syntax.
Rabbi Warshavchik taught us about shtaht, which connotes prestige or class in the Lithuanian Yeshivish milieu from which he came. It comes from within the person and is about self-respect and dignity. He exemplified shtaht himself.
I heeded Rabbi Warshavchik’s advice to attend college (part time) to prepare for a career, and I turned to him for guidance in shidduchim and subsequently in other areas of life. I maintained a lifelong connection with my rebbi until his passing in 1988.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president, emeritus of the OU.
Leah Lightman is a longtime contributor to Jewish Action.
“You Can Do It”
By Toby Klein Greenwald
In the mid ‘60s, when the world seemed to be going a little mad and lots of teenagers were spinning out of control, four friends and I made the decision to move from Yeshivath Adath B’nai Israel, at that time the best afternoon Talmud Torah in Cleveland, to Yavne High School for Girls, which had been founded by Telshe Yeshiva (and had become part of the Hebrew Academy). Our principal was Rebbetzin Rochel Sorotzkin, a”h, daughter of Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch, the Telzer Rav and rosh yeshivah, and the wife of Rav Boruch Sorotzkin, zt”l, later co-rosh yeshivah of Telshe, who had survived the Shoah by escaping through Shanghai.
All the Jewish studies were in Hebrew, but the Hebrew of those of us who had switched schools was not on a par with the other students. We struggled daily with the demanding academic program, receiving special help from the Yavne seminary students and from our fellow classmates, who welcomed us with love and joy.
In spite of the heavy pressure to bridge our gap in knowledge and language, Rebbetzin Sorotzkin (“Morah Rochel”) had the wisdom to encourage us to continue to develop our other talents. When I was only in tenth grade, she gave me the task of directing a school play—“Of Wrought Gold Was Her Garment”—that would be produced and performed by the entire student body before women in the community. It was about Chana, Deborah and Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva—and I also wrote that third segment. (I still have the crumbling photo that appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News with a caption stating that the other two parts were written by Rassia Sorotzkin, a”h, Morah Rochel’s daughter, and by Abigail and Jacqueline Engelberg.)
I had to direct students who were one or two years older than I. I can’t imagine what possessed Morah Rochel to give that role to a tenthgrader, a newcomer to the school. I can’t imagine where her faith in me, and others, came from. How did she know we would rise to the challenge?
We worked on the production for months. It was a defining event in my life, as an educator, a mother and—today—as a theater director and playwright in Israel whose proudest theater achievement is that of the women’s Biblical shows in the Raise Your Spirits Theatre in Gush Etzion.
In addition to her teaching expertise, “Morah” was an example of how to keep a sense of humor while running a tight ship, and how a Torah-observant woman could dress modestly but always be meticulous in her appearance.
There are educators who are great orators, who see themselves as the stars on center stage. And there are educators whose raison d’etre is to propel their students forward, to tell them, “You can do it.” From 2006 to 2008, I worked on a theatrical study project culminating in a production with a group in Ulpana Neve Dekalim—the girls high school that was originally in Gush Katif. Most of the actresses were in tenth grade. When the principal asked me if they could handle the project in the aftermath of the traumatic uprooting and destruction of their homes in 2005, I said confidently, “Sure they can.”
The day Morah Rochel was being brought to her final rest in 2006, my Raise Your Spirits troupe was recording a CD of our show “Ruth & Naomi in the Fields of Bethlehem.” I allowed myself some quiet moments of reflection and a few tears as I sat on the chair in the recording studio hearing our cast sing my lyrics to the concluding verse of “The Processional,” after Ruth and Naomi have emerged with the child born to Ruth and Boaz, from whom King David would descend.
The future is now
The nation will know
We’ve achieved a new dimension—
Hear them sing Your praise
In a circle of redemption
Till the end of days.
I think Morah would have been proud.
Toby Klein Greenwald is an educator, an award-winning theater director and the recipient of numerous AJPA awards for “Excellence in Jewish Journalism.” She has authored or co-authored seven Biblical musicals.
No Gap Is Too Far
By Toby Klein Greenwald
Rebbetzin Chassia Sorotzkin was a bit of an anomaly in the Yavne High School for Girls landscape. She and her husband Rav Eliezer, zt”l, had been in Israel on a Sabbatical some years earlier, at which time she studied under the legendary Tanach teacher Professor Nechama Leibowitz. I knew she revered her. It was only later, when I had the zechut to study under Nechama while spending the year at Machon Gold in Israel, that I fully comprehended how unusual it was for a teacher from Yavne to have been her devout student.
Rebbetzin Chassia was clever and lively and had a great sense of humor and irony. And nobody could dance at a wedding like she did.
I was a fervent member of Bnei Akiva in my high school years, and intense ideological arguments occasionally broke out in our class between those of us in Bnei Akiva and our friends who were in Bnos, the Agudah girls’ youth group. All of our Jewish studies teachers apparently identified with Agudah. (At the time, Yavne was the only Jewish girls high school in Cleveland, and in retrospect I am grateful that we all studied together.) In the middle of tenth grade, I had a bit of an identity crisis and considered switching my allegiance from Bnei Akiva to Bnos. I asked Rebbetzin Chassia during a break if I could consult with her. We went into an empty classroom, and when the consultation took longer than the break and students came to call her, she told them she was busy and gave them classwork to do so she could continue talking to me. The bottom line was that she strongly advised me to stay in Bnei Akiva. I was low-hanging fruit for Bnos, but she believed Bnei Akiva was right for me, and, in general, she spoke highly of the movement.
She and Rav Eliezer made aliyah to Israel several years after I did, and we stayed in touch. She also stayed in touch with Nechama Leibowitz. When Nechama was sitting shivah for her husband, Rebbetzin Chassia asked me to join her in the shivah call. We missed it by one day, and when we visited, Nechama was sitting alone on her back porch in her rocking chair. She thanked us profusely for coming, because all week her house had been full of hundreds of people, she said, and now she was alone. It was a life lesson for me—that mourners also need support, perhaps even more so, in the days following the shivah.
I watched the conversation between these two learned women. On the face of it, they came from two very different hashkafic backgrounds, but the basis of their friendship was limud Torah. Each one was a talmidah chachamah. They knew how to communicate with each other, and I observed the mutual respect and affection they had for one another. For me, that was another great lesson in life.
Time went on, and I became involved in Gesher, an organization that aims to bridge the gaps in Israeli society between people with diverse religious views. And in my theater troupes, I always make a point to include actors who span the religious and hashkafic gamut.
Rebbetzin Chassia Sorotzkin—and Professor Nechama Leibowitz—taught me that when one’s heart is in Torah, no gap is too far to be bridged.
By R. Rosenfeld
Years ago, when clearing out my parents’ home after their passing, I came across my old report cards. I had graduated with good grades, so I was surprised by what I found. My marks in my early years were worse than I remembered, and then suddenly one year all my grades improved. When I noted the year, it turned out to be the year I had my special Morah.
Her name was either Morah Lifshitz or Lipschitz; I can no longer recall which. I was young and actually believed for a while that her name was Morah “Lipstick,” until someone disappointed me with the truth. But that is how I remember her, as my Morah Lipstick.
The previous year, I had a teacher who never called on me to be the chazzanit. But Morah Lipstick did. Morah Lipstick called on everybody. She didn’t have a teacher’s pet; she was fair to everyone. She looked at me, she smiled at me, she called on me and she praised my answers. She made me feel smart. But she did that for all of us, and we knew it. When we decorated our Pesach notebooks, she offered to customize our pages for us. We could ask her for any decoration on any page; she added exquisite hand lettering and flowers as per our wishes. I remember finally feeling special in school and wanting to make her proud of me. It’s no surprise that my grades shot up.
She was the Jewish version of Farrah Fawcett, who was popular at the time. She had the same kind blue eyes, layered flips in her blonde hair and wide white smile. She was, however, more modest. She wore blouses with long puffy sleeves and the floppy long bow at the neck that was in vogue at the time. We wore white blouses for our uniform, and my mother bought me a blouse with two long strips at the neck that I could tie into a bow like Morah Lipstick. I was ecstatic. I wanted to look like her and be like her.
Every Friday, for our last class of the day, she would shut the lights and read a chapter of Marcus Lehmann’s The Family Aguilar. It was about the Spanish Inquisition and the Marranos. It was the first time I had heard about the Inquisition, and I remember being gripped by the story, watching Morah Lipstick intently as she read the words with her soft cadence. Her eyes and lipstick shone in the darkened room as she made the story come alive for us, taking what could have been a boring history lesson and setting the stage for us to envision the events and empathize with the characters.
Decades later, when I held that report card in my hand, I realized that although I hadn’t kept most of my notebooks, I still had the Pesach notebook that Morah Lipstick had decorated. Why had I kept that one? That notebook with her custom drawings is my only memento of the teacher who made me feel I mattered. She validated me. She was beautiful, and she made her students feel beautiful too. It was those little things, like a smile or word of acknowledgment, that had a long-lasting impact. In the years that followed, I had some good teachers and some who were not so good, but I never got a bad grade again—because of Morah Lipstick.
R. Rosenfeld lives in Brooklyn.
A Natural Teacher
By Carol Fried
While I enjoyed—yes, enjoyed—Mrs. Marcy Stern’s limudei kodesh classes at Bais Yaakov of Queens High School during the ‘70s, as a teacher myself I now understand exactly why.
Mrs. Stern was a natural. Her ”classroom management” style was her sheer love of learning, and her broad knowledge no matter the subject was astounding. She did not lecture us but took us along on her journey of learning, regardless of how many times she herself had been through the material. In every subject, from Tanach to Jewish history to Ivris, her enthusiasm made the material real and relevant. In the era before student tracking, I don’t remember there being any behavior challenges in Mrs. Stern’s classes. Every student was engaged in her classes to some degree—you just couldn’t help yourself!
A Morah’s Kindness
By Adina Feldman
One of the greatest teachers I ever had was at a well-known elementary school in the New York area. Her name was Susan Lampert (Lieberman). She basically saved me from a very difficult class where I was teased and tormented for being different. I didn’t come from the same socioeconomic background as the extremely privileged children from the local area. My clothing was different, and I didn’t get to fly to Puerto Rico or the Bahamas during every school break. Morah Lieberman was a kind person; she saw everything that went on and never turned a blind eye. She also encouraged my love for learning because she taught everything with passion; her love for Torah, mitzvot and the Hebrew language was apparent. She was my teacher for three consecutive years, and to this day, I will never forget her kindness and support during the three toughest years of my childhood.
A Forty-Year Career
By Janine Muller Sherr
Mr. Irving (Yitzchok) Eisner was the Hebrew principal of Associated Hebrew Schools of Toronto, which was, when I was growing up in the 1980s, one of the largest Jewish day schools in North America. But for me and my classmates, he was Mr. Eisner, our fifth-grade Hebrew teacher.
He was a dynamic teacher, deeply passionate about communicating his love of Judaism, Chumash, Navi, Ivrit and the State of Israel to his students. I remember being mesmerized by him as he paced in front of our class, expounding on an idea or relating an inspiring story.
Drama and music were important in Mr. Eisner’s class. We recited Tefillat Chanah from Sefer Shmuel by heart. We also acted in two plays he had written about Sefer Shmuel and Purim. He taught us popular Israeli songs and we kept a special notebook for recording wise sayings of the Sages. Amazingly, I can still recall some of them.
Mr. Eisner had high expectations, and he enjoyed challenging us. He was a strong proponent of teaching “Ivrit b’Ivrit”; we spoke mostly Hebrew in his class, and all of our classwork, tests and compositions were written in Hebrew too.
He was a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia whose family was killed in Auschwitz. “Never Again” wasn’t a mere slogan for him; Holocaust remembrance was the focal point of his life. Soon after I left his class, Mr. Eisner published his Holocaust memoirs, Dachau Prisoner 89012. In the book’s introduction, he describes the “deal” he made with G-d in the camps that if he survived the horror, he would dedicate his life to teaching children for “without the children there is no future for Your Chosen People.” True to his word, Mr. Eisner went on to teach hundreds of children over the course of his illustrious forty-year career in Jewish education.
Janine Muller Sherr is a freelance writer and former English and Judaic studies teacher. She lives in New York City with her family.
He Never Doubted
By Yaffa Ganz
Most people can remember one special teacher who cared, who really taught, the one who made a difference. I remember one too.
It was in a different era when day schools weren’t what they are now. Only children of highly dedicated Jewish parents (on the one hand), or highly problematic children who weren’t welcome in public schools (on the other), graced the portals of the fledgling day schools in the United States. Teachers were often Yiddish-speaking refugees from Europe; boilers broke down with increasing frequency in the middle of the winter; salaries went unpaid.
These pioneer day schools were a no-frill affair: no swimming, no gym, no laboratories or libraries, no home economics or school trips. Nothing except classroom learning, seven and a half hours per day plus a half-hour break for lunch. In this no-nonsense atmosphere, the quality of your learning experience was absolutely and solely dependent upon one factor: your teacher.
For two years of my young life, I was blessed with a wonderful teacher. Every morning, a stout, smiling man with a wispy white beard energetically pumped me and the rest of my restless classmates with the glory of G-d’s Torah, the knowledge of His heritage, the uniqueness of His people. His name was Rabbi Eliyahu Bloch, and he showered us, the new generation of “Amerikaners,” with love and devotion. He prepared our lessons as carefully as though we were students in a Yoreh Deah shiur and spiced them all with common sense and lots of pedagogical creativity. It made no difference that we were only fifth-graders; he taught us with a fiery passion.
He couldn’t have been old, although to my young eyes he always seemed elderly. I thought he was tall, but in later years I realized he was on the short side. I never thought to ask where he had come from, although he was obviously from Lithuanian rather than Chassidic stock. He played no part in my normal, after-school everyday life, yet he filled my world with knowledge and love of Torah.
Today, many years later, I still find it difficult to believe how much we learned at our old, scratched-up desks, squinting at a glary blackboard (the school couldn’t afford the newer, green boards) and listening to a heavily accented, highly unconventional English. But learn we did—Chumash, Navi, halachah, Ivris and Yiddish (grammar, spelling and “kesivah yafah“ because it was important to write legibly), tefillah, history and all sorts of vital things that refuse to be classified.
Rashi was a force to be reckoned with; we could never begin a Rashi until we had first figured out “what Rashi was asking.” Davening was serious business; no mumbling allowed. I left Rabbi Bloch’s class knowing most of Shacharis by heart. I could even write it all out, no mean feat for a ten-year-old American girl! And even today, his two “davening signs” are clearly engraved on my mind: “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi samid” (“I have set G-d before me at all times”) and “Da lifnei Mi atah omed” (“Know before Whom you stand”).
He sang, too, in the days before Mordechai Ben David and Avraham Fried and Shlomo Carlebach. I can see him now, holding his high black silk yarmulke with one hand, singing and pointing to the words on the blackboard with his wooden pointer.
When I came home chanting the trop (cantillation) one day, my father questioned the wisdom of teaching “boys’ knowledge to girls” (since our small class consisted of both, the girls learned whatever the boys learned!), but Rabbi Bloch knew that no knowledge is ever wasted. That knowledge has given me great pleasure through years of listening to Kerias HaTorah.
And, I must add, in those pre-feminist days, Rabbi Bloch never for a moment transmitted the feeling that girls’ learning was inferior [to boys’ learning]. There was never a question that Jewish girls were absolutely, unquestionably vital to the welfare of the nation and that they must be Jewishly educated.
I remember his burning, unending, overwhelming love for Eretz Yisrael. He himself had never actually seen the Land—not with his eyes, but no matter. He had seen it through the eyes of the Torah, and like the Torah, he made it glow, live, beckon.
I remember the day he told us that Jews were fighting for their lives in Israel’s War of Independence in l948 and things were not going well. He explained how the Jews of Shushan were saved by the prayers of the children. Now, he said, the rabbanim had declared a day of prayer and it was our turn and our duty to stand up and pray with all our heart and all our might for our brothers in Eretz Yisrael. Surely Hashem would listen to us—young children born of a long and bitter exile—and would bring victory to the Jews.
I have said Avinu Malkeinu many times since that fifth-grade class, but I doubt if any Avinu Malkeinu has matched the fervor and kavanah of that teary prayer. I like to think that in G-d’s great scheme of things, the davening in our class helped.
Rabbi Bloch would be proud and happy—and amazed beyond words—to see his former students today. They include an impressive number of wonderful people, both in America and in Israel. Many of us are still good friends.
On second thought, perhaps he wouldn’t be amazed at all. There was never any doubt in his mind that the tree of Torah would take root—even in America. And that his students would be the branches, and the flowers, and the leaves.
Yaffa Ganz is a popular author living in Israel. This essay is based on an article that originally appeared in her book All Things Considered: From a Woman’s Point of View (New York, 1990).
A Higher Calling
By Rachel Schwartzberg
Ora Rubin often heard a similar refrain when people heard she wanted to be a teacher: Young men who plan to learn in kollel might not even consider dating a teacher. They are interested in marrying a woman with a more lucrative and “easy” career path.
“Fortunately, that wasn’t my experience,” says Rubin. Now married with two small children, Rubin is in her second year as a Pre-1A (kindergarten) morah at a girls school in Queens, New York. “My family was very supportive of my chosen career,” she says. “Many of my relatives are in education, so it didn’t come as a shock to them that I chose this field—even though it’s not a common path anymore.”
Rubin was inspired to become a teacher by her own personal experience. “My father is in Jewish education,” she explains. “That was our life when I was growing up—not just my father’s but my whole family’s. I saw that chinuch was very meaningful to my parents, and it became meaningful to me as well. There is no greater privilege than teaching Torah.”
Rubin admits that she takes her work home with her every day, putting in a lot of time beyond school hours, time she wishes she got paid for.
“At night, I’m speaking to parents and I’m doing lesson planning,” she says. Nevertheless, she loves her job. “I work in a school that challenges teachers to make learning exciting for the students,” she explains. “Every day in the classroom looks different. Working with preschoolers, I feel I’m laying the foundation for their life skills, which is a very special way to spend my days.”
Rachel Schwartzberg is a writer and editor who lives with her family in Memphis, Tennessee.
Giving Me a Chance
By Avigial Gersht
“Do you read Harry Potter?” the rabbi asked me earnestly.
“Um … no,” I replied. I was surprised. Isn’t this supposed to be a Bais Yaakov school? Why are you asking me questions about fantasy fiction and which bands I listen to? I wondered. This wasn’t what I envisioned for my Tiferes High School interview.
Why are you speaking my language? is what I was really thinking.
And that was the beginning of an eventful four-year high-school career. Of many ups and downs, highs and lows, fear and rebellion. Questioning my faith, struggling with my identity and fighting to find my place in the world. The solid ground that was my foundation and safety during those tumultuous years was one consistent factor—Rabbi Yitzchak Feigenbaum, a rabbi who accepted me where I was, yet still held a vision for who I could be. He believed in me. He saw me. He wouldn’t give up on me.
I thought teenagers were supposed to be young and dumb with a vendetta against authority. And I thought authorities were outdated, not in touch with the generation and always had an agenda. Why was “The Rabbi” breaking down these deeply planted stereotypes? I was subconsciously fighting his belief in me, testing the waters, pushing the limits, waiting for him to break. Spoiler alert: he didn’t.
My friend’s parents went out of town one weekend, so we unanimously decided to have an open-house party. Word spread, and we were ratted out. Monday morning, my two friends and I were called into the rabbi’s office. Hearts beating rapidly, hands sweating, trying to conjure up innocence on our faces, we were invited to tell him our narrative. The rabbi conveniently had a sign behind his desk that read, “If you tell the truth, you never have to remember what you said.” He always wanted to hear the truth, even when it was ugly.
The consequences were that Penina* was given a warning, then was dismissed from his office. Nechama* got a phone call to her parents. And I got suspended! How was that fair? The party hadn’t even been in my house! At the time I was furious, because it simply wasn’t fair. As an adult, I am amazed at his foresight, his ability to treat each of us uniquely and his genuine desire for our growth. If Penina’s Chassidic parents would have found out what she did, they would have broken her emotionally, crushing her essence, making personal progress impossible and only inviting bitterness. Nechama already had so much going on that anything more would have been too much. In my situation, this was exactly the push I needed to straighten out.
With all his patience, understanding, compassion and genuine confidence in us, he still held us to a high standard. Detention, suspension and uniform regulations are always part of school, but it was how and why they were implemented—with the intention of having the student’s best interests in mind. It was never about punishing or being “frum”; it was about self-evolution and authenticity. The Rabbi did not engage in today’s ever-pervasive model of “anything you can do, I can do frummer,” and “the school with the most rules wins!” He saw who we could be, even and especially when we couldn’t see it in ourselves.
As I reflect back on the innumerable times I sat swiveling in the office chair, one sign behind the rabbi’s desk stands out in particular: “The greatest gift you can give someone is a chance.” Rabbi Feigenbaum gave me a chance. He gave all of his students the greatest gift.
*Names were changed.
Avigial Gersht lives in Jerusalem.
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