DAY 1/8 – RABBI BARRY KATZ – #8days8teachers
The best teachers aren’t those who wish to dazzle their students with their own bright light. Instead, they are those who help each of their students find and nurture the light within themselves – and one such teacher was Rabbi Barry Katz.
In the years that I attended Hasmonean High School for Boys (aka ‘Hasmo’), there was a general tendency to regard the more Jewishly knowledgeable students as the more Jewishly capable students. What this meant was that those students who attended Jewish primary schools with less rigorous Jewish learning programs hit a glass ceiling and were unable to excel in their Jewish learning. Moreover, as those in ‘lower’ Jewish studies sets studied different material from those in the ‘higher’ sets, this further impeded mobility from one set to another. Ultimately, rather than Jewish studies being taught in classes, a default class system existed which determined not only what you knew, but what you were able to know as well.
However, Rabbi Katz was different. As my first Gemara teacher when I was aged 14 Rabbi Katz believed that students should be rewarded on their effort and progress, and it was precisely as a result of my effort and progress that I received an end of year prize. This prize gave me a huge boost in confidence and though I did not change sets as a result of this prize, I did change the way I looked at myself as a Jewish learner.
Over the years I pushed myself further in my Jewish studies and 20 years later, having studied in yeshiva & university, then become the Head of Jewish Studies at Immanuel College, and later received semicha, I became Rabbi Katz’s colleague at Hasmonean where he was the Head of Jewish Studies at the Boys’ school and I the Head of Jewish Studies at the Girls’ school. Rabbi Katz and I would often sit together at meetings, and on almost every occasion I would think back to the time 20 years beforehand when he showed me what true education is all about. When Rabbi Katz retired I wrote him a long letter in which I explained how he had made a huge difference to my life which he greatly appreciated.
All those who know me will attest that both during my career at Hasmonean and elsewhere I have worked hard to democratize Jewish education and ensure that ALL students are given the best chance to learn and grow. This is because while Jewish learning may occur in classrooms, Jewish learning should never be a matter of class.
So to Rabbi Barry Katz, I say THANK YOU for helping me find and nurture the light within myself, and as a teacher, do the same for my students.
DAY 2/8 – DAYAN GERSHON LOPIAN ZT”L – #8days8teachers
The greatest of teachers are those whose teachings, values and personal example continue to guide and inspire their students even after they are gone, and I can certainly say that this is the case with Mori V’Rabbi, Dayan Gershon Lopian zt’l.
For many, myself included, Dayan Lopian was the posek to call for both the not-so-serious and the most serious of halakhic questions. Whenever I or others would call or go to see the Dayan he would begin with some light-hearted greeting and then, after having understood the question being addressed, he would provide crystal clear yet highly personalized guidance. Of course, each of these encounters were profound teaching moments and I learnt so much not only from how the Dayan dealt with my personal questions, but also from observing how he answered other queries that occurred while I was with him. Just like Rav Pam who once remarked to a teacher, ‘don’t teach subjects, teach students’, Dayan Lopian didn’t answer she’elot (questions); rather, he answered sho’alim (questioners), and this approach of personalizing learning and guidance has strongly shaped how I relate to, and guide, my own students.
However, while Dayan Lopian was a posek who taught through his rulings, he was also a teacher – and for all those fortunate to attend his many shiurim at the Yeshurun Federation Synagogue, it was here where the Dayan revealed a different side of his Torah personality. Of course, Dayan Lopian would deliver sermons and short weekly shiurim, and naturally, both blended wisdom, humour and often a good story to boot! However, it was his more in-depth shiurim that occurred once a week and over the Chagim where the Dayan shared some of the subtler approaches of the great Torah sources that he loved such as Reb Chayim, the Maharshag and the Chazon Ish. During these moments Dayan Lopian was not just the teacher but also a student, and his genuine excitement of studying and sharing these sources was palpable to all those present. This was when I came to realise that those who love teaching the most are those who are most in love with the act of learning and sharing this love with their students.
So to the Dayan I say THANK YOU for being there whenever I needed you, THANK YOU for illuminating my Torah path, THANK YOU for applying your Torah knowledge with care and sensitivity, and THANK YOU for teaching Torah with warmth and love.
DAY 3/8 – DR. CHANA SAFRAI Z”L – #8days8teachers
When I think about the many teachers that have had a long-term impact on me it is interesting that while some taught me for many months or years, some taught me for just a brief period of time. Still, their ideas and values continue to resonate with me till today and for that I am deeply grateful.
Between 2004-2005 I was given the opportunity to attend a number of seminars at the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI) in Jerusalem where senior Jewish educators from across the Jewish denominational spectrum came to learn about curriculum development. For me, this was a step into the unknown as the SHI is a pluralistic institution and many of the other attendees were non-Orthodox Jewish educators. But having recently been appointed Head of Jewish Studies and with an interest in developing my expertise, this was an opportunity too great to be missed.
During these seminars I met some wonderful educators and learnt from some outstanding scholars. However, it was a series of classes, and subsequently, numerous informal chats and a memorable Shabbat meal at the home of one particular teacher which had a significant impact on me. The name of that teacher was Professor Chana Safrai.
The moment I met Chana we immediately clicked. Chana was warm and friendly, and though I had just met her, it felt that we had known each other for years! But behind the almost grandmotherly appearance of Chana was a woman of profound Torah learning, deep principles, and an unstoppable drive to make a difference.
Chana lived in many worlds. She was a feminist, she was an academic, she was a Torah scholar and she was an interfaith activist. However, most significantly, she was an optimist who believed that just because a situation is as it is, it doesn’t mean that this is how it ought to be.
In terms of her learning and teaching, Chana used her outstanding Torah knowledge to explore the place of women in rabbinic literature and to discuss how to these texts can remain relevant in a society and at a time when women hold a very different place, and from Chana I learnt how to grapple with modern problems while treating rabbinic texts with respect and integrity. Though at the start of my profession, and Chana at her peak, she treated me as an equal and we had numerous candid conversations about the state of Orthodoxy in Israel and beyond.
Sadly, Chana passed away in 2008. However, her literary output, along with the many organisations and initiatives that she established, continue to shine a light in her merit. So to Chana I say THANK YOU for being you and for sharing your knowledge, your passion and your values; your voice is dearly missed, but your lessons continue to enrich and inspire many people across the globe.
DAY 4/8 – PHILIP SKELKER – #8days8teachers
Though I have been teaching informally since I was a teenager, and formally since returning from yeshiva and teaching at Belmont Cheder, there is no doubt that my most formative teaching years occurred at Immanuel College between 1999-2006.
There are lots of reasons why this chapter of my life was so significant. From a personal perspective, it was during this period – which began when I was aged 23 and ended when I was 30 – when I became engaged, was married and was blessed with two children. Professionally, it was during this time that I qualified as a teacher, received outstanding mentoring from people such as Dennis Felsenstein, Jeffrey Leader and Rabbi Dr. Eli Kohn, and eventually became Head of Jewish Studies.
Overall, the students at Immanuel College were great, and my colleagues were magnificent. However, so much of my growth, inspiration and positivity from this period is rooted in the outstanding leadership of the Headteacher of Immanuel College for six of those seven years, Mr. Philip Skelker.
Though the Headteacher, Philip was first and foremost a teacher who took a profound interest in every single student in the school. Rather than being cloistered in an office, Philip ensured that he taught classes to the very youngest and very oldest students of the school because to be a Headteacher means to truly love the art of teaching. Philip is a man of many qualities, and these include the manners of a true gentleman, the vision of a great leader, and an abundance of wisdom. Beyond this, Philip is one of the humblest people who you could ever meet!
In terms of his impact on me, Philip demonstrated – day after day – how to lead according to your values; how to be true to yourself; how to think outside of the box, and how to truly seek the best for others. Though someone with many responsibilities, whenever speaking with Philip you knew that you had his undivided attention and that he would give the best advice for you and your future. On Yom Hazikaron Philip wouldn’t offer platitudes about the loss of soldiers. Instead, he would speak of his own son who was injured because Philip is someone who speaks from the heart and was never anything other than authentic.
I have often said that the best way to judge an organization is to see how they treat their employees not when they arrive but when they leave. When I decided to leave Immanuel College to pursue my semicha studies I knew that this would put more responsibilities on Philip to find a replacement. Yet despite this, he was incredibly supportive of my choice because the best teachers seek the best for those whom they guide.
So to Philip I say THANK YOU for being an outstanding mentor and role model, THANK YOU for showing me what it means to lead with warmth, sincerity and authenticity, and THANK YOU for showing how to guide each student to find their own inner light.
DAY 5/8 – RABBI HAYYIM DAVID HALEVY ZT”L – #8days8teachers
Though I never had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy (1924-1998), I will never forget the first time I encountered him.
Ever since I was in Yeshiva twenty-two years ago I have been fascinated by responsa literature which are, for those unfamiliar, Jewish legal texts that contain questions posed to Rabbis and their halakhic responses. What makes responsa literature so fascinating is that this is where the changing needs of the Jewish people are met by the greatest of Jewish leaders through their innovative interpretations of Jewish texts. Over the years I have studied many responsa texts because these fascinating works have the potential of offering great insight into how we can address some of the many challenges we are facing in the modern world.
Twenty years ago while I was visiting Jewish library in London I noticed a few small green volumes titled ‘Asseh Lecha Rav’ by a Rabbi Halevy. Having never seen these volumes before or heard of the author, I opened one up to learn more about this newly ‘discovered’ posek (halakhic decisor) and the type of questions he addressed. And once I did, I stood there for at least an hour as I became utterly engrossed.
Unlike classical responsa works, Asseh Lecha Rav is written in modern Hebrew, and in contrast to many responsa works that are either written in the diaspora or in Israel while paying little regard for matters pertaining to the State of Israel, Asseh Lecha Rav actively addressed many topics relating to Medinat Yisrael. Most significantly, however, was the fact that the questions addressed by Rabbi Halevy were not merely technical issues asked by other Rabbis. Instead, they were personal, practical, emotional and theological questions that had been asked by a wide range of people who clearly felt that they could turn to him with whatever was on their mind or going on in their life.
The more I read, the more I connected to Rabbi Halevy. In his writing and his decisions I encountered a posek who understood the needs of the time and who recognised that it was his duty to plumb the depths of Torah to address those needs, and unusually, as Rabbi Halevy wrote from both the heart and the mind, even his most legalistic of remarks seemed to be underpinned by a profound sense of spirituality.
Since first encountering the teachings of Rabbi Halevy I have endeavored to quote and explore his thought in many settings and articles while also acquiring and learning all of his other books. Rabbi Halevy once remarked that ‘he considers his books to be his yeshiva and the readers of his books to be his students’, and therefore, as someone who has spent much of the past twenty years learning these books, I am proud to call myself a student of Rabbi Halevy and him, one of my greatest teachers.
DAY 6/8 – RABBI LORD JONATHAN SACKS – #8days8teachers
In order for someone to be your teacher, you need to become their student, and ironically, it took me a while to do this with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
When I think back on how I perceived Chief Rabbi Sacks in the first years of his Chief Rabbinate while I was a teenager, I saw him as a leader and role model for the community in general, but not for me personally. However, from my early 20’s I had a number of opportunities to meet Chief Rabbi Sacks. I attended some of his talks. Then I had the fortune to attend a few gatherings at his home, and later on, he delivered a number of shiurim in my semicha studies. Through these encounters I began to see the person beyond the title while also appreciating the subtleties within what he was trying to teach. Though I had read one or two of his books, I started to read more of them and I also began using some of his ideas in my classroom, and the more I taught the ideas of Chief Rabbi Sacks, the more I came to appreciate how dynamic they were.
It should be noted that while I was just one of the many people who admired Chief Rabbi Sacks, what made and makes him particularly special is that he would always offer me – and so many others – words of support and encouragement. Though there were a few instances where this was expressed, perhaps the most touching occurred when I invited Chief Rabbi Sacks as the keynote speaker to a student conference that I had organized. When he arrived, he gave me a gift (it was a book about Jewish Education), in which he inscribed the following message:
‘To Johnny – In great friendship and admiration. You have great achievements ahead of you – may ה’ be with you all the way. בברכה, Jonathan Sacks’.
Of course, it wasn’t just the unnecessary gift that touched me. Instead, it was the message itself – because a true teacher is someone who believes in their students.
Over time I read more and more of Rabbi Sacks’ teachings, and four years ago I decided to add a new course to those that I teach in seminary on ‘The Thought of Rabbi Sacks’. This is because I came to realize that the best way to help young people learn how to live a proud Jewish life is for them to learn what makes Judaism special and understand how best to communicate these ideas with others – and nobody does this better than Rabbi Sacks. In preparation of this course I read/re-read all the books that Rabbi Sacks had published, and over a period of time, I – along with some contributions from Dan Sacker – created a database of teachings of Rabbi Sacks arranged by topic. I naturally shared this with Rabbi Sacks’ office as a gesture of appreciation for all that I had learnt from Rabbi Sacks and who placed the database on his website. Soon after, I received a lovely message from Rabbi Sacks in which he wrote:
‘I am thrilled with the online database, and Dan tells me it would not have happened without your terrific help in collating and sorting a huge number of quotes from my books. Johnny, thank you so much for all the time and energy you have spent doing this. I write books, but I must be honest, I avoid reading them! So it is always heartening to hear that they are being used in such wonderful ways. Together with Elaine, I wish you and your family continued blessings and success in all you do.’
Since then I have continued to teach and expand my course, and I have also had the privilege of assisting the Office of Rabbi Sacks on a number of occasions. Nowadays, not a day goes by when I don’t cite – either through a direct quote or paraphrase – an idea of Rabbi Sacks, and I am delighted that so many of my students have since invested further time learning the books of Rabbi Sacks, with a number of them having also met with him as well.
So to Rabbi Sacks I say THANK YOU for all you have taught me, THANK YOU for all you have inspired me to teach others, and THANK YOU for all your encouragement & support.
DAY 7/8 – DAYAN SAADIA AMOR ZT”L – #8days8teachers
Between 2006-2009 I studied at the Montefiore Kollel in London where my principal maggid shiur – who was also the Rosh Bet Din – was Dayan Saadia Amor zt’l.
Until his appointment to both roles, Dayan Amor – who was originally born in Morocco in 1940 and who lived in Manchester – was not a known figure to many in London, even though he was the Rav HaMachshir at Rakusen’s and actively involved in the Leeds Bet Din. He sought no honour and shunned all honour. Yet, as Chazal say, ‘he who flees from greatness, greatness follows him’ (Eruvin 13b), and those who had the privilege to spend time with the Dayan soon realised that he was a truly great man.
Given the small size of the Kollel, I was able to spend much time with Dayan Amor who, as it happens, had studied together with Dayan Lopian zt’l in Sunderland Kollel, and through our extensive learning and our many conversations emerged a deep bond of respect and love.
Dayan Amor was someone of immense patience, and he would review our learning many times with us to ensure that we understood its meaning and implications. Still, while Dayan Amor spoke softly, he knew the importance protecting the principles and integrity of Torah, and though he was someone of great sensitivity, he was often prepared to render halakhic rulings that were bold and creative. And how was this so? Because Dayan Amor was one of those rare individuals whose fear of G-d outweighed his fear of others.
Over the years I was fortunate to assist Dayan Amor in a number of areas such as transcribing some of his teshuvot (responsa) and discussing matters of policy. Yet even when I saw him experiencing great stress as a result of one of his rulings, what was clear was how everything he did was ‘Lishma’ – for the sake of heaven. As I neared towards the end of my time at the Kollel I too experienced much stress as my wife Donna was unwell. Yet throughout this period Dayan Amor was incredibly supportive, and his words of encouragement and chizuk carried me through these difficult days.
The last conversation that I had with Dayan Amor occurred some years after I left the Kollel when I again turned to him for chizuk. During this conversation I explained to Dayan Amor that while I joined the Kollel in order to get semicha, by the time I left I came to realise – primarily through his personal example – that the most important thing in life was to be a ‘Ben Torah’. During this conversation I asked Dayan Amor for advice about how to achieve this goal, and again he shared some of his precious words of wisdom with warmth and love.
Just under three years ago Dayan Amor zt’l died, and especially given the loss of Dayan Lopian zt’l so soon beforehand, I was devastated. As he was buried in Israel I was able to attend the levaya, and though I didn’t know most of his family who delivered their hespedim, it was clear from all that was said that the Dayan Amor that they knew and loved was the very same Dayan Amor whom I knew and loved. As we walked from the hall the burial site I made sure to be one of those carrying the stretcher, and during this walk – which felt like a lifetime – I expressed regret for any disrespect I may have previously shown to Dayan Amor, while also remembering the many times that his words carried me and how, in this brief gesture, I was trying to do the same.
Some people are Chachamim, while others are Tzaddikim. However, it is exceedingly rare to find someone with both qualities. From my perspective this was certainly the case with Dayan Amor zt’l, and it was a true honour to sit by his side for those many years and learn from his words, and especially, from his example.
DAY 8/8 – DONNA SOLOMON – #8days8teachers
Having spent the last week describing seven of my wonderful teachers, I have left the best till last because there is no doubt that since meeting Donna 17 years ago I have not stopped learning from her.
From Donna I have learnt to be self-aware, to communicate with emotional intelligence, to be an optimist, and to stand on principle. Moreover, Donna has taught me to think big, to pursue my dreams, to use every challenge as an opportunity
In terms of our personalities we are very different. Donna is more of an extrovert, while I, more of an introvert. Naturally each have their pro’s and con’s, but Donna has shown me how to find balance in my life and how to be confident in who I am.
Both as a wife, and as the mother of our five daughters, Donna has taught me how to give and how to love, which is why the gift of marrying Donna and having our daughters is the best thing that has ever happened to my life!
Having made Aliyah five and a half years ago and arriving and living without a steady income, Donna has been a true rock.
She has taught me the value of self-belief, coached me in perseverance, and reminded me that while we must work as hard as possible, we must always put our faith in G-d.
Regarding her role as a mother, Donna personifies the message that teaching by example is always more important than teaching by the book, which is why we chose to place the following teaching of Rav Wolbe prominently on our kitchen wall:
“The best education is a harmonious home where children observe their parents fulfilling the mitzvot with joy.”
Though the stresses of life sometimes make us need to look up at this teaching as a quick reminder, it is ultimately the mission statement of our home and our family.
So to Donna I say THANK YOU for being my wife and for teaching me to be a husband, THANK YOU for all your support and guidance, THANK YOU for the gift of our fabulous daughters, and THANK YOU for accompanying me on this incredible journey called life.