Rabbi Dr. David Eliach has had a storied career as an educator par excellence, serving as a beloved principal at Yeshiva of Flatbush for many decades. In celebration of his new book and his milestone 90th birthday, the Jewish Voice has conducted an exclusive interview with Rabbi Eliach.
JV: Tell us about your new book.
Rabbi Eliach: My new book, “Avar Shelo Avar” (“A Past That Has Not Passed”) tells the story of my childhood: how I transitioned from an ultra-orthodox home to the larger world and became Modern Orthodox in the process. In telling this story, I offer a window into the ultra-Orthodox world. I explain how I had a warm, loving home and how the lifestyle of my childhood continues to stir incredibly powerful feelings within me. This perspective has been lacking from most Israeli literature because most Israeli authors are not religious and have never experienced the ultra-orthodox world from within.
The book tells a story that is larger than my own experience though. Although it emphasizes their unique impact on me, historical events and themes permeate the book: the beautiful and the imperfect, the unique and the sublime, the abstention from the larger world. Through this larger context, the story demonstrates how it is possible to integrate the different worlds in which I grew up; how it is impossible to live a complete life with just one of those worlds. There is a need to combine the deeply committed roots of ultra-Orthodoxy with worldliness. This combination is an ideal that we can strive for by recognizing the need for Torah and Halacha, while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of the more mundane institutions in life like the state, army, law, medicine, and agriculture.
JV: What do you miss most about being a principal?
Rabbi Eliach: The Book of Koheleth teaches that there is a time and a place for everything. There is a time to be a principal, a time to be a student, and a time to be an educator. I loved being a principal because it gave me the opportunity to effectuate my ideas, direct the Yeshivah’s world view, and develop a curriculum appropriate for its unique perspective on Judaism and the world.
My career as a principal started when I was still living in Israel at a children’s home in which most of the students were Holocaust survivors. It was a unique experience to work with children who had suffered so much, both physically and mentally, and see them grow into leading figures who have contributed so much to society.
After that experience, I came to the Yeshivah of Flatbush as a teacher. I loved being a teacher because it gave me the opportunity, through planning lessons, to constantly learn new things and teach interesting ideas to students. I eventually had the privilege of becoming the principal and working with excellent teachers to develop a unique curriculum and cultural programming that have spread throughout the Jewish world, including the experience of studying in Israel for a year after high school, Chesed programs, emphasis on values, and programs for Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Yom Hashoah.
While the time in my life for being a principal has passed, I look back at all that we were able to accomplish and feel lucky to have had that period in my life.
JV: What inspired your philosophy of Ivrit b’Ivrit?
Rabbi Eliach: Let me begin with a story. When the British conquered the land of Israel at the end of World War I, they were trying to decide what would be the official language of the British Mandate there. To help the British decide, they took a poll of Jews in Israel to see how many of them spoke Hebrew. One of the Jews that they questioned was the great Rabbi Yosef Chayim Sonnenfeld zt”l, who was related to Rabbi Besser, Yeshivah of Flatbush’s Dean of Students. A British government official came to his house and asked him what language he spoke at home. Without hesitation, Rabbi Sonnenfeld answered “Hebrew.”
Rabbi Sonnenfeld’s wife was confused because they spoke Yiddish in the house. So after the official left, she asked her husband why he had said Hebrew. Rabbi Sonnenfeld answered, “I wake up in the morning and I learn in Hebrew. Then I go and pray in Hebrew. After that I eat and I make all of the blessings in Hebrew. All the lessons that I teach in Talmud, Mishnah and Musar are in Hebrew. It is only the small unimportant chit-chat throughout the day that is in Yiddish. So in the big picture, the language that I speak is Hebrew.”
The moral of the story is that you cannot be a religious Jew without knowing how to speak Hebrew. Whether it’s in the siddur, responsa, Mussar or, of course, the Torah, all of our holiest books are written in Hebrew.
Hebrew is also what unites us as a people. If a Jew form Alaska wants to talk with a fellow Jew in France or learn with someone in Israel, Hebrew is what offers them a way to communicate. It allows us to be one people even though we may live all over the world.
JV: What’s it like turning 90?
Rabbi Eliach: It is a great feeling to turn 90 with health, a clear mind, and a profession. Even though my life has only spanned 90 years, I have witnessed many historical periods. When I was a child, my grandfather’s home was like one from hundreds of years ago. There was no running water, no electricity, the stove ran on coals instead of gas and the thought of a refrigerator or freezer was inconceivable. In that same lifetime, I have seen a man land on the moon, cutting edge computers, cellular phones and lightning fast technological progress.
Now, at 90, I look back and remember the pogroms in Israel in the 1920s and 1930s, the demonstrations during the British mandate to establish a Jewish state, the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.
I thoroughly enjoyed all of my 90 years and am very satisfied with what I accomplished with the help of amazing educational partners: excellent teachers who worked with me to develop a pedagogy, curriculum, and cultural programming that enriched our students’ intellectual and spiritual lives. Most importantly, I feel incredibly blessed that at the age of 90 I am still able to consult with teachers, to teach, and to continue to learn.
JV: Do you have any advice you can offer us?
Rabbi Eliach: “Derech Eretz Kadma La’Torah.” People must recognize that they are social beings and not just individualistic egotists. We are unable to live on our own; we need the help of others. From the moment a baby is born, its parents help it. Each person must return that favor throughout his or her life by helping others. This is the most fundamental principle of living properly: “V’Ahavta Lireacha Kamocha” (Love your neighbor like yourself).
In my life I have seen that if a person disconnects from his or her roots, that person becomes very lonely. That loneliness can cause a spiritual death, as it says in the Talmud,“Oy Chevruta, Oy Metuta” (loosely translated as “The one without a study partner is as one who has died”). That is why a person must follow his or her heritage, be a good citizen and an active member of his or her culture.
I have also learned that money should never be one’s goal in life. We need money in order to survive but it should never become the end game. The ultimate goal is to be a good person, to care for one’s family, neighbors, friends, and people in general. The way to achieve this goal is by studying Torah and ethics.
If one strives for perfection, that person will come close to achieving it. That is why it is so important to learn as much as you can. The more you learn, the more you will come to value humanist values.
You should also never get caught up in anger. Anger is the root of evil, which comes from focusing on surface and egotistical feelings, and can destroy all of society’s foundations.
A summary of all these lessons is found in Chapter 6, verse 8 of Micah, “Hashem has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does Hashem require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your G-d.”