Last year, when the New York Historical Society launched my eleventh book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, I really wanted the two high school teachers who most influenced me to attend, so I could thank them publicly. Despite Googling high and low I couldn’t find them. We Jamaica High Schoolstudents affectionately called them “the Odd Couple.” Dr. Paul had the clean-cut Fifties look; Mr. Young had the Seventies’ droopy mustache, wild hair and bell bottoms.
They taught me how to think creatively, write clearly, and make connections beyond the usual rigid categorical boxes. Beyond the skills, to this day I explain modern Zionism’s beginning with the European romantic nationalism they taught me, while most of my scholarly work, including the Clinton book, synthesizes culture and history, as we did in their innovative (double-period) humanities program.
Despite being an educator and a parent of four, I only learned about them by researching for this column.
As a graduate of the Young Judaea Zionist Youth Movement, I had an informal educational experience with more robust feedback appreciation mechanisms. The personal nature of movement education has more builtin expressions of gratitude, because much of what we did was fueled by a merry-go-round of love – loving the community we built, the Zionist ideals we shared, the experiences we enjoyed, and the leaders who facilitated it. Still, as the son of two New York City teachers, I know how much educators sacrifice and invest, and it’s always appreciated when you show your appreciation.
Three years ago, Mel Reisfield, the legendary Jewish educator and Zionist activist who for decades was the heart and soul of Young Judaea and its national camp Tel Yehudah, was gravely ill. Some of us sent out an informal request for get-well emails. We received 150 messages within two hours and over 500 messages over the next few days. Former Young Judaeans from the 1950s through the 2010s wrote moving letters filled with hilarious stories and powerful testimonies about how Mel inspired them to change their lives, embrace Judaism, move to Israel, become educators, become better people.
It was an extraordinary chain letter of prose poetry demonstrating how much one educator can change the world – and how much this one did.
The praise was justified. Reisfield is a master teacher, a scrappy Bronx kid who worked as a Jewish educator in New Jersey and a Tel Yehudah “merakez,” unit head, for decades before retiring to Jerusalem, where he worked as a tour guide and Young Judaea year-course ulpan teacher well into his eighties. At his best, he combines Mel Brooks’ Borscht Belt sensibility and Donald Trump’s bombast, tempered by Hillel’s moral wisdom, Theodor Herzl’s broad vision, David Ben-Gurion’s muscular determination and Bill Clinton’s mass seductiveness – although Mel has remained devoted to his Palmach-veteran wife Yaffa since they met in the late 1940s.
This is a guy who understood instinctively that the teenagers he worked with were still kid-like enough to enjoy being silly but sufficiently adult to engage in ideological discourse. This Zionist Pied Piper could get hundreds singing “Two is shnayim, three is shlosha, all is fine and all is kosha” – it only worked with a heavy New Yawk accent – “our love will never fail, in Eretz Yis-ra-el,” laughing at themselves while learning Hebrew and discussing Zionism.
In Hillel’s spirit, Mel believes “if I’m not for myself, who am I,” and inspired us to defend Israel and fight for Soviet Jews. But Mel understood that “if I am only for myself, who am I,” and drove Judaeans down South to fight for civil rights in the Sixties. And when Israeli officials and American Jewish bureaucrats told him and others “wait,” the Ethiopian Jews weren’t top priority, he responded, “if not now, when,” and was one of the first to champion Ethiopian Jewish immigration in the 1970s.
Mel raised generations of leading activists, educators and good Jewish citizens, in America and Israel, seeking to replicate his example. You can see the mark of Mel in the dynamism of many older Judaeans, in their idealism, their pluralism, their shticks – fighting to show that Zionist passion can grow from a centrist, big-tent movement, not just from the extremes.
This month, on September 18, Young Judaeans will gather in New York for a fundraising tribute dinner to thank a now healthy Mel (and the philanthropic Merrin family) by investing in Young Judaea’s next hundred years. Last month, out of the blue, one of Jamaica High’s dynamic duo, Dr. Kurt Paul, contacted me. In the warm exchange of emails that followed, I finally, belatedly, had an opportunity to tell this gifted teacher how much I learned from him. Alas, he informed me that his friend and colleague Dennis Young had died.
So let’s start saying “thank you” now, this September, not waiting for our most cherished mentors to get ill – or worse.