As the season of holidays culminates with Simchat Torah this week, I cannot help but reminisce about my days in "Junior Congregation" with master educator, Leo Reich, z"l, who untangled the mystery of the Hebrew prayers and made the synagogue experience come to life in vivid technicolor.
His dedicated leadership and obvious love of both subject and student created a strong foundation upon which I am building my own career in Jewish Education. During one of our last conversations, Mr. Reich emphasized that the world needs good, committed, Jewish educators. His words ring in the background of my thoughts whenever I contemplate my choice of profession.
Mr. Reich was everyone’s adopted father, grandfather, and friend in the Baltimore Jewish community. As principal of the Hebrew school and director of children’s programming for the Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue, his soft-spoken, compelling personality drew children from all over the neighborhood specifically to hear his stories and participate in Junior Congregation. “Uncle Leo” made each one of us feel important as members of the Jewish community and took even the most troublesome youngsters under his wing.
He also made the prayers come alive.
Every week, Mr. Reich would conduct a search for the biggest, brightest “Ashrei smile” and give the winner a boost to show off his or her grin. He would tell us to touch our dress clothes before we said the blessing “Malbish Arumim” (...who clothes the naked) and close our eyes to appreciate the blessing of sight before reciting “Pokeach Ivrim” (...who gives sight to the blind).
Prayer had meaning that connected directly with my life--it encouraged me to consider gifts I never really noticed before: the ability to stand up straight, to be free and not imprisoned, to place my feet on steady, dry land. And with Mr. Reich pointing out the meaning of a different phrase within the liturgy every Shabbat, prayer was not an exercise in rote memorization.
We children never rushed to leave, knowing as we did that the service would be followed by sugar cookies and stories that we would treasure for years to come. My favorite stories are those from Mr. Reich’s own army days, in which he shared memories of trying to keep Kosher while serving in a wartime army and tales of the people he met while peeling potatoes during KP duty, people whose lives he surely touched.
Looking at Mr. Reich’s legacy, I would venture to say that the good Jewish educators the world needs are people like him, whose dedication to the calling and compassion for every person are so deeply felt by everyone nearby.
The field of education is unique in that it requires the engagement of both head and heart, intellect and emotion, and Jewish education is no exception. The teacher’s job is to inspire and motivate the learner to further investigation and growth. It requires sensitivity to the students' feelings and a knack for knowing when to push them to a new level of understanding and when to remain a patient and constant support.
More than personnel, it’s personality that will make the biggest difference in students’ lives, affecting the way they experience and remember the material. It is up to us, as educators, to prepare them with both the tools and the desire to continue learning even after they leave our care.
Amy Fechter is Founder and Curriculum Strategist at Strategic Hebrew, Inc., which is creating a dynamic new approach to Hebrew language instruction through activity-based learning. Many of the guiding principles of the *Strategic* approach derive from Leo Reich's compelling example of how to engage and inspire a commitment to Jewish learning and Hebrew language.