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Saturday, September 20, 2014

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A 50-year mitzvah

Tags: Jewish learning
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Yaffa Edenson

Seven years ago, in August 2005, The CJN published its first “teacher feature,” a monthly column that ran during the school year, profiling teachers in Jewish schools.

The column ran with the tagline “They are our teachers…” but in the office, we always referred to it as the teacher feature.

The objective was to honour teachers, because of the important role they play in their students’ lives.

We looked for teachers who were not only making a positive difference, but whose personal stories and/or classroom techniques would make for an interesting read.

This month, we wrap up the series with a guest column by Keren Henderson, whose mother, Yaffa Edenson, is retiring from Holy Blossom Temple after a 50-year career as an educator.

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Keren Henderson, Special to The CJN

TORONTO — In 1962, 18-year-old Yaffa Eichenbaum walked with a team of young Israeli women to the elementary school in Beit Shean to serve her country as a new teacher. Her first assignment: integrating immigrant children from Morocco, Iran and Iraq into northern Israel.

Yaffa spent three years connecting these Jewish children to their language, culture and homeland. 

This summer, 50 years later and 9,000 kilometres away from Beit Shean, my mother, Yaffa Edenson, is retiring. 

“It was nice to learn different cultures, different traditions,” Yaffa remembers of her time teaching in Israel.

Beit Shean was the first place Yaffa and her sister, Haviva, were exposed to people who, although Jewish like them, did not share in the same Jewish traditions as the girls from Kfar Saba.

In 1974, Yaffa moved to Toronto. She married a Canadian journalist, my father, whom she met during his sabbatical year in Israel. That year, she taught at Associated Hebrew Schools.

“This time the challenge wasn’t cultural east/west,” she tells me, “but rather Israeli versus Canadian.”

 She quickly recognized why it was easy to connect with Canadian kids. “In Toronto,” she explains, “people are proud to be Jewish and just as well to be proud of being Canadian.”

After settling into a 36-year-career at Holy Blossom Temple, my mother has influenced hundreds of Jewish families and the kids of some pretty prominent Canadians, including Bob Rae’s daughter, David Mirvish’s children, and the grandkids of the late CBC journalist Barbara Frum.

Clearly the cultural differences between Toronto Jews and the Jews of Beit Shean go beyond geography and into issues of income. When I asked my mother how it affected her to be around so many powerful people, she explained to me that Holy Blossom is “a generous place to learn generosity. I don’t know if it’s important as a teacher or just as a person.”

I asked my mother if she had any advice for teachers or for parents after all these years. Teachers, she says, need to keep up with the kids, to find ways to connect with them in order to connect them to their heritage.

That’s what Judaism is all about, she tells me. “Past, present, future. Learning Israel’s past, making sure the present is understood, so Judaism will continue in the future. Le dor vador le’olam va’ed [from generation to generation, forever].”

For the parents, my mother has some specific suggestions about maintaining Jewish pride: “Kids like traditions, kids like celebrations, and they like to be together as a family. This is what it’s all about: family. This is what stays with you forever: celebrating holidays with the whole mishpachah.”

What was nice about living in Israel, she says, is that the Torah feels more tangible when the Land of Israel is right there in front of you.

“That’s also advice to the parents,” she tells me, “that the kids live the chavaya [important experience] of seeing Israel for themselves. It’s an extra layer of pride that goes beyond the books.”

Now that she looks back on a half century of service to the Jewish community, Yaffa is prepared to pass the torch.

“It’s nice to make room for young blood,” she insists. “I hope more young teachers will come along and continue what I did.”

She calls the new generation of students tzon kodashim, or holy lambs, which means that the young teachers are their shepherds – the people responsible for keeping Judaism alive.

No pressure, folks.

For my mother, teaching was never a job. It was a mitzvah. Yaffa didn’t teach letters and numbers. She socialized generations of Jews.

My mother believes that her greatest accomplishment is building bridges. In Israel, she bridged gaps between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. In Toronto, she bridged gaps between Israelis and Canadians. She built those bridges with determination and courage. As the famous song goes, “Kol haolam kulo gesher tzar me’od veha’ikar lo lefached klal.” The entire world is a narrow bridge and the key is not to fear any of it at all.

Keren Henderson is a doctoral student in journalism at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication. She can still recite the aleph bet faster than any of her mother’s students.

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