One of the towering figures of Jewish education in America remains Samson Benderly, z”l.
Born in Safed, Palestine, in 1876, Benderly emigrated with his family to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1898. By the time he died, in 1944, he had left his indelible imprint on the shaping of the institutions of American Jewish education that we know today.
It almost didn’t happen. Because Samson Benderly was, in fact, trained as a physician. But he abandoned his career in medicine when Jewish education became his all-absorbing passion.
In his book “The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education,” author Jonathan Krasner writes about Benderly’s transformation from doctor to Jewish educator: “[Samson Benderly] liked to tell the story about how [in 1900] he broke the news to Dr. Friedenwald that he was leaving medicine to devote himself completely to [Jewish education]. Friedenwald apparently responded by checking Benderly’s pulse to determine whether he was ill. He and his associate considered Benderly’s career decision to be ‘suicidal’ and attempted to dissuade him. ‘You know, Dr. Friedenwald,’ Benderly is said to have responded, ‘Healers of the body there are many, but there are very few healers of the soul, and I want to try my hand at that.’”
Approximately a century after Benderly made his famous, and perhaps inexplicable, proclamation, I found myself in a somewhat analogous situation, making a similar declaration to my family—and receiving almost the exact same perplexed response. I am certain I faced many of the same questions Benderly faced, as did so many of my colleagues: How could we give up the prestige, honor and lavish lifestyle that generally accompanies a profession in medicine? Why would we waste our time laboring in the field of Jewish education—a seemingly stagnant field thought to be reserved for those who lacked the ambition to do anything else?
Today, nearly two decades after making that life-altering decision, I feel so blessed, not only to be teaching in a Jewish day school, but to be teaching in a Jewish day school during an era of unprecedented growth in pedagogy and practices in Jewish education.
At Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford, as well as at so many other institutes of Jewish learning all across the country, we are blazing a trail of transformation, growth and innovation. It is a trail similar to the one forged by idealistic pioneers such as Samson Benderly more than 100 years ago.
Of course, here at Bi-Cultural we are aided in large part by the enormous investment of our dedicated faculty and staff. In addition, like so many other American Jewish day schools we have been presented with the opportunity to avail ourselves of an abundance of resources made readily available through the efforts of organizations such as Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. Launched in the summer of 2016, Prizmah addresses the day school’s unique set of needs through programs and customized consulting services in a variety of areas.
I feel that we are truly living in a time in which carrying out our holy calling will bear its most meaningful fruits.
At the end of the day, to those of us who are “healers of the soul,” it’s not about income—it’s all about outcome!
By Rabbi Yehuda Jaeger
Rabbi Yehuda Jaeger is the associate principal at Bi-Cultural Jewish Day School in Stamford, CT.