‘Fred was goodness’

‘Fred was goodness’

Schechter community mourns the loss of a beloved educator

On the first day of school in 2015, Rabbi Fred Elias and his wife, Michelle, stand with their children, Kayla and Eitan.
On the first day of school in 2015, Rabbi Fred Elias and his wife, Michelle, stand with their children, Kayla and Eitan.

How wonderful to be remembered with a smile. How extraordinary to be remembered that way by so many people.

On February 16, our community lost such an extraordinary person. Rabbi Fred Elias of Englewood — the school rabbi and middle school principal at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County for 11 years, longtime educator at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, and former rabbi of Englewood’s Kol HaNeshamah — succumbed to cancer at the age of 43, leaving a large hole in the hearts of family, friends, and colleagues.

Ruth Gafni, the longtime head of school at Schechter — she left the school this year to take a position at Ramaz in Manhattan — worked with Rabbi Elias for many years.

“Fred was goodness,” Ms. Gafni said. “He connected with students with deep compassion. He met each student where they were, truly listened to their narrative, and found ways to be helpful and demonstrated care. He thought of children in the positive. He used the phrase ‘not there yet’ as a road map with each interaction.

“You could always find students in his office, excitedly working on text, a project, or just having a bit of a break. He established deep connections that lasted through high school and beyond. On field trips, on an Israel mission, they found ways to share their experiences and seek support or encouragement. Fred was there for their successes and struggles.”

Rabbi Elias wears an ugly Chanukah sweater and an even uglier Chanukah hat.

And he wasn’t there only for students. “Many colleagues thought of him as their rabbi,” Ms. Gafni continued. “Lifecycles, daily troubles, he made our ordinary life extraordinary by being with us. We loved and trusted him.”

Steve Freedman, who now is the head of school at Schechter, said that his middle school principal “had this eternal youth inside of him. He was somebody who embraced life, loved to have fun, and keep kids’ interest and desire to do Jewish. He had high emotional intelligence in his ability to relate to others and hear what they were saying. The kids felt validated by him and he cared deeply about his students.

“Rabbi Elias had an impish smile, like a child who was up to something. It was the eternal youth inside his soul that made kids gravitate to him. He knew who each child was and what they needed.

“Countless parents have told me over these past weeks and months about the positive impact Rabbi Elias had on their children.”

“I met him last spring prior to moving to New Jersey,” Mr. Freedman continued. “In that first encounter, I knew I was in the presence of a caring and giving individual. Even though he was still recovering from a year of fighting his illness, he made himself totally available to me. When this year began, we were hopeful that he would be able to resume his regular duties, but that was not to be. In spite of the return of his cancer, he was unwilling to give an inch to the disease.

“Through sheer will and force, Rabbi Elias continued to come to school on a regular basis to teach his students and make his mark on the school, especially our middle school. As long as he had the strength, he was at school. And if you asked him how he felt, he would always say he was fine.

Rabbi Elias, Rabbi Amy Roth, and two other staffers perform at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.

“He continued to make plans for the future, and just in the past three months, he created new programs for our middle schoolers including studying Daf Yomi” — a daily page of Talmud — “with him on Wednesdays. The first Daf Yomi coincided with ‘Corn Chip Appreciation Day’ — who else would know that? — so of course he served guac and salsa with the chips!

“ ‘Pizza, Pez, and Parasha’ was recently created and held on Fridays. He was always coming up with new ideas to make Jewish learning more fun. Just ask any sixth grader about the Wednesday ‘Shacharit Rock Live’ he created and led with them this year. For many students, it was the highlight of the year. His mind never stopped.

“He was a force of nature. Even in sickness. This year I saw him dress up as Solomon Schechter, as he did annually on Schechter’s birthday, walking around the school making sure everyone knew who he was. Prior to Chanukah, he dressed in an ugly Chanukah sweater attire….

“I have heard so many stories about Rabbi Elias. Legend has it that he never slept on the annual eighth-grade Israel Encounter. He was up all day actively engaging with students and all night, he would write home to parents and our school community as he uploaded countless photos. His energy during this trip was boundless.”

Rabbi Paul Resnick of Teaneck, who was the director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires for many years, worked closely with Rabbi Elias for more than a decade. “He was one of those people who was able to connect with all kinds of people, whether a junior counselor, social worker, or parent,” Rabbi Resnick said.

“He was more than just a good guy. He pushed the envelope in terms of programming and creativity. At his core, he was a nerd. Not cool. Not athletic. Not musical. But people were able to engage with him.” Fred Elias was also “an amazing, powerful educator,” Rabbi Resnick added. And when he was the leader of Ramah’s A-side, the part of camp for children not yet bar or bat mitzvah age, “he had a PA system in his stomach. His powerful stature and voice could control machane alef.”

Rabbi Elias stands next to Rabbi Amy Roth and Rabbi Paul Resnick, both of Teaneck; Rabbi Resnick was Ramah Berkshire’s director and Rabbi Roth was its assistant director.

Rabbi Resnick was extremely proud to learn that his protégé went on to use many of the techniques he learned at Ramah. “He told Martha” — Rabbi Resnick’s wife — “that he learned so much from working in camp. It informed his whole Jewish leadership experience. That’s the ultimate compliment for an educator.”

Rabbi Resnick recalled his friend’s unique brand of humor, recounting a story shared by a former counselor on Facebook. “It was summer 2004, at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. I was having trouble connecting with my bunk of 11 year olds, and they were having trouble connecting with each other.

“My incredible rosh edah, Fred Elias z’l, suggested a bonding activity — that we prank him by taping him to his bed, while he pretends to sleep. Not only did he stay silent and totally still during the hilarious and not-at-all-quiet taping adventure, but he showed up to Shacharit late and flustered, with pieces of tape all over his pajamas!

“The campers thought they got away with the ultimate prank, and that they were the sneakiest kids in existence. Fred never wanted credit. He just wanted his campers to have a great summer, and for his counselors to feel empowered.”

Rabbi Resnick told another story, one fondly remembered by Paul Kurland, rabbi of the Nanuet Hebrew Center, who also spent some summers at Ramah Berkshires.

“Fred was the head of A-side, with great enthusiasm, joy, and great love for what he was doing,” Rabbi Kurland said. “He made a little elephant that he would hide around A-side. Whoever found it got some sort of recognition.”

Rabbi Resnick picked up the story. “Fred convinced us to make ‘aiyfo ha’pil?’” — where is the elephant? — “t-shirts the last week of camp one summer. In an instant, he was able to make it cool to work in machaneh aleph. Countless staff members from machaneh bet” — the older side of camp — “wanted that t-shirt! People wanted to pay us if they were just able to get their hands on one of the t-shirts! All thanks to Fred’s creativity and determination.”

“He was one of the good guys,” Rabbi Kurland said. “Real and honest, no facade. One Fourth of July, he dressed in an Uncle Sam costume. And one time we met at the airport in Jerusalem and he took a selfie with me and said nice words about our relationship, even though I was wearing a Yankees t-shirt at the time.” Rabbi Elias, as it happens, was a Red Sox fan.

A remembrance posted online from Steve Haber at Englewood’s Kol HaNeshamah described him as a “beloved friend.”

“Fred Elias was much more than our rabbi from 2010 to 2017, he was a great friend, counselor, teacher, and inspiration to our children and young adults. His kindness, warmth, generosity of spirit, and love were deeply felt and remembered by the Kol HaNeshamah community.

“Rabbi Elias has been referred to as a teacher’s teacher, not only because he was an educator by profession, but also because he taught by example. As a loving father to Kayla and Eitan, and a devoted husband to Michelle, he showed us, not just told us, the values of family, love, and caring.

“But for our community, what we will miss most about Rabbi Elias was his kindness, empathy, and listening ear, especially in times of crisis… In the last two years, faced with his own struggles with illness, Fred showed us, again, how to live. Right up to the end, he persevered with strength, dignity, and courage. He continued to work, caring and giving generously of his energy and time, knowing how little might be left.”

Accolades have poured in from students as well. SSDS alumnus Zachary Zimmer wrote that “Rabbi Elias was the most kindhearted man I ever knew. At SSDS he would let students come in and hang out in his office and he would always come say hi to me at Camp Ramah. Rabbi Elias would play in our fantasy football leagues during middle school, he would shoot around with his students during recess, and he was a great listener whenever someone needed it. He always had a smile on his face. He was so down-to-earth. He was everything a rabbi should be.”

Justin Yehuda, a 2015 Schechter alumnus, now a freshman at the University of Maryland, worked with Rabbi Elias to plan the school’s Second Annual Erev Iyun — Night of Learning — on January 7. They had worked together many times.

“He was my best friend,” Justin said, citing the many one-on-one conversations he enjoyed with the rabbi almost every day since sixth grade. “He was such a child at heart. He cracked us up.

“He always had a joke to offer,” he continued. And if you didn’t know him, “you would have no idea he was ill. Only toward the end it became more of a physical impediment.” Justin stayed in touch with the rabbi’s family after graduation and plans to continue visiting them.

“After middle school I maximized our bonds and ate lunch with him regularly,” he said. “I invited him to the NBA finals with my friends and we helped him move into his new house. I got to know his family very well.

“After middle school, we would talk about things in depth. He was passionate about what he dedicated his life to, working up till the week before he died.

“We listened to him and we respected him,” Justin said. “But he was also the ringleader, kicking back and having fun. He took everything seriously but had a sense of humor.”

Rabbi Fred Elias is survived by his wife, Michelle, their daughter, Kayla, a ninth-grader at SAR, and their son, Eytan, who is in fifth grade at Schechter.

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