Young Judaea was founded in 1909 and Mel Reisfield wasn’t born until 1928, so it’s not as if he founded the organization, or shepherded it through its first few years.
Mr. Reisfield died on January 12, and Young Judaea Global will outlive him; the organization’s strength was visible in the huge numbers of mourners who joined online for a Yom Iyun — a day of learning — to mark his shloshim, the end of the 30-day period after his death.
But Mel Reisfield, universally acknowledged as larger than life, was so monumental a presence in the organization that he loved, led, and was inextricably bound into that his influence will continue to guide it, Young Judaeans said.
Although Mr. Reisfield made aliyah for the third time — the time when it took, once again the third time being the charm — in 1988, he lived in northern New Jersey, leading and enlivening and invigorating Hebrew schools at the Fort Lee Jewish Center, at Temple Emanu-El in Englewood, and at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston for decades, so his story is not only international but local as well.
Doron Krakow of Tenafly is the president and CEO of the JCC Association of North America; before that, despite his MBA from Cornell and his stint at IBM, most of his career has been leading the Jewish world. That’s because of the lessons from his mentor, Mel Reisfield, he said.
Mel Reisfield was born in the Bronx, near the Grand Concourse, “in the shadow of Yankee Stadium,” where he worked selling beer, as he was fond of saying and his acolytes love to repeat. He didn’t graduate from college — although he never stopped reading, listening, thinking, and learning, Mr. Krakow said, and he combined all those ways of acquiring knowledge to become a path-blazing experiential educator — but one day, almost mythically (because the stories about Mr. Reisfield have been told and retold until they have become near folklore), as an unengaged City College night student, he walked by Madison Square Garden, on his way to a Frank Sinatra concert, and somehow heard a speech by Menachem Begin, the Irgun leader who later became Israel’s prime minster. It was 1948, the year of Israel’s birth. “Mel was so inspired and moved by what he heard that he decided he needed to devote himself to building the new Jewish state and to the defense of the Jewish people,” Mr. Krakow said.
“As the legend goes, he found the nearest phone book, he found the page listing Zionist youth movements, and he went eeny meeny meiny mo. Young Judaea was mo — to the great benefit of hundreds of thousands of Young Judaeans over the ensuing decades.”
Mel and his wife, Yaffa, who had been in the Palmach, made aliyah, but it didn’t take. Mel developed malaria — not uncommon in that early period, when Israel’s swamps still teemed — and they came back to the United States, moving across the Hudson from the Bronx to New Jersey.
Mr. Reisfield was a synagogue educator for many years, and he worked with rabbis with personalities as strong and reputations as formidable as his. In B’nai Abraham, it was Rabbi Joachim Prinz, whose strong commitment to civil rights forged a similar commitment in Mr. Reisfield. In Englewood, it was Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a brilliant and contentious leader who brooked fools with no patience or grace whatsoever, but who relished intellectual challenges. The two worked together for a long time; “I can’t imagine what it was like when they were in a room together,” Mr. Krakow said.
“Mel became a kind of pied piper as a Jewish school educator,” Mr. Krakow said. “It was not about rote education for him. It was about ideas. Experiences. Engaging kids to make Hebrew school not a torturous prolongation of their school day but a captivating and energizing endcap to it, so that kids would look forward to it.
“He used the same strategy in Young Judaea that he used in Hebrew school. He hired the best, most exciting teachers, impassioning young people culturally and captivating them in social action, civil rights, immigration rights, and the movement for Soviet Jewry and for Ethiopian Jewry. Mel infused all that passion in all the work that he did.”
He also played hard. “Over all those years, he’d play basketball in the Fort Lee Jewish Center on Friday mornings.” Players at those games included the influential Jewish scholars and educators he’d found, mentored, and supported; among them were Norman Cohen, now professor emeritus of Talmud at Hebrew Union College, and the historian Gil Troy, whose recent “Zionist Ideas” is an update of Rabbi Hertzberg’s “Zionist Idea,” because everything connects, and if you wait long enough, full circles are completed.
Mr. Reisfield was active in Young Judaea throughout his life, including during this period, when he led youth groups in his spare time. He was a formidable presence at Camp Tel Yehudah, in upstate New York.
“He was a great believer in Hebrew language and Hebrew language education,” Mr. Krakow said. “In Tel Yehudah, he created a ulpan session, and everyone went through it. He brought Hebrew music and Hebrew culture into it in a significant way. He took Young Judaea into activism,” which was visible to the outside world at the Salute to Israel parades and Soviet Jewry movement events.
“Young Judaeans marched with Martin Luther King across the South,” he said. “Mel said that it wasn’t enough for us to look out just for our own. It was necessary for us to demonstrate our commitment to those around us, to call out for justice, and to stand up for justice.”
On their third try at aliyah — and after their three children, Shai, Sharon, and Gil, were grown — Mel and Yaffa made it work. “Mel went on to teach at the Young Judaea Year Course and taught Hebrew for maybe 25 years,” Mr. Krakow said. “He became one of the most respected tour guides in Jerusalem’s Old City, working for a company founded — of course! — by Young Judaea graduates.”
Recently, a group of Young Judaeans — they’re all adults now, but as Mr. Krakow said, after catching himself, for maybe the fifth time in 10 minutes, saying “we” and “us,” — “once a Young Judaean, always a Young Judaean” — met on Zoom to talk about Mr. Reisfield, and also about the movement that had been so central to his life, and continues to be central to theirs.
Andi Meiseles, a Jewish educator who lives on the Upper West Side now, grew up in West Orange. “About 100 kids would show up every week in B’nai Abraham,” she said. “A lot of what I learned about Zionism I learned there. Educational activity with peers is the whole essence of young Judaea.” Those activities always included fun as well as thought. “We’d make a map of Israel out of snacks. We made the borders out of pretzels. It was fun. And then you sit down and think about some of the complications of the border. How do you decide where the border is?”
Those particular exercises weren’t Mel’s — “Mel was more frontal,” Ms. Meiseles said — but he understood. He would bring in the kids. That’s what Young Judaea did. That’s what happens in camp to this day. It’s hands-on education, and sometimes you learn without even realizing it.”
Mr. Reisfield was big on blurring borders anyway, according to David Weinstein, who’s now the director of Tel Yehudah. It was clear in his Hebrew school work, both with students and with their young teachers. “He would take young madrichim” — counselors — “who lived in New York, and he’d give them rides to Hebrew school,” in New Jersey. “We’d struggle with teachers in Hebrew school, and then he’d bring in these great teachers.” And that went in both directions. “He made it clear, in Livingston and Englewood and Fort Lee, that if you went to Hebrew school there, you went to Young Judaea.”
Mr. Reisfield also was a talent scouter, Ms. Meiseles added, and one of her many reasons for knowing that is that he did it for her. “When I was 15, I wanted to go to medical school,” she said. “Mel took an interest in every single kid. He told me, ‘No. You are a teacher. You need to be a teacher. Anybody can be a doctor, but you were born to be a teacher.’” She is a former director of both the Year Course and Camp Tel Yehudah
“I used to tease him, later,” she said. “I would say, ‘Thanks a lot. If it weren’t for you, I would be in my beach house.’” She doesn’t have any kind of vacation home, but “instead, I have this wonderful career in Jewish education.”
Young Judaea is a Zionist organization. It’s strongly pluralist. It doesn’t care where in the Jewish world its members come from, as long as they love Israel and are willing to meet each other with open hearts and minds. Some things about it have changed over the last century-plus — until 10 or so years ago it used to be part of Hadassah, but it’s since been spun off, and had to reposition itself independently — but its direction, commitments, and reach have not.
Young Judaea has trained many Jewish educators, social activists, social workers, and academics — disproportionately many. “There are thousands of Young Judaeans in Israel, and they have had an impact on Israeli society in big ways,” Mr. Weinstein said. “Israel’s a small country, and so you can really make a difference there.” He listed some other prominent Young Judaeans whose work has affected Israel; he included famous and effective environmentalists Yossi Abramowitz, Alon Tal, and David Lehrer, president of the Araba Institute. “They’ve had a profound effect on environmentalism in Israel,” Mr. Weinstein said, and they each had their passion for it ignited at Young Judaea.
As the relationship between Israel and the Jewish diaspora changes, and as young Jews in particular drift away from it, Young Judaea is even more important than ever, its development director, Andi Lewittes of Closter, said.
“In today’s world, that relationship is more complicated than it was 60 or even 30 years ago,” Mike Berman, the American-born chair of Young Judaea’s board, said; he was Zooming in from his home in Israel. “It’s more fraught. The two countries’ values don’t line up as well as they used to — or as we thought they used to. In my view, the approach that we take toward education is even more valuable today, because we deal with the reality.
“That was the case for me, when I went on Young Judaea’s Year Course in 1975,” he continued. “I grew up in Young Judaea, and I had a very romanticized view of Israel. And then you get to Israel.
“The entire year’s educational theme revolved around all the uncomfortable issues — tensions between different groups, including Ashkenazim versus Mizrachim. We visited development towns and lived with families from very different backgrounds for weekends. To this day, more than 40 years later, I remember those things. The point is that Young Judaea didn’t try to go deeper on myths, but instead it exposed us to the realities of the challenges that Israel faces. It didn’t shy away from them.
“It didn’t avoid anything difficult or problematic. And to this day, that is the same philosophy that guides us. There have been multiple times when we have turned away donors when they have said that we have to get in line with their particular views. Multiple times, we have said no, we are not going to change our educational philosophy.
“We are who we are, and staying true to that means that we are going to expose our kids to the real Israel, not to the fantasy version.”
That is real Zionism, Young Judaeans say. “I do an unscientific survey,” Mr. Berman said. “For the last eight or nine years I have gone to our gap-year programs, that have between 100 to 200 kids in Israel. The director of the program always asks all the kids who have decided to stay in Israel to stand. Each year, about 10 percent of them stand. Not everyone who says they’re staying does stay, and some others who didn’t say they would do stay,” but even when you account for those changes, about 10 percent of the kids on the Year Course do stay in Israel.
Kids who go through Young Judaea’s summer camps have similar responses, he added. Part of it is the strong emphasis on teaching Hebrew, and in having many counselors who have come back from the year program.
“They feel an ownership of Israel,” he said. “They feel ‘I have wrestled with it. I have studied it. I have a real connection to it.’
“I remember working with young schlichim” — representatives — “who want to do a Yom Israel” — an Israel Day — “and my point to them is that every day is Israel Day.”
“So if you are looking for a youth group that actually has an impact, where people really take it seriously, it’s Young Judaea,” Mr. Berman said.
The emphasis on speaking Hebrew goes back to Mel Reisfield, who gave it a special twist. “Mel was a big proponent of the Hebrew language, and he ran the ulpan,” Mr. Weinstein said. “He had a horrific Bronx accent and beautiful, fluent Hebrew.
“I taught ulpan after him, and I did the same thing that he did. I used my accent — it’s a Jersey accent, but it is MY accent. The Hebrew I’m speaking is MY language. It is way more impactful for an American to model speaking Hebrew, because I took the time to learn it, and now I can teach it. I am the dugma,” the role model.
“That is part of the ethos of owning it. Even the parts you can’t love you can grapple with. The relationship is so deep that people can feel comfortable having these tough conversations at Young Judaea, because of the atmosphere of generosity. We are all allowed to have an opinion here.”
Because of Young Judaea’s values, its history, and its philosophy, it’s particularly well suited for this odd time, its new CEO, Adina Frydman, said. “It’s amazing that in every area that we have talked about today — Zionism, pluralism, activism — this 110-year-old movement has something to say. We really have been made for this moment. There is a certain contemporary-ness about our approach. We are not afraid that we don’t have the answer. It’s about having the question.”
“We still will be doing havdalah together on Saturday night, no matter how much we disagree,” Mr. Weinstein said.
“Our alumni, our camps, and Young Judaea globally all have benefited greatly since this covid crisis began from the great generosity of spirit and love from so many who have stepped forward to help us get through it,” he continued.
“What have we learned?” Ms. Frydman asked rhetorically. “Be nimble. It is super important to plan in advance, but at the end of the day you have to be adaptive. Our training as experiential educators has taught us to be able to respond quickly, to be reflexively nimble, to do what has to be done, and we will continue to carry that forward.”
They learned that, among many other things, from Mel Reisfield.
The Yom Iyun in his memory drew so much interest “and we had so many people who wanted to teach, and a short time to do it,” that it was hard, Mr. Weinstein said. There only was time for 25 people to teach or present, but 75 wanted to. “It was impossible,” he said. “We looked at the abundance of talent, and we know that Mel had such a role in helping to develop it. And not all of them were Mel’s people; some of them were influenced by the people he had influenced.” More than 400 people clicked into the program. They were links in the chain of Young Judaea, itself a link in the chain of modern Jewish life.
Mr. Krakow had grown very close to Mr. Reisfield in the late 1980s, just before the Reisfields made aliyah, and they remained close for the rest of Mr. Reisfield’s life. The families got together whenever they were in the same country. At some points, when Mr. Krakow was Young Judaea’s national director, “Mel nominally worked for me,” he said. “It was entirely nominal.
“We” — that’s Mr. Krakow, his wife, Janet, who also had gone through Young Judaea, and their three sons, Yoni, Aaron, and Elan —”became extended family,” he continued. Each of the three of the Krakows’ sons became bar mitzvah in Israel, and Mr. Reisfield was prominent in two of them. (Ill health kept him from the third.)
One of those bar mitzvah services “was on the southern steps of the Temple Mount,” he said. “It was not a place where you were allowed to have a service, but Mel made it happen.
“The steps were our bimah. It was an unimaginably moving day.
“When he was in his late 80s, he took us on a trip to the Holy Sepulcher and the stations of the cross in Jerusalem, and my kids still marvel at the memory of this elderly guy running up and down the steps of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher like a kid.
“When he was teaching, he was 10 feet tall, all passion and energy. He made you want to learn more and know more and be more.”
Aaron Krakow made aliyah — “the last time we visited with Mel as a family was the day Aaron got his red beret as a paratrooper” in the Israel Defense Forces, Doron Krakow said — and Elan now is in Young Judaea’s Year Course.
“There is no doubt that Mel impassioned the young people in Young Judaea,” Mr. Krakow said. “Many of them went on to become extraordinarily accomplished in business, in politics in Israel and in the States, in academia, in research. His earliest guys are approaching their 70s, and still influencing my children, who are in their early 20s.
“For half a century, Mel impassioned young Zionists, young activists, who attributed much of what they have become to his example.”
But, as the group of Young Judaeans stressed, the organization is not a cult of personality, and it does not look only backward. In fact, Mr. Reisfield, with his ability to look both behind and in front, wanted Young Judaea to follow his example and keep moving forward. The questioning, probing, pluralistic, Zionist organization to which he devoted his life, which has shaped so many other lives, which continues to shape so many other lives, demands no less.
There’s much more information about Young Judaea, including about its camps and its year program in Israel, at www.youngjudaea.org.