A Zionist force of nature educator Mel Reisfield leaves a lasting legacy

Inspirational educator Mel Reisfield leaves a lasting legacy in Israel and the US

MEL REISFIELD (center) with the Grammy Award-winning record producer Steve Greenberg to his right and the author to his left.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
MEL REISFIELD (center) with the Grammy Award-winning record producer Steve Greenberg to his right and the author to his left.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mel Reisfield, the legendary, life-changing, Zionist educator-activist who inspired generations of American Jewish youth as their own Zionist rebbe to understand the centrality of Israel to Jewish life, passed away last week.
His extraordinary impact as a Hebrew School principal by day, Young Judaea youth movement leader by night, and Camp Tel Yehudah spark plug during dozens of summers, earned him Hebrew University’s Samuel Rothberg Prize for Jewish Education – and the devotion of tens of thousands of his beloved “chanichim,” protégés. He was 92 and had lived in Jerusalem since 1983.
Born in the Bronx in 1928 to Russian immigrants and raised in Yankee Stadium’s shadow, Reisfield ran around with the Jewish hooligans of the Grand Concourse. He later leveraged his street-tough persona to entertain and educate, stretch and shape, young American Jews whose parents, then grandparents, had worked hard to exorcise any lingering traces of the ghettos they escaped. His charisma, informed as well by his experiences as a pioneering “chalutz” on Kibbutz Solelim in the late 1940s, made him a living link to Zionism’s storybook saga along with American Jewry’s rags-to-riches rise.
“He made it all very cool,” says David Weinstein, Tel Yehudah’s director since 2007, and a camper of Mel’s back in 1978. “I would not be standing here today” – he was speaking from the camp campus in Barryville, New York – “if not for him.”
FOREVER TRANSFORMING mundane moments into memorable life lessons that made alienated Jewish kids feel heard but not judged, Reisfield loved claiming he stumbled into Zionism. One night in 1947, while drifting as an uninspired night school student at The City College of New York, he passed Madison Square Garden on his way to a Frank Sinatra concert. Back then, he recalled, “finding out about the horrors of the Holocaust was very hard, and a whole group of us from the Bronx were mixed up socially and ideologically.” There was a huge sold-out rally at the Garden with thousands of the overflow crowd listening raptly to the speech outside. Some disembodied, heavily-accented voice declared: “This is our answer to the Holocaust; we are going to make a state.” Intrigued by these tough Jews, Mel would say, “I looked up ‘Zionist movement’ in the phone book and saw all these organizations. I went ‘eenie meenie miney mo’ and my finger came out on Young Judaea. It was my destiny.”
Finding his cause, the Bronx ruffian soon became a farm boy – in Poughkeepsie, New York. He and a “garin” – nucleus – of Young Judaeans in “hachshara” – preparation – were preparing to move to the Jezreel Valley. They helped launch Kibbutz Hasolelim, founded in 1949.
Kibbutz life was meaningful – but miserable. Debilitating sicknesses forced Reisfield to return to New York, hatching a lifelong regret. But he returned with a bride, Yaffa, an ex-Palmachnakit whose heroics in Israel’s primitive Communications Corps during the 1948 War of Independence enhanced the Reisfield legend. Mel and Yaffa would stay happily married until Yaffa’s death in 2018. They raised two sons, Shai and Gil, and a daughter, Sharon, who lives in Jerusalem devotedly nursed both her parents during their final years.
Lost again, Mel put his love of Israel and Zionism to work. He became a Hebrew teacher, then a Sunday school principal. He served for three decades in suburban New Jersey – Englewood, Fort Lee, and Livingston – fighting with rabbis (who often felt threatened by him), mentoring teachers, inspiring parents and dazzling their kids. He also ran Young Judaea’s fabled “Livingston Club” and regional New Jersey conventions. Every summer, he came alive at Young Judaea’s national teen camp, Tel Yehudah (TY). By the banks of the Delaware River, he created his ideal American Jewish kibbutz.
At “Camp,” Mel and Yaffa were Zionist royalty in an alternate universe where ideology reined. Deep into the 1980s, pop culture abominations – from “rock music” to blow-dryers – were banned, to maintain the “avira,” the atmosphere. In this Bizzaro world, the cool kids did the hora, not the hustle, while belting out Hebrew songs – except when mooning soulful ballads during “Shira Shkedah,” mourning the Sabbath Queen’s departure on Saturday night. Without buzz words like pluralism and diversity, TY – and Young Judaea – carved out a common space for religious and non-religious Jews, left-wing and right-wing Zionists, to do Jewish – and love Israel – together. Respecting Shabbat and Kashrut laws in public made everyone comfortable – with many experiencing these practices for the first time.
MEL ALSO lived the Zionist principle of dugma eesheet, setting a personal example. True, his gruff, hyper-masculine style offended some – and increasingly became anachronistic. But he was that sabra cliché despite his New Yawk accent. The surface crudeness barely concealed his golden heart and sensitive soul. It was most obvious with his sweet, sentimental, never-ending love affair with Yaffa – and the Jewish people.
Mel’s moral compass also directed him – early on – into the movements for Civil Rights, Soviet Jewry and Ethiopian Jewry, repeatedly defying establishment disapproval. In 1963, Mel called his congregation’s rabbi a hypocrite for opposing a plan to drive down with “the kids” to join Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. Furious, this prominent – and pompous – liberal rabbi banged on his desk, smashing a decorative snow globe, sending water and those little plastic fake-snow-flakes cascading all over the rabbi’s mahogany wood. Triumphant, Mel marched with Young Judaeans and Hebrew school kids, taking responsibility as a Jew and a Zionist for all the oppressed, everywhere.
Long before theorists lectured about “values-based education” and “immersive experiences” TY produced them, naturally, organically – Mel would joke that he couldn’t even spell such “ten dollah words.” Lacking the fancy-pants degrees his devotees amassed by the bucketful, this natural-born educator understood informal education’s delicate dance between substance and spontaneity, the head and the heart.
To watch Mel captivate 15-year-olds with his “Jesus sicha” – covering 2,000 years of Christian-Jewish relations in 45 minutes – was like watching Sinatra sing. Although melodramatic, it was substantive and memorable too. Even more impressive was watching Mel teach generations of 20-year-olds how to teach 15-year-olds Jewish history, reducing complex theories about the cross-cultural challenges Jews endured over millennia to sound bites: “the three horseman of apocalypse! Antisemitism! Assimilation! Inner Conflict!”
Underlying the program was the insight that first drew Mel to Young Judaea: We cannot understand Judaism or Zionism today without appreciating the glories and traumas of yesterday, while dreaming about a better tomorrow. Forty years after I first learned from Mel, when I wrote my book The Zionist Ideas, I adapted the intellectual infrastructure explaining the different schools of Zionist thought from his camp-based antics: sporting a black beard to symbolize Theodor Herzl’s Political Zionism and a white beard for Rav Kook’s Religious Zionism, wielding a hoe for Golda Meir’s Labor Zionism, making a fist for Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism while waving around a hubcap to evoke Ahad Ha’am’s cultural Zionist ideal that Israel is the center and connects other communities culturally, like spokes on a wheel.
Beyond history, Mel delighted in Hebrew as a touchstone of Jewish identity and a key to modern Israeli culture. His ulpan program made Hebrew familiar by teaching it all, from lyrical Biblical phrases to vulgar Arabic-based curses, integrated into the camper’s minute-by-minute life. And, celebrating the brassy, Mel Brooks-y, Borscht Belt culture that shaped him, Mel loved Hebraizing American musicals. When My Fair Lady became “My Fair Sabra,” “the spot that’s really hot” had to be “in Eilat.”
A generous master mentor, Mel loved spilling his trade secrets. Many of American Jewry’s leading educators, rabbis, professors have adapted the Mel method of dressing-up challenging material in colorful garb. He taught to start with a Bombastic Opening, to Speak in Word Pictures, to Cut It at Its Peak, and end with a grand finale.
YET WHILE deploying every weapon in his arsenal, he was ahead of the educational theorists in emphasizing student-centered learning. Even while delivering the same talk, with the same pacing, and the same jokes for the umpteenth time, he cared deeply, passionately, sincerely, about reaching each individual.
For years, many of us marveled at this growing network of Young Judaeans who imbibed Mel’s anecdote-and-punchline-driven, values-centered, ideologically-driven education as a well-kept secret. Shortly after Mel and Yaffa returned to Israel in 1983, settling on French Hill, Mel received Hebrew University’s Rothberg Prize. This external recognition put Mel in the company of Emanuel Levinas, Aharon Lichtenstein, and David Hartman.
A force of nature, Mel worked well into his 80s, teaching Hebrew on the Young Judaean Year Course while guiding tourists and youth groups around the Old City with Archaeological Seminars. His and Yaffa’s apartment became a pilgrimage site for so many of us who started as “chanichim” and ended up as friends. Grammy-winning record producers, billionaire philanthropists, Federation and foundation heads, award-winning academics, environmental activists, communications consultants, wealth advisers, deans, rabbis, lawyers, doctors, social workers, teachers – but most importantly good people living good lives – visited. When you sat with Mel, he had this magical ability to bring out the goofy, silly, curious, immature teenagers we once were while absolutely revering the serious adults we had become.
In 2013, Mel had a Tom Sawyer moment to listen in on his own eulogies. As he endured a grave health crisis, some of us sent out an informal request for get-well emails. Within two hours, we had received 150 messages. Another four-or-five-hundred arrived over the next few days. Former Young Judaeans and Hebrew School students from the 1950s through the 2010s – and their parents – wrote moving letters filled with hilarious stories and powerful testimonials about how this one guy inspired them to change their lives, embrace Judaism, commit to Zionism, move to Israel, become educators or psychologists or whatever – and become better versions of who they might otherwise have been. It was an extraordinary chain letter of prose poetry proving how much one teacher can change the world – and how much this one person did.
NEVER HAVING met a shtick he didn’t like – or didn’t beat to death – Mel used his antics as he aged to assure us he was OK. On what turned out to be our last phone call, he was as witty as ever (or not), saying yet again that every day he wakes up singing “yesh li yom, yom chag” – every day is a holiday – and all the neighbors still shout out their reply: “Halleluyah.” On his deathbed in Hadassah Hospital, when his loving granddaughter asked him if he was comfortable, he replied – yet again – “I make a living.”
Mel children, who generously shared him with so many of us, mourn the passing of a beloved father and grandfather. We, his extended family, mourn the loss of this special person, this larger-than-life phenomenon. But we also mourn this symbol of a more insecure era in American Jewry, of a more romanticized Israel, and of the ongoing magic we all can make by caring more about who we once were as a people, who we are today, and what we are capable of becoming.