From Secondary School to Primary Sources
This July ICJA alum and historian Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff (‘03) will release his fifth and sixth books: a revised form of his dissertation coming out with Oxford University Press, Who Rules the Synagogue? Religious Authority and the Formation of American Judaism, and an anthology, Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. The latter will be released by the Jewish Publication Society.
If that sounds prolific for a young alum, it’s because it is. For Eleff, though, he credits his success to teachers, beginning in high school and up until now, and his ability to seek guidance. “I’ve always been ambitious, but I have always known when and how to ask for help from mentors, family and friends.”
Eleff, who is now the chief academic officer at Hebrew Theological College, began his post high school study as the first class at Netiv Aryeh and then headed to Yeshiva University, where he graduated from the honors college and was later ordained. He also received an MA in education from Columbia University. He then studied at Brandeis University and earned a PhD. There, he was privileged to study under Dr. Jonathan Sarna. Eleff speaks effusively of Sarna, saying, “He is one of the greatest teachers, scholars and people I know.
The new anthology on Modern Orthodoxy is a text book for rabbis, laypeople and teachers in high schools and colleges. The book contains 170 primary sources that tell the stories of Modern Orthodoxy, beginning in 1825 when Reform Judaism arrived in America. Together, the sources offer a more sophisticated understanding of the historic underpinnings of Orthodoxy in America. Sources from historical figures and laypeople address issues such as the founding of the day school movement, parting of ways with Reform and Conservative Judaism, the contribution of immigrants and more. Eleff says, “The actors themselves teach this story.”
He adds, “More than ever in the last decade or two, there is an expectation from teachers and learners to probe the primary sources. In the world of Torah study this is not new. Shouldn’t we have that same sophistication and rigor with regard to our own history?”
Most influential in Eleff’s work as an educator and as an historian have been three principal teachers in his post high school years: Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Dr. Jonathan Sarna and Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter. “Each challenged me constantly to become better,” he says.
Certainly, though, Ida Crown made a mark on him. In high school at ICJA, Eleff says, “I was lucky to be a member of a really bright class. My friends have accomplished marvelous achievements.”
Citing his classmates’ successes, Eleff says, “We were competitive but very cooperative young people, and we were prepared to have ambition, all in a very nurturing environment. The environment, the culture of ICJA of trying to cultivate academic excellence and community was something I took in tow to Jerusalem, New York and Boston.
Eleff specifically credits a number of high school teachers for encouraging his curiosity and ambition, including: Mrs. Shellie Strimling and Mrs. Charlotte Rosenwald a”h. In addition, “I attended Ms. Sheri Goldstein’s AP English class, a course that truly taught me how to write. In all likelihood, it was this experience that moved me to become editor of the Yeshiva College newspaper and catapulted me into deeper forms of writing. Ms. Susan Sennett, of course, was my first history teacher. They all had a hand in what I’ve been so fortunate to accomplish.”
What’s next for Eleff? He still plans to author a few more articles on Orthodox Judaism in the United States before he starts thinking about another big book. And, Chicago Jews have yet to find their true critical historian. “Chicago Jewish history is exceptionally different from communities located on the east and west coasts. It would be fun and interesting to explore this.”
Eleff lives with his wife, Melissa, and their two children, Meital and Jack. “Come to think of it,” responded Eleff when pressed to consider his scholarly productivity, “my family is the greatest source of energy for me. I do it all—or, most of it anyway—for them.”