This July ICJA alum and historian Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff (‘03) will release his fifth and sixth academic books: his dissertation coming out with Oxford University Press, Who Rules the Synagogue? Religious Authority and the Formation of American Judaism, and an anthology of Modern Orthodoxy in America, Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History.
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 support from mentors, family and friends.”
Eleff, who is now the chief academic officer at Hebrew Theological Center’s Touro College, began his post high school study as the first class at Netiv Aryeh and then headed to Yeshiva University, where he was ordained and received a masters degree in education from Columbia University. He then studied history for his doctorate at Brandeis University, where he was privileged to have Dr. Jonathan Sarna as his dissertation chair. Eleff speaks effusively of Sarna, saying, “He is one of the greatest teachers, scholars and people that I know. He is someone who trained me to be scholar, teacher and human being.”
The new anthology of Modern Orthodoxy is dedicated to Sarna and is meant to be a text book for rabbis, lay leaders 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 even lay leaders 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 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. JJ Schachter. “What they did was challenge me constantly to be better,” he says.
In high school at ICJA, Eleff says, “I was lucky to have really bright class. My friends have done marvelous things.”
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 somthing I took in tow to New York, Boston and Yerushalayim.”
Eleff specifically credits a number of high school teachers for encouraging his curiosity and ambition, including: Mrs. Strimling, Mrs. Rosenwald a”h and Mrs. Patterson. He says, “Ms. Goldstein in AP English really did teach me the beginnings on how to write. I was moved on to be editor at YU newspaper because of it. Ms. Sennett, of course, was my first history teacher. They all did this for us.”
As for what’s next for Eleff, he says he still has a few more articles in him on Modern Orthodoxy before he starts thinking about another big book. And Chicago Jews have yet to find its true historian, telling a critical history of Chicago. “Chicago Jewish history is exceptionally different from the east and west coasts. It would be fun and interesting. Of course, it’s dangerous too because some of the people are still alive. Living people are tough to write about because documents say one thing and people remember another. On second thought, I just might stay in the 19th Century for now.”