Misha Gabriel Avramoff was born to a Sephardic family in Sofia, Bulgaria, and, like many children of the Jewish middle class, attended a Catholic school. He spoke Bulgarian with his parents, Ladino with his grandparents, and French in school. In 1949 his family, together with 95 percent of the community (all members of which, with the tragic exception of the Macedonian Jews, survived the war intact), emigrated to Israel. His four years in Israel were critical in shaping his identity as a secular Israeli. When his family moved to the United States he became passionately involved in a Zionist youth movement as a way of maintaining his fierce attachment to Israel. But by the time he graduated from high school he began to recognize a need to redefine himself. He was no longer an Israeli, but an American Jew. While attending Columbia University in the 1960s he took courses in jewish history and religion and became involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements. At that time he became a United Synagogue Youth advisor and this began his life’s work of transmitting to teenagers his sense of discovery and awe-with all the struggles that such a modern encounter entails- of Judaism’s complex past and traditions.
Misha Avramoff served as the youth director of Temple Beth-El in Cedarhurst, Long Island, from 1965 to 1970 and as a teacher in the Hebrew High School of the Five Towns in Lawrence, Long Island, from 1965 to 1979. He taught in the high school havurah at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore from 1971 to 1990 and directed the havurah program at Temple Israel in New York City from 1982 to 1991. He has been teaching at the Judah Nadich Hebrew High School at the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan since 1979 and also serves as its coordinator. In addition, since its inception in 1973, he has been co-director of Project Ezra where he has helped to shape its ethos as a hands-on, grass-roots organization serving the Jewish elderly poor on the Lower East Side.
He and his wife have traveled extensively, always seeking out Jewish communities, in Western and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, as well as the cities and villages of North Africa, Turkey, Iran, and the Far East. They have visited the Jews of Cochin and the B’nai Israel in Bombay, met the single remaining Jew in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), and found the last Jew in Penang, Malaysia, whose days were spent tending the old cemetery on Yahoodi Street.
From Misha Gabriel Avramoff's Statement of Motivation and Purpose:
“I fell in love with Jewish history, with the two thousand years between Masada and Basel. I saw that Salo Baron was right and that ours is not a ‘lachrymose’ history, but one of triumph, endurance, richness, and density. Often we survived in the interstices of other people’s culture, frequently, but not always, in spite at their best efforts to the contrary. Still we lived and created and fashioned something new, never relinquishing what was at our core. I began to feel passionately that the institutions we created should not be discarded in the flush of modernity and I wanted to transmit the excitement of all that I had learned…. There is yet another aspect of my life that is deeply involved with Jewish life and from which I have learned much about the special sanctity of each of our communities. Since 1966 my wife and I have traveled every summer for two months. We planned our trips so that we could spend time with and learn about Jewish communities, the smaller and the more remote, the better. These contacts have transformed and immeasurably enriched our lives. We have moved throughout Eastern and Western Europe, visiting the major centers of Jewish life and the small historically rich towns (for example, Pitigliano, Casale Monferrato; Sabbioneta in Italy; Cavaillon and Carpentras in Francej. vye have traveled throughout the cities and villages in North Africa/ Turkey/ Iran! and in the Far East seeking contact with Jews and finding that in each community we forged a strong emotional bond, surpassing language difficulties. We attended a brit milah in Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia. We have visited the Indian Jews of Mexico and the Karaites in Turkey. Each encounter has added to my understanding of what it means to be Jewish and the myriad ways in which we have tenaciously, as a people, learned to accommodate, to flourish, to survive…. I know that my travels and exposure to different cultures, my life in America and in Israel have mandated a mission to me to share and teach my students of the excitement of fully living in two worlds: the Jewish one and the secular one. I navigate between two worlds and love the excitement and the challenge each presents.”
From His Letters of Support:
“Misha is one of those rare individuals whose ability to communicate with adolescents remains constant, even as he ages along with the rest of us…. He staffed several summer travel programs of the Park Avenue Synagogue High School. He conducted historic visits to Jewish communities in Iran shortly before the fall of the Shah, with one of the students recording on video what became final archival footage of Jewish life in Shiraz, Isfahan, and Hamadan…. Working with the elderly Jewish poor on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Misha lives a life of commitment to the values of tzedakah. This world is shared with his students, and they in turn become volunteers and participants in this important work.”
Peter A. Geffen
“I first met Misha in 1979 when I was a student at the Park Avenue Synagogue High School and he was a new member of the faculty. Misha brought with him a commitment to education that went well beyond the classes he taught. By the end of the first semester of that school year, Misha had had dinner or a cup of hot chocolate or a long walk or some other sustained personal contact with every member of the school. Some of those informal meetings evolved into regular one-on-one tutorials in Hebrew, Israeli history, or contemporary Middle Eastern political studies; other students spent their extra-curricular time with Misha discussing their personal lives, post-bar and bat mitzvah plans, college ambitions, etc…. The most pervasive impact his work has had is also the most difficult to articulate. It is found in the articles his former students read first in the newspaper each morning; or in the charitable communal work they do in their free time; or in the way they treat the elderly and economically impaired of their communities with dignity and respect; or in the places they choose to visit when they travel abroad.”
“The first Hebrew school trip involved some five students and Misha, traveling to Turkey, Morocco, and Israel to visit the Jewish communities there. This was the birth of the Student Summer Study Seminars…. For six weeks during alternate summers students visited Jewish communities around the world learning the political, religious, and cultural milieu in which they survived…. The trips always ended in the Jewish homeland, and Misha was always the kingpin, spending hundreds of hours planning the programs, evolving curricula to precede the trip, and then accompanying the students.”
Dr. Livia Straus