The Heart of The Covenant Foundation

Awards Program

2000 Covenant Award Recipient

Yosi (Joel) Gordon

Rabbi Yosi (Joel) Gordon was born and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Judaism was experienced more through a sense of deprivation than through everyday realities. His earliest influence was his grandfather, Yosef Binyamin, his namesake, whom he knew through his mother’s stories. Hebrew school, BBYO, and Camp Ramah introduced him to the joy and intensity of Torah and Jewish life. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he was eager to master Hebrew and Jewish studies in classes and at Hillel. His junior year in Israel was notable, not only for his studies at the Hebrew University, but for his job with troubled Israeli youth in Kiryat Yovel, his work teaching English at the YMCA, and his successful efforts to learn to speak Hebrew well enough to fool some Israelis.

During his six years at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Yosi devoted himself to becoming a master teacher of Jewish texts. Upon graduation, in 1972, he began his first full-time position as Assistant Principal at the Los Angeles Hebrew High School. There, he worked for six years in various administrative and programmatic capacities but, most important, as a teacher. His students gave Yosi his greatest satisfaction. When asked to send samples of his “products” to the Covenant Foundation, Yosi objected, “They won’t agree to climb into envelopes.”

In 1978 Yosi moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, to become Director of the communal supplementary school, the Talmud Torah of St. Paul. Working alongside a talented faculty, he guided the school to excellence. He helped create a communal day school, which now numbers 200 students and has inspired a sister school in Minneapolis as well as a Twin Cities middle school. Students from Yosi’s adult Rashi study group founded Beth Jacob Congregation, his shul, in the early 1980s, and other students in his teenage Rashi study group and his Sunday night adult chug have gone on to provide extraordinary Jewish leadership in their adult lives.

After twelve years as director, Yosi resigned to devote himself full-time to teaching, which he had been doing part-time for eighteen years. At the Talmud Torah schools in both cities, at the new Twin Cities Jewish Middle School, with hundreds of new Americans from the former USSR, and at three universities in Minnesota, Yosi’s courses in Jewish texts, Hebrew literature, and Jewish thought have attracted hundreds to serious Jewish learning. In addition, Yosi became the spiritual leader of a thirtythree-household synagogue in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, allowing him to claim the title of “Chief Rabbi of the Chippewa Valley.”

Yosi is always teaching. Last year he taught forty-five class hours per week. The “call” from the Covenant Foundation interrupted his eighth-grade Tanakh class. Even over the summer Yosi teaches and tutors children and adults while writing voluminous textbooks for his own classroom use.

Asked to list teachers and friends who have shaped his thinking and work, Yosi notes rabbis and educators Nathan Reisner, Max Ticktin, Hershel Matt z”l, Burton Cohen, Lou Newman, Moshe Bailiss, Sheldon Dorph, Arnold Band, Nehama Leibowitz, Dale Lange, Helaine Minkus, and Morris Allen, and his many students. “I hear their voices echoing in my conversations with my students; it reassures me that I am really teaching Torah.”

“As long as I can remember, my fantasies and fascination were with teaching. I have always preferred the title ‘teacher’ to ‘educator.’ It conveys what is most important for me in my work and my life. A teacher is a person who works directly with students, who conducts a class, who transmits Jewish learning and helps students create a community of Jewish learners, one which shapes their lives and gives them the tools and purpose to continue to live lives of Jewish communal learning forever. ‘Teacher’ connotes kinds of relationships with students,

individually and as a group. It is a limited relationship in scope, place, and time; yet ideally it creates directions in students which extend beyond those limitations.

After thirty-eight years as a Jewish teacher, it’s a bit odd to consider what I hope to achieve in my career in Jewish education. That is not because I feel I have done it all, or because I am ready to wind down. Rather, I have seen so many trends in Jewish education. I have found a few that have produced respectable results, but I remained committed, both philosophically and temperamentally, to a rather traditional model of Jewish teaching.

I find the best international programs for revolutionizing Jewish education, the greatest innovations in curriculum, the grandest institutions and organizations are often too many steps away from the real arena for change in Jewish education: the classroom. It was my summers at Ramah in California and Wisconsin that enabled me to test my ideas as a Jewish teacher. I began as a counselor, soon became a head counselor (rosh aidah), returned to counseling, again served as a head counselor, and finished my summers at Ramah again as a counselor. That is a peculiar path to take, moving down from the more prestigious position to

4 a lesser one, twice; but I sensed that the real education was taking place in the intimacy of the cabin, in the day-to-day routine, in the realm of the ordinary.

I am deeply committed to supplementary Jewish education, not because I feel it is equal in its impact to day school education, but because I cannot write off the majority of Jewish children, and because I am convinced that good supplementary education can dramatically change the lives of a significant percent of our students.

Thus my goal over the next few years is to continue my initial curriculum work for all areas of our middle school: in Bible, Rabbinics (Mishna, Talmud, Midrash), Prayer, Hebrew Literature, and general Jewish learning. I would like to produce polished materials which can survive me in the school and which can be used or adapted for use in other middle school or supplementary school settings. I would hope they can also serve as a model both for other Jewish educational materials and for the process of teaching-with-research-and-development, which I believe to be an excellent model for Jewish schools wishing to grow and foster teaching professionalism. Through example I would like to serve notice that the teaching vocation is a proper one for rabbis, respectable and useful. Finally, I hope to teach as long as I am able. It continues to provide me with surprise and challenge and enormous satisfaction in my life.”

“In the hierarchy of the [Camp] Ramah world, the goal is to become a Rosh Aidah—a division head. Yosi reached that pinnacle one summer and then, surprising the entire community, chose to return to the ‘lower level’ of bunk counselor for his final years at Ramah. Why? Was he unsuccesful in his administrative abilities? Hardly, as Rosh Aidah he saw his division undertake some of the most creative programming ever done over a summer. He brought out talents in counselors that few understood they had. Yet, Yosi understood that it was not in administrative modes that lives were easily changed, but rather in the one-to-one contact and the creation of a true ‘tzrif-community’ that transformation took place. For Yosi, it was about creating Jews who understood that their greatest inheritance was their Judaism. By taking a stand for substance over style, content over casings, and constancy over passing fad, Yosi continues to transform lives and community through the texts of our people and the stories of our lives.”

Rabbi Morris Allen

“Yosi has, for approximately eighteen years, taught Torah and Rabbinic Literature in the Talmud Torah Midrasha program. His teaching is deep, cognitively challenging, and personally enriching. He knows how to encourage his students both to discipline themselves to be students of the text and to find themselves within the text, treading that fine line between leading to produce growth and pushing to produce rebellion. In the process of doing this, he creates a personal relationship with the students that encourages them to see him as a mentor and a role model, a teacher in the best sense of the word. I could go on and on about the students of Yosi’s who have become rabbis or Jewish educators or lawyers who study Mishnah during lunch; about the students who have asked him to come visit them for a weekend so he could teach their own child as he prepared for Bar Mitzvah; about walking down the street in Jerusalem with Yosi and meeting a different person every three blocks who had been his student and is now a rabbi, educator, committed Jew.”

Susan Cobin

“In 1978, when Yosi came to St. Paul to head the Talmud Torah, I was in sixth grade. When Yosi found out that I was enthusiastic as well as serious about my Jewish education, he extended me an invitation. He told me that I could select a friend and come to his home on Shabbat afternoons to study Torah. Shabbat afternoons at Yosi’s transform Jewish lives. We would come to Yosi’s around 3:30 in the afternoon and, at least in the winter, stay until havdalah. That in itself was revolutionary for many of us. The Rashi Group made Shabbat a whole day for us, and gave a shape to the end of Shabbat just as services and meals gave shape to the beginning. In my mind, I can still smell Yosi’s b’samim, which always seemed to me some kind of secret recipe that I would never be able to duplicate. I came away with the understanding that there is nothing worth knowing that isn’t somehow Torah. Yosi fostered community through Torah study—community among his students, community between teacher and students, community across boundaries of time and space. In college, it became apparent to me quite quickly that by studying with Yosi, I had learned to read. I am the Jew who I am because I was, and I am, Yosi Gordon’s student. If you ask around, you will find more people than you can count, of all ages, who would say the same thing.”

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett