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[Page 159]

Chapter Three:

Personalities and Figures


An Exemplary Educator

Dr. Yitzhak Rafael HaLevi Etzion (Holzberg)

by Avraham Ron

Translated by Paul Bessemer

One morning during the summer vacation [of the year] [5]694 (1934), I was informed by the administration of the high school at which I studied that I was to travel to a certain place in order to meet there with someone by the name of Dr. Holzberg, who in the future would be the vice principal.[1] He wanted to meet the students of the institution where he would be working.

This was something unusual, even in those days, wherein a new teacher would devote his summer vacation to getting to know his future students. But in regard to Dr. Holzberg I was not surprised. I had already heard that an interesting vice principal was due to arrive at our school: God-fearing, an accomplished man of science, and an exemplary teacher, and above all, a man of principle. This combination of piety and scientific learning was not something frequently seen among the inhabitants of the Yishuv[2] during those years. Certainly, we knew of some German Jews who had combined faith and wisdom, but this individual—they'd already said—was a Lithuanian, through and through. And at that time, a Lithuanian, if he was a mathematician, stood a good chance of being an atheist. From a Lithuanian who was both God-fearing and greatly knowledgeable in the sciences it was possible to expect this oddness—that he would devote his vacation to getting to know his future students.

The meeting was in Dr. Holzberg's apartment. I was ready for a conversation in which he would attempt to discern [the extent of] my knowledge of mathematics, and I feared this since mathematics was my weak point. But here was an additional surprise. We conversed about mathematics, of course, but we also drifted into Greek history, French literature and Hebrew, and in each subject Dr. Holzberg's mastery of it revealed itself. My [view of the] world was then divided into the humanities and the hard sciences. I saw myself as belonging to the humanities and I had pegged Dr. Holzberg as belonging in the hard sciences. But here again I was baffled. He fluently recited poems in Greek and Latin, and revealed an expertise in German and French literature in their original [languages]. So, what was he then? A humanist or a man of science?

Well, I told myself, he was a man of Enlightenment in general, and that satisfied me. I had found a suitable box to place him in. But again, he eluded my attempts at pigeon-holing him when he began to speak with me about Torah study and revealed his deep knowledge of this subject as well.

I left there with a peculiar feeling: [this was] an extraordinary man; he knows everything. But he wasn't just learned, but sharp. One couldn't help but be impressed by his precision of his speech, of the clarity of his thought, and his astonishing analytical abilities. The category I finally found in which to place him was: a man of immense intellectual abilities.

[It was] the beginning of the school year. I was beginning my 10th/sophomore year, and while I had good marks in the fields of Judaism and the Humanities, I was quite weak in Mathematics and the Natural Sciences. This [situation] had dogged me since 1st grade. I didn't like math—or more correctly: I hated math, and everything related to it. The new mathematics teacher was Dr. Holzberg, which was more than a little uncomfortable: my disgrace would soon become known to him.

He entered the classroom on the first day and made several announcements: he would be our new teacher. He would also teach us Torah.

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He also invited us to a literature circle that would take place each week at his home. We would start with Vladimir Korolenko's work, “The Blind Musician”.[3] A strange introduction for a course on mathematics. I had never heard a combination like this before: a mathematics and Torah teacher arranging a literary circle. And at his home, no less, and in the evening. In truth, all of our teachers at that time were hardworking and devoted, but not to that extent. I simply could not find a mental framework that would contain him—was it only immense intellectual abilities? What about his sense of devotion? As time went on, each framework that I created for him was shattered, one after the other, and I had to keep adding to the picture: his sense of responsibility and devotion, his truthfulness/authenticity (midat emet).

Other surprising characteristics gradually came to light: below the surface of the cool Lithuanian and precise mathematician was hidden a struggling and sensitive heart. At that same literature seminar you would suddenly discover his sensitivity to beauty, the intense flame of his faith. You would also sense a hidden love for his students. He was prepared to invest great personal effort and labor in order to advance them. And this is what happened to me. I, who had left in my wake a long trail of failure in the study of mathematics, would finish the school year as a good student in the hard sciences and in a state of identity crisis: what was I after all, a humanist or a man of science?

But I was saved from another identity crisis. This was a difficult period of internal doubt for me; I was struggling at that time with my faith. It wasn't easy to remain a religious youth in Tel Aviv at that time. I went about with the feeling that I belonged to the last generation of believers, and all of us would be carried away by some irresistible force toward disbelief (kfirah). It was a sense of impending fate. We saw it as the way of the world: we start out on the path as religious children and continue upon it as secular ones. We didn't believe that we could escape this fate. Our surroundings pulled at us, provoked us, tempted us. The surrounding world was impressive, and, most important: convincing. And while you held fast to your faith, each day your grip grew weaker. You couldn't resist that voice that whispered in your ear: your desire to believe was nothing more than a pointless sentimentality, but the truth is there. I underwent many difficult days of internal struggle, days in which I saw the abyss opening before me and I couldn't help but continue toward it. The fear in my heart turned my days into hell.

And then there were the mathematics classes of Dr. Holzberg. These were true “lessons of an educator”. With a faithful hand he leads his pupil (bano) thus: that the axiomatic structure of the logic is set before our eyes with clarity, slowly and gradually he accustoms us to seek out the assumption/premise hidden within every rule (mishpat) upon which it is built. In this manner we grow accustomed to step back until we arrive at the foundational premise. We begin to understand that even atheism is like a faith/belief, nothing more, in fact, than an unproven faith. We begin to understand that human understanding alone cannot decide between different axiomatic systems. And I begin to sense that forces pulling at me from without no longer represent absolute truth. I am at this point able to look courageously into the abyss without being awed at its depth. One identity crisis solved - I now know: I am a religious youth, and even if I am the only religious youth in all of Tel Aviv I shall not be pulled along by the current. There will be days in which I shall stand before difficult tests [of my faith], when I will be the only religious [person] within a secular society, whether before disparaging lecturers or students at the university, or before laughing commanders and colleagues at an army officers' course, or in many, many other instances, [but at those times] I will always come back to Dr. Holzberg's mathematics lessons and will draw from them strength and spiritual force to withstand each one of those same protracted arguments (vikukhim memushakhim) with peace of mind and a sense of inner confidence.

I finish high school and my connection with Dr. Holzberg, [but] the sense of esteem and love that connected us is not broken. Many years have passed, and my path leads me into the field of education without any preparation. I am a “teacher without certification”, one who hasn't studied in a [training] course but who, by the circumstances of the time, has become the founder and director of a religious school in Tel Aviv's Skhunat HaTikvah neighborbood[4] (at that time, the Talmud Torah “HaTikvah”, and now known as “Emanuel” School). I don't have any knowledge of pedagogy, and no experience. Of course, I am a terrible teacher. But to my good fortune, it is Dr. Holzberg who comes to visit my lessons as an educational supervisor. And naturally, the lesson I give is terrible. So bad, in fact, that I wasn't even aware of the fact that it was awful—that was how bad my teaching was. Dr. Holzberg invited me to his office for a conversation. Even though I had been his student in the past, he “chafes” against me. He analyzes my lesson and peels away every outer layer to reveal the essence. He examines together with me each sentence/rule in my lesson, and in the reflection I see my lesson: where I erred here, and why it wasn't a good idea to ask in such a fashion, and why it would have been better

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to change the order of things, and how I erred in this explanation and that.

I left there a different person—my eyes had been suddenly opened to see that pedagogy was a science, and it had a beauty, and it had a profundity, and I was reminded of the enchanting mathematics lessons. I began to understand what a pedagogic consideration was, and the way in which one had to think in preparing a lesson. Things began to be interesting and attractive, and the preparation for each lesson becomes for me a stimulating and exciting challenge. And again, I sensed just what a debt of gratitude I felt toward my teacher and supervisor, who opened up new vistas before me.

Time passed. That was a difficult period for Hebrew education in the Land [of Israel]. Farrell,[5] the same bitter foe who stood at the head of the Department of Education during the Mandate Government, is trying to hinder the progress of Hebrew education. They would say at that time that it is permissible to cancel/ignore (lebatel) a severe ruling, and what does the “Department” (of Education of the National Council, the then-“Ministry of Education” of the Jewish Yishuv) do? They send Dr. Holzberg to Farrell. This Farrell had a weakness—he loved to compose poems in Greek and Latin, and when he would struggle to find a rhyme for a Greek or Latin word he would fume, and then direct his rage at us. And who better to immediately supply him with a rhyming word than Dr. Holzberg? At which point he would calm down and respond [more amenably] to the demands of the Yishuv.

The State was born and it already has a Ministry of Education. I gain employment as a supervisor in the sector of the chief supervisor of Mizrahi,[6] Dr. Holzberg, who had [by then] changed his name to Eztion. At this point the happy days have returned to me, [days] in which I could increase my learning and to drink deeply from the well of [knowledge that was] every conversation with him.

State education arrived, and I was excited and amazed at the discovery of the greatness of spirit that I had not known to be in him [as] a brother and a friend. These were the difficult days for the religious educator, after the [period of the] “warring camps”[7] and Dr. Etzion managed an immense system [of education] over the souls of the immigrants' children, a time of inflamed passions and burning resentments. And when the [division of] “state religious” education arose, it was “punished”. What naturally should have been done, was not: Dr. Etzion was not appointed as director of the branch of religious education. Upon Dr. Etzion's advice Y. Goldschmidt was appointed to such; up to that point he had been one of the supervisors for the Mizrahi [movement]. Dr. Eztion was designated to be an ordinary supervisor for the Tel Aviv district. This was a most embarrassing situation. We saw in our imaginations [the biblical] Moses when he needed to submit to Joshua and could not bring himself to do it. With trepidation we awaited the first meeting of the supervisors of the religious education branch,

[Page 162]

when Dr. Etzion and Mr. Goldschmidt would change seats. I shall never forget that gathering [and] what greatness of spirit and gentility both of them showed. I saw how much these two struggled to make it easier on one another. For a full year I saw the different aspects of Dr. Etzion's character in all their glory. It was only a profound religious reverence that allowed this to be witnessed. For Dr. Etzion, this was all simply a means to the noble cause: turning the hearts of the children of Israel toward their Father in Heaven. Before this goal all normal human desires were dwarfed, and he rejoiced over the fact that he could now serve [the cause of] Holiness in the best possible way in a new situation. This was a great and wondrous drama of devotion, a discarding of all personal connection, a rising above all human weakness, and an expression of good intention toward he who only yesterday was subordinate to him and with whom he had now to switch roles. And this occurred before my eyes, and before the eyes of all those who were witnesses thereto; such moments simply must be witnessed.[8]

Many years have passed since then, and Dr. Etzion has long since retired. But I continue to be his student, not only by virtue of those days, but each time I draw from his teaching. He writes books and articles on pedagogy, in contemplation and interpretation, and everything he wrote there bears the wisdom of the elders and the fervor and agitation (matsis) of youth. And every visit to him was a pleasure, and every conversation with him was an enrichment of the soul that sustained one for long thereafter.

And when I look around and see the great and illustrious “camp” of religious educators, and the religious youth, and when a sense of calm satisfaction (hanaha) spreads over my heart, I say to myself: We have all arrived [at this point] by virtue of Dr. Etzion.

Many years have passed and we remain accompanied by the nagging sense: who else is as worthy of the Israel Prize in Education as Dr. Etzion, who forged new paths in education, who deepened educational thinking, whose books and articles in Didactics are exemplary works in their profundity, in their analytical quality and their clarity of expression, that they are spread across and through every subject, from teaching Torah to teaching mathematics and the natural sciences? He who has become exalted as a giant among many fields, will have to wait until the evening of his years so that we might be fortunate enough to see him trod, with failing steps, up to the stage, supported by the usher, as he receives the Israel Prize in Education. And we feel that the mistake will be hereby corrected, but late [in coming].

And afterward – the end. Dr. Etzion is no longer with us. And for us, his students who now lack his conversation, his guidance, the flash of his sharp and mischievous eye, and sometimes, when he would analyze our methods. We are left only with his teaching, the Torah of God, complete and whole: “There was no conflict between his teaching of the word of God in his books and the actions of God in the world”. We are left only with his teaching, the pure and whole Torah of God: full of pure and innocent faith, a profound faith he acquired, without a doubt—complete.


  1. Alternatively: Assistant Director (sgan menahel) Return
  2. The Jewish settlement in Israel/Palestine in the pre-independence period Return
  3. The Hebrew actually reads “The Blind Gardener”, but this is likely a typo (ganan instead of nagan). Return
  4. Skhunat Hatikvah in Tel Aviv's grittier southeast was historically (and certainly at the time of these events) an impoverished, working class neighborhood. Return
  5. Wilfred Jerome Farrell, who served under Humphrey Bowman as assistant director of education during the middle years of the British Mandate, would succeed his boss upon the latter's retirement in 1936 and hold the post until 1946. Unlike his predecessor, Farrell was caustic, imperious, and considered largely devoid of sympathy or understanding for the aspirations or needs of either his Jewish or Arab concerns. Return
  6. A contraction of Merkaz Ruchani (“religious center”), it is a religious Zionist organization (est. Vilnius, 1902) that believes that the Jewish national movement should be centered around Orthodox Judaism. Its most prominent figure was Rabbi Abraham Kook, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi during the British Mandate. During the post-independence period it was the basis of the National Religious Party, whose members tended to control the Ministry of Religious Affairs for decades. Return
  7. After the Israeli War for Independence (1947-49) the country established mandatory public education (through age 14) for all citizens, but allowed for several different, largely independent organizations (based on the different ideological, ethnic, and religious streams) to oversee it (i.e., state-sponsored Labor Zionism, Religious Zionism, ultra-Orthodox Judaism, etc.) and there was fierce competition between them for the children of Jewish immigrants from the Arab/Muslim world that flooded into the country after independence. Return
  8. The Hebrew phrase: le'siim ein heker is difficult to interpret, but seems to imply that peak moments like this cannot be understood after the fact. Return

[Page 163]

A Man of Faith and Science: Dr. Rafael Halevi Etzion

by Rivke Nave

Translated by Hanna Grinberg

Dr. Itzhak Rafael Halevi Etzion departed this world after a long life of work in education for many years that was acknowledged with an award of the Israel Prize in our country.

But for us, a small community of his students that remained prior to his arrival to Israel, it felt as if with his departure a page of our private history closed.  It was as if we lost a father figure that was tied with our fond memories of being students in the Yavne gymnasium in Telshe, of which he was the principal.

We addressed him by his last name, Dr. Holzberg, prior to the change to a Hebrew name, since this way we felt closer to him.  Each meeting with him until the last year of his life brought fond memories of those precious years before the devastation that descended on Telshe, with its institutions of Jewish education that formed our spiritual and social world.  Against the special atmosphere of Telshe, saturated with the Torah and spirit of ethics, with its implications for each detail, we had Dr. Holzberg as a perfect role model to identify with, to practice virtues, and to strive for perfection.  In his lessons he tried to instill in us a Jewish world view based on the values of the Torah.  Even math and physics lessons were infused with faith, and like literature lessons, were accompanied by sayings of the sages of blessed memory and golden proverbs from the best of world literature.

Educational instruction in its fundamental form, and the goal of providing us with Torah and good manners, transformed many lessons into an exciting experience for our developing minds.  Being a man of faith and science, he was a master of brilliant formulation and a clear definition of ideas, as is demonstrated in the writings that he left behind.

Since the study of nature was close to his heart, Dr. Holzberg established a club for nature lovers at the gymnasium and he took us on trips to the forests and the lake close to Telshe.  We enjoyed his explanations about flowers and various shrubs and the life of a tree.  In our imagination we probably saw the forest on Mount Carmel[1] and Lake Kineret[2], but these lessons, along with the social games that he loved to organize, were an educational event that we remembered for many years.

Dr. Holzberg had an exceptional memory.  Not once were we surprised how he enjoyed - even in the last years - to recall interesting details of the school's life like exams, grades and the relationships between the girls and the management.  We remembered his interest in the quality of accommodations for the girls that came to Telshe, “a place of Torah”, from the small towns of Lita.  The strict discipline that he established in the gymnasium - like the requirement to be at home after 10pm or to get permission to go to a movie theater, or to care about each detail of the uniform - did not appear to us as something that we could not tolerate.

Considering the current permissive education and its results, may we have “educator giants” like Dr. Etzion z”l.  His memory will stay with us, and may his great soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life.

Editor's Footnotes:

  1. Famous mountain in the State of Israel. Return
  2. Famous lake in the State of Israel. Return

[Page 178]

Yosl Baal Shem
(the Miracle Worker)

by Chasia Gering-Goldberg

Translated by Hanna Grinberg

Shimon, the father of Yosl, was a God-fearing man who observed the religious commandments, but his son [Yosl] did not follow in his father's footsteps.  He was infected with the virus of that time - Zionism, which had taken hold in the Jewish street.[2]  Yosl was one of the first Zionists in Telshe, really an “ardent Zionist,” who was also active in distributing shekels and was one of the founders of the Socialist Zionist organization.[3]  When the “Hachshara” movement[4] began, he was one of the movement's supporters and together with Sheinele Rabinovitz, Aaron Gringer, and Aivin helped the young pioneers to find work, and even employed several pioneers[5] in his store.  All he wanted was to emigrate to the Land of Israel, and to that end he bought an orange grove in the vicinity of Zichron-Ya'akov.

He had a store of building supplies and weapons.  He was an expert in locks and many would ask his help when a key was lost or there was some other problem with locks.  He was always in a good mood and liked jokes.  I will tell here about one of the jokes:

In our city of Telshe lived a carpenter named Hirsha Kopel.  He was a simple man, who loved to sit in the evenings in the “Shneidershe-Kloiz” (the synagogue for tailors) and listen to lessons on chapters of the Mishnah.[6]  One time this Hirsha came to Yosl's store and complained that the lock in the door of his house does not work.  As a joke, Yosl said: “Bring this door to me.”  To his surprise, sometime later he saw Hirsha standing in front of his store, huffing and puffing, with the door on his shoulders. “I have brought it,” he said.


The family of Joseph [“Yosl”] Baal-Shem near their store
Standing: Hillel Klotz and Esterke Vareyes. Joseph Baal-Shem was the only Jew that received a special permit from the Lithuanian authorities to sell weapons to citizens


  1. The Hebrew words “ba'al shem” translate as “master of the name.” During the Middle Ages, a concept emerged that certain religious people Jews could use the name of God to perform miracles, such as healing the sick. In this article, Yosl, though a non-religious Jew, nonetheless accomplished a “wondrous” deed. Return
  2. The term “Jewish street” means that the idea of establishing a Jewish national homeland was often discussed within the general population of Jews. Return
  3. For centuries, Jews living in the Diaspora dreamed of returning to the Land of Israel. In 1897, a movement to establish a Jewish national homeland was founded in Basel, Switzerland, which was called the Zionist Organization (later called the World Zionist Organization). Membership dues were set at one “shekel,” and the value of a shekel varied by country. In the Russian Empire, the value was 40 kopeks. In 1897 40 kopeks were worth 52 U.S. cents. In 2018, this would have been equal to about $15.20. The “shekel” was a unit of currency used by Jews in ancient times. Exodus 30:13 states each of the Jews who were counted in the census gave an offering to the Lord of one half shekel. Thus the shekel has served to secure membership in Jewish communal organizations for centuries and underscores the centrality of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) in Jewish life. The money raised by the Zionist Organization from dues were distributed to various projects to give individuals the skills they would need for living in a Jewish state in Palestine. Many members associated themselves with political parties within the organization, such as the Socialist Zionist party. Return
  4. The Hebrew word “hachshara” literally means “preparation.” The word referred to programs that trained people to live in self-sustaining agricultural communities in Israel. Return
  5. The Zionist movement sought to establish a Jewish homeland in the British Mandate of Palestine. Young people who volunteered to live in the new communities were referred to as “pioneers.” Return
  6. The Mishnah is a systematic compilation of Jewish laws that was developed by several generations of rabbis in the First and Second Centuries, C.E. Return


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