One month ago (30 Nissan, 5772-April 22, 2012), Rabbi Yeshaya Schtroks, beloved Cheder Lubavitch of Morristown elementary school teacher for more than a quarter century, passed away suddenly in his sleep at the young age of 55. Today, as family, students, friends and thousands more across the globe mark the 30th day of his passing (shloshim), we offer the reflections of a student who learned in Rabbi Schtroks’ class 26 years ago.

In the Second Book of Samuel, after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, King David cries out, "מִנְּשָׁרִים קַלּוּ, מֵאֲרָיוֹת גָּבֵרוּ"—"They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.”1

Rabbi Yeshaya Schtroks, beloved father, husband, community builder and remarkable teacher, was swift like the eagle, strong like the lion, and now he has passed away at the young age of 55.

The eagle bears the next generation on its wings; the lion never yields his ground. Rabbi Schtroks was our teacher. He soared above, lifting a generation of young students with his inspired and lively instruction. And he stood his ground in the classroom with firm and gentle discipline, reminding young Jews of their responsibilities born of Jewish history. Eagle and lion, Rabbi Schtroks embodied the grace and courage of a great Torah educator.

This was no ordinary man. He was a Chassid, in the most profound sense, who spent every extra moment of his 26 years in education helping students—7, 8, 9 or 10 year old kids—and bringing out the best in them; who by the sheer force of his example became a mentor who transformed many lives.

He was foremost a teacher of Torah. In his hands, the Chumash, the Bible, opened itself up to those for whom it was closed—his elucidations making an obscure text alive with meaning.

He loved to teach, and he did so as few have or will. With vitality and vigor, with substance and style he held us—his students—in his nurturing hand.

He perceived his student in two dimensions: He saw what the student was at the moment, with all his shortcomings, and at the same time, he saw the greatness in each student and challenged him to grow. When a teacher only sees the flaws, the child feels worthless. When a teacher only embraces the student the way he is, the teacher fails to allow the student to become what he is capable of becoming. Rabbi Schtroks had that perfect blend. He taught his students the power of possibility, and helped them become better than they thought they were.

I was one of those students who was lucky to have learned Torah from him. It has been years since I left school. But I still remember much of what he taught.

I was eight years old. We were studying Genesis. One day he noticed that I was sad and asked why. “I don’t like Chumash and Rashi's commentary,” I said. “It’s too difficult.”

“The problem,” he said, “is not Chumash; it’s the language barrier.”

 Rabbi Schtroks with students on a field trip to recite the blessing on fruit trees.
Rabbi Schtroks with students on a field trip to recite the blessing on fruit trees.

You see, in our school—Cheder Lubavitch Morristown—we studied the Biblical text in the original Hebrew and translated it into Yiddish. Unlike the rest of my class, neither language was spoken in my home.

Rabbi Schtroks said to me: “All you need to do is learn the language, and Chumash will be a delight for you. I know it.” Then he walked away. I was baffled. Now it seemed to me the problem was worse than I had thought. How was I to learn two new languages? That evening, however, glancing at my homework, I discovered that under the new and difficult words he penned in the English translation. This continued for months. He must have sacrificed countless hours of his own time on my behalf. He always handed the custom-tailored homework to me discreetly, so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed.

Twenty six years have passed since that day, and now as I study Chumash with my son, we do so in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. A tribute to a caring teacher who gave of his time so a child could learn to understand Torah and love it, cherish it, and in turn pass it on to his children. For many, he was the one teacher who hit the light switch and changed their life.

Speak to students. Other teachers. Parents. All will tell the same story. How Rabbi Schtroks built confidence in the students, how he kept motivating them to do a little better. Then a little better still. To overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. To persevere, no matter the odds.

He never belittled his students. When they did something inappropriate, he would summon them and in a calm, firm and no-nonsense tone, he would say in Yiddish: “Es past nisht!—This is not becoming of you!”

Three simple and subtle words that spoke volumes. The student was not told that he was bad or unworthy. On the contrary, he was being guided not to do something because that particular behavior was beneath him. “Es past nisht” meant that he was just too good for that sort of thing. This is the opposite of an insult. Instead of emphasis placed on the wrongness of the action, it was placed on the goodness of the child. You are above such behavior. “Es past nisht!” Inherent within the very rebuke was the greatest compliment: Since you are a person of excellence, this is simply incompatible and out of character for you.

Whenever I think back to Rabbi Schtroks as a teacher, I recall that fascinating account recorded in the Ethics of the Fathers.2 The Mishnah contains a passage that on the surface seems out of place:

“Rabbi Yochanan the son of Zakkai had five outstanding disciples: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yose the Priest, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach. He would recount their praise:

Eliezer ben Hyrcanus—a cemented cistern which loses not a drop; Joshua ben Chananya—happy is she who gave birth to him; Yose the priest—a most pious man; Shimon ben Netanel—a man who fears sin; Elazar ben Arach—a spring flowing with ever-increasing vigor.”

What is odd about the passage is that it appears in a text about ethics. Why do we need to know who Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s students were and what he said about them? That belongs to history, not ethics.

 Rabbi Yeshaya Schtroks officiating at a wedding.
Rabbi Yeshaya Schtroks officiating at a wedding.

Understanding Rabbi Schtroks’ model of education, however, we have the answer. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai loved his students and was able to show them that each was great in his unique way; his compliments were not generic. In each case, he identified the student’s very specific talents. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was a man of memory, Rabbi Elazar ben Arach was creative, and so on. That is how he was able to raise such remarkable disciples. By identifying what each could become, he showed them each their potential and helped them achieve it. That is what the Mishnah is teaching us.3

The highest tribute Judaism could pay to Moses, our greatest leader, was to call him Moshe Rabbeinu—“Moses our Teacher.” Rabbeinu, from the word “rav,” also means maximum. Moses was many things—leader, redeemer, prophet, lawgiver, military strategist and commander-in-chief—but none of these was deemed nearly as praiseworthy as the greatest thing Moses did—which was to teach. And the Torah concept of teaching is to maximize the gifts and potential of your students. And that is what Rabbi Schtroks did. Great teachers leave lifelong impressions on the students they inspire. Their teachings become their students’ teachings, thereby spreading their influence in endless directions and across generations. Rabbi Schtroks was such a man. Indeed many of his students grew up to become rabbis and Chabad emissaries, and thus he influenced and will continue to influence thousands of Jews throughout the world.

We often don’t realize that behind the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s army of Shluchim—who have branched out and opened thousands of educational institutions, humanitarian organizations and outreach centers across the globe—there stands a group of teachers, the unsung heroes like Rabbi Schtroks who have inspired them. These teachers are partners in sparking one of the greatest renaissances in Jewish history.

Mortality is written into the human condition. But so too is the possibility of immortality, in the good we do that continues long after we are here to produce further good. There are lives that defeat death. Rabbi Schtroks’ life is one of them. The eagle has landed, the lion has lain down, but his Torah and goodness will long live on. May his memory and his life be for a blessing.

Please consider donating to the Zichron Shaya Schtroks committee as his wife and children are in tremendous financial need.