Alumni Remembering Mel Reisfield This Shabbat
Director, Camp Tel Yehudah
Chug Yo-Ya 1978
Growing up in New Jersey Young Judaea and attending Tel Yehudah in the 1970s and 80’s, I was raised on Mel Reisfield. In Alumim. I took copious pages of notes in those little spiral notebooks while sitting on the floor of the Machon moadon as Mel taught us about the moral code the Jewish people introduced to the world. We learned about “not holding back the wages of the worker” and “not to put a stumbling block in front of the blind.” At 13 years old, this was our introduction to social justice and social activism. And he taught us a love of Jewish history, Jewish peoplehood and Israel. His sichot were bombastic, passionate, irreverent and unforgettable to this day.
These days I am often baffled when I hear so many Jews talk about a tension or dichotomy between loving Israel (people, land and state) and caring about the rest of the world, as if we can only contain one of these truths at a time. That’s not what we learned from Mel and in Young Judaea.
In his speech at Tel Yehudah for the 100th anniversary of Young Judaea, Mel said:
“We are inner directed Soviet Jewry, Ethiopian Jewry. But we’re outer directed also. We care about others. And when those people came to me and said Mel, look at what you guys are doing. You’re activists. Social Action. Can you help us? This is the March of Dimes. There are kids with Polio….How are we going to get more people to give us money? This is before the vaccine for polio. How about a walkathon? One of the first walkathons in the history of walkathons….Started by the Young Judaeans from this camp, Tel Yehudah.”
In these times, may we take Mel’s strength and wisdom to be both inner and outer directed.
Director of Year Course
In the zoom waiting room at Mel’s funeral, it did not say “please wait for host” it said, (translated from Hebrew) “wait to be let into the classroom by the teacher.” Among his many contributions to Young Judaea both in the US and Israel, Mel led field trips and taught Hebrew classes on Year Course. He would have approved of the waiting room message being in Hebrew and would have loved for his funeral to be considered a classroom. It is just like him to not let even death be a reason to miss a teachable moment.
It was never quiet in Mel’s classroom. Between his boisterous teaching style and the inevitable laughter around the occasionally unorthodox vocabulary in both his Hebrew and other classes, students not in his classes were frequently jealous of those who got to learn with Mel. I once snuck in to Mel’s Hebrew class to watch him teach. I’d heard him drop some words my mother didn’t like on the occasional field trip and I’d been told it was mild in comparison to his Hebrew classes. My Hebrew wasn’t quite good enough back then but I had to know what all the fuss was about. He let me stay there for about half an hour before sending me back to my own classroom. I definitely learned some new words.
If the classroom was quiet it probably meant that Mel was out back on the basketball court. Winning more often than not and teaching life lessons, Zionism and Hebrew in those moments as well. Mel walked back and forth from his home in French Hill to Beit Riklis every day and did not indulge the occasional bouts of laziness from the students. Throughout his teaching career with Year Course he expected his students and colleagues to show up prepared with a firm handshake, a thick skin, and a curious mind. In return he was always ready with an invitation to dinner in his home, a provocative question, and an off-color joke.
Long after retiring, when we’d ask Mel to tell his story to incoming Year Coursers, be honored at a ceremony of some kind, or even if he was available for a friendly visit, he was always willing. The price of his participation in the educational or social visit? A meal out at his favorite Jerusalem restaurant, Dolphin Yam, where a lesson in pluralism was waiting for anyone who might raise an eyebrow at the choice.
Words like “giant” and “legend” are not too big, they are too small to truly capture the influence that Mel had as an educator and mentor to so many of us in Young Judaea both in Israel and abroad. Those of us like Moshik Toledano, Adam Jenshil and myself who were his students or his colleagues (or both), Joel Srebrenick who grew up at TY and then Young Judaea Israel with Mel as an influence, Orit Segal who taught Hebrew on the same faculty with him, we all strive to carry his legacy forward.
YJG Board Chair
On Wednesday I attended Mel Reisfield’s funeral in Jerusalem. It was difficult and emotional for everyone to say goodbye to Mel. Were it not for COVID restrictions, there would have been hundreds joining me in paying our last respects. I felt like I was a Shaliach Tzibur for the entire Young Judaea Community.
The outpouring of condolences and sadness at the funeral and in our community conveys how deeply indebted we all are to Mel. He was a giant and had a profound impact on thousands of young people over decades of dedicated work as an educator, leader and activist. He was a role model for all of us. The last gift that we can give to Mel is our resolve to continue on his path of working for Clal Yisrael, Zionism and Tikun Olam. We are his life’s work. May he live on through our continued dedication, hard work and accomplishments. I am quite certain that he would be pleased and thank us for this this gift…and then he would shout a profanity, punch someone in the arm, and get back to work.
Yehi Zichro Baruch יהי זכרו ברוך