In the 1990s, Avi West led March of the Living tours, educational experiences through European Holocaust sites and Israel.
On one teen tour, West left Washington carrying a joking request from a friend to bring him back a shwarma from Israel.
At U.S. customs after the trip, a contraband-sniffing dog smelled something in West’s luggage. The customs officer knew something was up, and West unzipped his suitcase, revealing a shwarma sandwich. West sheepishly told the customs officer that he didn’t know it wasn’t allowed.
Chaim Lauer, a longtime friend and colleague of West’s, co-led that particular trip. When West saw the friend who has requested the shwarma, Lauer said, “Avi went into his luggage and gave him a second sandwich” that he had hidden in case the first sandwich was confiscated.
“You do what you have to do, but you do it with a smile. That was Avi,” Lauer said.
West, a longtime community educator, died Aug. 4 at the age of 68, of complications from COVID-19. In the outpouring of grief following his death, friends and colleagues said West was defined by his humor, his compassion, his scholarship and his ability to build bridges. Everyone, it seems, had an Avi West story to tell.
West served as director of educational resources for the Bureau of Jewish Education and later the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning from 1978 to 2013. From 2013 until his retirement in the summer of 2020, he was the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s senior education officer and master teacher.
“His approach to Judaism and Jewish education was joyful and electric, and we could always count on Avi to bring just the right notes of insight and humor to any situation,” Gil Pruess, chief executive officer of The Federation, said in a statement following West’s death.
Lauer, who knew West for some 44 years and worked with West when Lauer was executive director of the Board of Jewish Education, said West liked to open discussions with humor.
“What Avi was doing was setting the stage, creating an atmosphere where people could feel comfortable,” Lauer said. “He used it as a way to hook people into learning.”
West was also well-known for his puns, a skill he sharpened like a fine knife in verbal competitions with Lauer.
“One of the things we enjoyed together was punning like ping pong, in three or four different languages — English, Hebrew, Aramaic, French, Yiddish,” said Lauer. “In its own way, it was an educational process which we used to sharpen each other.”
West was also known for his compassion and willingness to help others. Lauer recalled a story West once told him about why he became an educator.
“It took place when he was in elementary school. In class, the teacher asked a question and one of the girls got the answer — which had just been taught — all wrong. The other children laughed at her and she cried,” Lauer recalled West telling him.
The teacher sat the girl on his lap and retaught the lesson, and this time she got the answer correct, Lauer said.
“The lesson of compassion and perseverance in teaching — not just the transference of data — touched Avi in his neshamah [his soul] — and he became that model for others in his personal and professional career,” Lauer said.
Rabbi Reuven Taff, rabbi emeritus of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, said he and his wife, Judy Finkelstein-Taff, relocated to Northern Virginia to accept the positions of headmaster of Gesher Jewish Day School and education director of Agudas Achim Congregation, respectively, and were warmly welcomed by West.
“During our years in those positions, before we moved to California in 1995, Avi was always available to meet us, to offer us support and counsel, to speak to our teachers and parents. He never, ever said, ‘No, I’m too busy,’” Taff said.
Rabbi JoHanna Potts worked with West while she was on the Board of Jewish Education and with the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.
I don’t believe that any educator in our community was not touched by the work Avi did,” Potts said. “Avi was a master teacher, a teacher of teachers, but he was also such a creator of content used by Jewish teachers in this community.”
Rabbi Evan Krame of the Jewish Studio said he first met West in a Federation-sponsored program about 30 years ago, and that West was one of the teachers in his rabbinical program.
“He was brilliant,” Krame said. “He had an amazing command of the Jewish texts, but more importantly, how to apply them, how to make Judaism come alive for people.”
Krame said that last year, the Washington Board of Rabbis, of which Krame is the president, made West its only non-clergy member, and that Krame was honored to have presented the certificate to West last year, in recognition of West’s role as the community’s “master educator.”
“If I had to create the perfect Jewish teacher, it would be Avi,” Krame said.
Steve Rakitt said he worked closely with West while CEO of The Federation from 2011 to 2017.
Rakitt said that during the 2016 presidential campaign, he began to formulate a policy around social media posts by staff supporting candidates.
“As the Federation’s resident Jewish educator, Avi asked if he could help and he and I met together for several weeks reviewing Jewish texts about personal freedom, communal responsibility, public perception and more. He was patient, open to questions, non-judgmental and very helpful in helping us arrive at a compromise that was supported by all employees,” Rakitt said.
Rakitt said he often met with West in his office and asked him questions regarding Jewish law and practice.
“The next day on my desk I would find a list of books and articles on the subject to learn more,” Rakitt said. “In Judaism we are instructed to find a teacher, and Avi was the teacher I found. He was the teacher for thousands of people in our community.”
West was a member of Young Israel Shomrai Emunah of Greater Washington in Silver Spring. And while his practice was Orthodox, his work was community oriented.
“He didn’t sweat the small things,” said Michael Feinstein, former chief executive officer of the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. “He was always very supportive of Jewish practices, even if they were practices he didn’t personally follow. He believed very strongly in being accepting and nonjudgmental of everyone.”
“Avi appreciated the distinctiveness of the disparate parts of our community, respected them and encouraged them while encouraging us to recognize our common interests and commitments,” said Rabbi Jack Luxemburg, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Ami. “Even when issues made the communal divisions more contentious, Avi was out there bridging them in the name of Jewish learning and literacy.”
Steve Kerbel, now an education consultant, met West in 1978, at the offices of the Board of Jewish Education. Kerbel was 17.
“We clicked that day. Avi was also a recent arrival the fall before, and since then he has been my teacher, my resource and my friend,” Kerbel wrote in a blog post the day West died.
“We have taught and shared classes, comforted each other during losses, celebrated smachot [joyous occasions], written songs, and on a cold winter’s night in southern Pennsylvania, after climbing a steep hill and around a campfire, we debated the future of the Judaean community after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE — Should we revolt or try to get along with the Romans? — with a community of early childhood educators.”
Kerbel said he and West had planned for their old age together.
“We would [sit] in adjoining rocking chairs in the Hebrew Home Lobby, and recite Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner routines, sing Allan Sherman songs and analyze Yehuda Amichai poetry. All day, every day. We would take over the minyan and turn it into a prayer laboratory,” Kerbel said.
“So now I need a new plan. My Butch Cassidy, my Bat Man, my teacher has left too soon.”