Master teacher, community educator Avi West dies

Avi West. Photo courtesy of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington

The Washington Jewish community lost a teacher who touched many lives, as longtime community educator Avi West died Aug. 4 at the age of 68.

“He benefitted so many people. He really was a master teacher,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “I think he was a prince of a man. He was a hero in so many ways.’

Rabbi Evan Krame of The Jewish Studio, said that despite being vaccinated, West died due to complications caused by COVID-19.

A small, private funeral was held Thursday. West leaves behind his wife. Chagit; a daughter, Liron West Silbert; a son, Yochai West, and several grandchildren. West was a member of Young Israel Shomrai Emunah of Greater Washington.

The Silbert family will sit shivah at Shaare Torah in Rockville beginning at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 8, with a minyan at 7 p.m. They will also hold a minyan at Shaare Torah at 7 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 9.

A humble, devout Jew for whom teaching and punning were both natural proclivities, West was a central figure in the Washington-area Jewish community’s central education institutions for more than 40 years.

West was a 1970 graduate of Yeshiva University High School in New York, and attended the Columbia University/List College Jewish Theological Seminary joint program, graduating in 1974 with bachelor’s degrees in comparative literature and Hebrew letters. He also earned a master’s degree in education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In the Washington region, he served as director of educational resources for the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington and the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life 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, providing instruction to area teachers.

“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,” Federation CEO Gil Preuss said in a statement following West’s death. “Our Jewish community is undoubtedly stronger for his mentorship and guidance. Avi changed the life of every person who got to know him.”

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.”

West also served as a program adviser for ShalomLearning, a board member for the Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies and a faculty member of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.

Preuss said that West made Jewish educational content accessible and inclusive for learners of all ages and backgrounds. For several years he coordinated ROUTES, The Federation’s annual communitywide day of adult study, and worked to develop a more robust framework for adult Jewish learning in the greater Washington area.

Michael Feinstein, former CEO of the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, said he worked with West many times over the years in developing programs and classes for the Bender JCC.

“He didn’t sweat the small things. He was always very supportive of Jewish practices, even if they were practices he didn’t personally follow,” Feinstein said. “He believed very strongly in being accepting and nonjudgmental of everyone. I am so sad about his passing. He was such a treasure for our community for so many years.”

Krame said he first met West in a Federation-sponsored program about 30 years ago. Krame was a second-career rabbi, and 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. He said he would often meet with West in his office and ask 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.”

In an emailed statement, Rakitt said: “Avi was one of a kind — a traditional Jew with an untraditional approach to Judaism — a teacher to all and a student of everything; a gentle soul with a strong sense of faith and purpose; a welcoming presence who gave you all the time in the world, only to run out of time himself far too soon. And those puns — those glorious, witty, eye rolling, funny puns. And above all, a genuine, humble and brilliant mensch.”

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