Shulamith Reich Elster, the ‘dean of Jewish education,’ dies at 81

Shulamith Reich Elster
Shulamith Reich Elster (Photo courtesy of Elana Elster)

Shulamith Reich Elster was known as a gift giver. Whether it was a book, some trinket or a memory, she never liked to leave people empty handed. Arguably her greatest gift was to Jewish education.

Elster, who died on Feb. 25, was often called the “dean of Jewish education” for the important role she played at two Washington-area day schools and her consulting work for new or struggling Jewish schools across North America.

She was “the ultimate Jewish educator” and “the person who people called on when schools needed help,” said her daughter, Elana Elster.

In the 1980s, Shulamith Elster shaped Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School as its head of school. And Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax can trace its origins to discussions held around her kitchen table.

“Education was in her blood,” Elana Elster said. “And it came so naturally to her to find ways to make experiences educational, to make schools as robust as possible for anyone within her reach. Judaism was essential to her and the air that she breathed. So the combination of education and Judaism was a natural combination.”

Elster’s career includes time as chief education officer of the Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education, executive director of Hillel of Greater Washington and executive director of the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. She was an associate professor of education at Baltimore Hebrew University and, in 1993, founded its graduate program in Jewish education.

Elster was a busy woman, or as her friend Lynne Sandler of Alexandria put it: “She had a finger into almost everything you can think of.”

Elster was 81 when she died of complications from Parkinson’s disease, on the eve of Purim. Gesher Jewish Day School took note of the date in a tribute on its Facebook page.

“How appropriate that this trailblazing woman leader, a role model for us all will now forever be connected to the leadership and risk-taking of Queen Esther as her funeral will be held tomorrow, Purim,” the tribute read.

Shulamith Reich was born on May 18, 1939, in Norfolk. Her mother was a Hebrew teacher, her father a Conservative rabbi. She earned a bachelor’s degree from New York University and a master’s degree in secondary school education from Columbia University in 1959. That same year she married Sheldon Elster, a rabbinical student.

The couple moved to Ohio for a time and in 1968 relocated to the Washington area. Rabbi Elster went on to lead Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria.

Sandler was a member of the synagogue.

“When you talked to her, she made you feel like you were the only person around and that she really cared about you,” Sandler said. “And she wanted to know all sorts of things about what was going on in your life and whatnot. And she was just very, very special that way.”

Shulamith Reich Elster in 1982
Shulamith Reich Elster in 1982. (Photo courtesy of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School)

Elster came to Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in 1973 as a parent-volunteer. But after earning her doctorate in education in 1978 from George Washington University, she became a part-time school counselor. In 1979, she became assistant principal of the upper school. She was head of school from 1982 to 1991.

Roz Landy, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School’s interim high school principal and dean of students, remembers Elster as the school’s moral and intellectual compass. Landy said school staff often compared Elster to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir due to her dedication and commitment.

“And like Golda Meir, Shulamith never seemed to sleep,” Landy said. “We would marvel at her insatiable appetite for work, and while we wondered where her boundless energy came from, we were grateful for it.”

At the same time, Elster was one of many Jews living in Northern Virginia who sent their children for the long haul across the bridge to attend day school in Maryland or Washington.

A group of parents met in Elster’s kitchen and planned to create a school of their own. Gesher, which means “bridge” in Hebrew, opened in 1982, meeting at Agudas Achim. The school has been on its own campus since 2007.

“The impact on the community, especially on Gesher and on the CESJDS, is huge,” Sandler said. “She was an unusual lady and a light to all of us.”

Elster continued to be involved in Gesher’s affairs. Jennifer Scher is the school’s director of community advancement. She said that after she was hired in 2014, Elster invited her to visit her home to learn about the school’s history over ice cream.

“She was a gift. She was an educator, a teacher, a mentor and a friend,” Scher said. “Brilliant, and imaginative, innovative. She did not let age or health or anything get in the way of her desire to sit on the phone with me and dream about the future of Gesher.”

Elster was a member of B’nai Israel Congregation. She was preceded in death by her husband, Rabbi Sheldon Elster, and survived by her sister, Judith (Gerald) Reich Frank; her sons, Jonathan (Gayle) Elster and Adam (Kimberly) Elster; her daughter, Elana (Jordan Horvath) Elster; and six grandchildren, Hannah and Madelyn Elster, Paul and Sarah Horvath and Elijah and Samara Elster.

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