On Emil Jacoby’s 90th birthday, a tribute to a life well lived
In late March 1945, a young Czech Jew hiding in Budapest organized a Passover service for escapees from the Nazis and for those working in the rescue efforts. Most of the people who gathered that day had worked and lived together in hiding. When a stranger appeared, the young Czech organizer decided to honor him by asking that he recite the haftarah, a chapter that told the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones.
As this young Czech listened to the man chant, he was taken by the sense that the ancient words were speaking directly to him. And it was in that moment that he decided to dedicate his life to making dry bones live again, to ensuring the continuation and renewal of the Jewish people. He promised himself that, if he survived, his job would be to help transmit the tradition, to help his community remain Jewish and to attempt to inspire others also to serve klal Yisra’el.
Thus began the career of Emil Jacoby, a career that lasted well over half a century and that has touched the lives of thousands of children and families in Los Angeles.
Many articles could be written about Emil Jacoby. Between the two of us, one could describe what it is like to be his son and to learn so many life lessons from him. One could write about Emil Jacoby, the mentor, supervisor, colleague and friend. We choose to focus on him as a model and inspiration.
We will call him by a name that neither of us often use, but by which many of his closest friends and relatives have known him: Uzi. Short for Uziel (God is my strength), it is the name he acquired as a Zionist activist during and immediately after World War II.
Love what you live. Love what you do.
Throughout his career, Uzi was motivated by the experiences of his youth, which instilled in him a love of Judaism and a respect for community. Uzi’s mother lived by the principle of hiddur mitzvah, delighting in each mitzvah; she brought beauty and the joy of living into the family’s home and taught her family to appreciate the value of Jewish life. Indeed, hiddur mitzvah is an apt description of the experience that anyone fortunate enough to grow up in Uzi’s home, to go with him to Camp Ramah or join him at his synagogue, Adat Ari El, would have encountered.
Keep an open mind. Respect differences. Respect the past. Honor the present.
Uzi’s father was the secretary of the entire kehillah (congregation) of his hometown of Cop, in Czechoslovakia, trusted by the entire community — from Chasidim to liberal Jews. This is where Uzi learned the value of the klal, of the totality of the Jewish community, above and beyond any differences among individuals.
Perhaps more than any other quality, respect for pluralism and diversity characterized Uzi’s tenure as a leader for decades at BJE: Builders of Jewish Education. This respect, in turn, was complemented by an insistence on open-mindedness, a value Uzi internalized in his teen years, when his studies included both classical Jewish texts and the insights of Haskalah (enlightenment). After enrolling first in a traditional yeshiva, Uzi later transferred to the Hebrew Gymnasium, a Jewish school that included secular subjects — Latin and English — alongside Jewish history, Hebrew literature and Tanach. The Gymnasium’s expanded curriculum offered the foundation for the greatest joys of his intellectual life. His teachers there were powerful role models of Jewish commitment, leadership and caring, the model for what Uzi would become for hundreds of his own students in Los Angeles.
Don’t just survive. Rescue. Build.
After the liberation, Uzi used his background and skills to create educational programs needed for the young Jews returning from concentration camps and years of hiding. In the years immediately following the end of the war, he trained counselors and teachers, published books, organized a regional school and conducted summer camps. This experience strengthened his resolve to continue to serve as a Jewish educator.
In about 1950, Uzi immigrated to New York, where he was a teacher, even as he also studied to advance his own formal education. He was also reunited with his fiancée, Erika, who had come to the United States via Cuba — but that’s another story.
By the time Uzi arrived in Los Angeles, in 1953, he’d had abundant training and experience, and he set out to develop one of the premier Conservative congregational schools in the United States. From 1953 until 1976, under his leadership, the school at Adat Ari El (then known as Valley Jewish Community Center) grew from 200 students to 1,500, and it earned a well-deserved reputation for excellence. At the heart of this success was Uzi’s effectiveness in nurturing other educators and developing an esprit de corps among his staff. Well before the notion of “family education” entered the lexicon of Jewish education, Uzi implemented a vast array of family and intergenerational programs.
Even as he built a model school, Uzi took on two other assignments of critical importance to Jewish education. First, he became director of education at Camp Ramah in California, where he helped build a camp program that nurtured an entire generation of rabbinic and lay leadership. At the same time, he was appointed to the faculty of Jewish education at the University of Judaism (now known as American Jewish University). There, through the 1960s and ’70s, he raised up a cadre of educators who continue to serve with distinction in communities throughout North America.
In 1976, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE) turned to Uzi to serve as its associate director. In that capacity, he called upon all of his remarkable skills and experiences in providing educational support to a community network of more than 150 schools serving 30,000 students. By 1982, his vast knowledge and unique background, his ability to work with professional colleagues and lay leaders, and his intimate familiarity with the Los Angeles Jewish community made him the appropriate choice for appointment as executive director of the Los Angeles BJE.
During a decade of service as CEO of the second-largest BJE in the nation, Uzi built a harmonious and productive community of educators, spanning all school types and ideologies. He mentored dozens of emerging Jewish educational leaders. He fostered outstanding inter-agency cooperation, and developed an active and supportive board of directors.
In 1993, after 40 years of educational leadership in Los Angeles, Uzi turned his prodigious energy to an ambitious BJE initiative: the development and implementation of an accreditation process for all school types — including early childhood centers, day schools/yeshivot and congregational (part-time) religious schools.
Characteristically, Uzi worked skillfully in partnership with school-based educators, consultants from outside school systems, accreditation commissions and colleagues to devise approaches to self-study and external review that would help L.A. schools think about desired outcomes and strategies for getting “from here to there.” BJE’s school accreditation program — which Uzi coordinated for 15 years — became a national model. It helped schools reimagine curriculum and instruction to more effectively meet learners’ needs.
In 2008, Uzi and his wife, Erika, joined 136 L.A. teens, as well as staff and other survivors, on the BJE March of the Living. They shared with the high school seniors their experiences of adolescence and young adulthood — telling them of a very different reality. Erika, a survivor of Auschwitz, marked her 80th birthday by returning to that location, recounting there what it was like to be a 16-year-old in the death camp. Uzi shared the experiences of those outside the camps who were active with rescue efforts.
Uzi continued to serve until he finally retired at age 85 from his professional work at BJE. His leadership continues today to inform BJE’s mission, and to impact the lives of children and families of multiple generations. Uzi has surely helped bring renewed vitality — fulfilling Ezekiel’s vision — to Jewish life worldwide in the generations after the Holocaust.
As he turns 90 this week, on Nov. 30, his family, friends, admirers, students and younger colleagues join together in saying: Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu — how happy and fortunate are we to benefit from the wisdom and inspiration of Dr. Emil “Uzi” Jacoby, a model Jewish educator.
Jonathan Jacoby is senior vice president of Programs for Jewish Life at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Dr. Gil Graff is executive director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.