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.

Is there a shortcut to redemption


Pesach – the Hebrew name for Passover– comes from the Hebrew root PSH which means to skip over, to pass over. It appears first in the context of the ten plagues, in which God skipped over the homes of the Israelites while the rest of Egypt suffered.

On a deeper, more fundamental level, the Passover festival is based on this idea of passing or skipping over the regular order of things. The Jews did not leave Egypt as part of an evolutionary process. Their departure was a leap, a shortcut. While the exodus was a move from slavery to freedom – a practical, political situation – it was also a transition from oppression to redemption. From beginning to end, the Passover redemption is a leap over an orderly, consistent historical course into a new, different and better state, and into a much higher level of existence.

The Israelites were not just enslaved. In Egypt they had become slaves in their mindset, their world-view and their sense of personal self-worth. While the sons of Jacob and their families surely had a spiritual and religious legacy, it was not well defined and had no specific rites, that legacy was practically non-existent. Possibly, the Israelites in Egypt did retain some elements of their past, but they surely became more and more assimilated into Egyptian culture and its atmosphere. The forms of their religious worship were likely not very different from those of the Egyptians – although they were probably not permitted to practice the Egyptian religion as equals.

The exodus from Egypt, then, called for a very profound change in the entire psyche and social makeup of the Jewish people.  The act of releasing a slave – one who was born into bondage and with an entire life spent obeying orders – calls for a thoroughgoing personality change. Those who came out of Egypt were immersed in the lowest levels of Egyptian culture. They had to detach themselves completely from their old life and acquire a new set of concepts. Being free was a foreign notion that required a much, much higher degree of abstraction and the acquisition of a whole new universe of ideas.

All the slips and failures of the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert are therefore totally understandable. Yet despite all these personal, social and cultural impediments, this broken and naked nation successfully became a new national entity and began taking a new path. The prophet Ezekiel, in his poetic style, compares the Jewish nation that is redeemed from Egypt to a poor girl, saying (Ezekiel 16:6-7): “And … I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live … yet you were naked and bare.” Thus, over and above all the miracles – in the sky, on earth and in the water – of the Exodus, the greatest miracle of all is that Jewish people did indeed come out of Egypt and became a nation. The entire Exodus then represents a quick leap into redemption, passing over the life of slavery that had lasted for hundreds of years.

There is a great lesson here for every individual in every generation: everyone can “pass over,” make a leap. Not only slow, painful and indecisive changes are possible; we all also have an inborn ability to make quantum jumps. People can, even by the power of their own decision, make transitions that are not gradual but almost revolutionary. The “passing over” of Passover teaches us that such a jump is possible and inspires us to do so.

Passover represents the promise that we will indeed be able to leap over the multitude of small and big obstacles in our path and reach a better, more perfect state of things, both physically and spiritually.


Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, world-renowned scholar, teacher, mystic and social critic, has written over 60 books and hundreds of articles on the Talmud, Kabbalah and Chasidut. His works have been translated into English, Russian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese. The rabbi’s life-long mission is to make the Talmud accessible to all by bringing the study of Jewish texts to communities around the world. Thel Fourth Annual Global Day of Jewish Learning will be on November 17, 2013.