Syd Eisen, the “Father of CHAT”

(Dedicated to the memory of Syd Eisen, of blessed memory)

It is very sad and very humbling that for the second week in a row, we dedicate this update to the memory of an individua, whose chief concern, as we heard in the eulogy this week, “was that of Jewish education.” Dr. Syd Eisen, was the first director of the pioneering Centre for Jewish Studies, Vanier College, York University, from 1989 to 1995. (The Centre was subsequently renamed the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies.)

He passed away this week at the age of 92.

But, of course, Syd’s professional career began much before 1989 and continued beyond 1995. He held his first teaching positions in the mid-50s. In the mid-70’s he was the dean of faculty of arts at York University. He remained at York U for two more decades as a professor and continued his further academic endeavours through writing and community-minded consultation.

Syd’s fields of academic expertise were varied  –  Education, History, Humanities, Intellectual History, Theology and Religion. He integrated this wide expertise with the broad wisdom, experience and patience that are the hallmarks of excellent teachers.  

At Syd’s funeral, his son, Robert, said of his father that “he did not want glory. He simply wanted to be the best teacher and the best person he could.” Professor Eisen, we know, was adored by his legion of students. He received wide respect because he gave wide respect. Renowned for his uniquely principled and tender manner of discussion, for the way he knew what to say and especially how to say it, he gave actual day-to-day substance to the invocation in proverbs that “a word fittingly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”

Syd’s teaching career intersected at innumerable points with his many community involvements. The result was a beautiful geometry Jewish educational structures. Indeed the board of TannenbaumCHAT paid  tribute to Syd by reminding us that he was “sometimes described as the “Father of CHAT”. He was the chair of the committee whose advocacy led to the high school’s creation in the 1970’s.

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke very often and always eloquently about the indispensable role of teachers in Jewish history and in the overall development of moral societies. He could have had Syd Eisen in mind when he wrote:

“If there is one insight above all others to be gained from Jewish history it is that freedom depends on education. To defend a country you need an army but to defend a civilisation you need schools….

“Teachers open our eyes to the world. They give us curiosity and confidence. They teach us to ask questions. They connect us to our past and future. They’re the guardians of our social heritage. We have lots of heroes today – sportsmen, supermodels, media personalities. They come, they have their fifteen minutes of fame, and they go. But the influence of good teachers stays with us. They are the people who really shape our life.”

It can truly be said of Syd that he helped shape Jewish educational life in our community. He tilled an untreated soil, planted seeds and then harvested tall trees of teachers and educators for the Jewish and wider community here and abroad.

Syd Eisen’s memory will always be for blessing.

•••

Shabbat shalom.

Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education (GAJE),

April 1, 2022

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