Dr. Shimshon Isseroff, who passed away last Thursday, July 15, in Teaneck at age 100, dedicated his life to supporting and improving Jewish education. As he was one of the elder statesmen of the Talmud Torah movement in America, in May 2020, the USA Chidon HaTanach (Bible Quiz) was renamed the Dr. Shimshon Isseroff USA Chidon HaTanach in his honor.
Rabbi Israel “Tuly” Polak, Isseroff’s son-in-law, expressed deep gratitude to the local Teaneck community, including the Chevra Kadisha and Congregation Bnai Yeshurun’s Rabbi Ari Zahtz, who removed multiple obstacles and made it possible for Dr. Isseroff’s kevurah to be held in Yerushalayim without delay, just before Shabbat Chazon.
Born in Yerushalayim in 1920, Isseroff arrived at Ellis Island in 1923, at the age of 3, with his mother, who intended to settle in the Boston area. The Ellis Island immigration personnel were disinclined to let them into the country because he was too young, but urgent phone calls were placed by the Bostoner Rebbe to then-Massachusetts U.S. Sen. David I. Walsh, who somehow was able to get the pair safely through immigration. They made their home in Brookline.
Isseroff was deeply influenced during his formative years by this storied community, heralded by two intellectual leading lights of Torah in America: the Bostoner Rebbe and the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He was bicycle-riding buddies and a study partner with the Bostoner Rebbe’s son, and also spent his Motzei Shabbatot attending the Rav’s famous shiur. “Every Motzei Shabbat, he would go early to get a good seat in the front row of the Rav’s shiur,” recounted Nechama Polak of Teaneck, Isseroff’s daughter.
“He went to public school in Boston, and learned to read Latin fluently. That’s where I feel his love of language was born. He was so taken with grammar and roots and stems. Every time he would learn a new word, he would want to conjugate it and learn everything about it. Then he moved on to Hebrew,” she said. “He had a real fascination with language and a love of Torah and Hebrew.”
Words were also something that helped Isseroff address a significant personal challenge. Struggling with a stutter as a child, he made copious notes of synonyms and alternate words, scribbling them in the margins of speeches for himself even in adulthood, to prevent stuttering in his frequent public speeches and presentations for the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE). “He lost his fear by coming up with a plan. He overcame his stutter,” said Polak.
At 23, Isseroff received private semicha by Rabbi Mordechai Savitsky, and after his graduation from Boston University he moved to New York, raising his family in Borough Park. He obtained a master’s in education at Columbia University, before doing his PhD at NYU. “His doctoral thesis was on the use of visual aids in the classroom, which, if you think about it, was very modern for the time,” Polak explained. This was decades before the onset of educational television, when children had very little imagery to look at to assist their learning in school, long before eye-catching quizzes, like the Chidon, or other creative approaches, were present in pedagogical materials.
When the Chidon HaTanach for youth launched, Isseroff relished his active involvement. “The Chidon was not an outlier in my father’s life. It was an integral part of his life’s goals, which was the furtherance of Jewish education and love of Torah, and that encapsulates my father,” Polak shared.
Isseroff was the early author of many of the books that were used for context questions on the parshiot. Pedagogically, Isseroff felt that using workbooks and visual aids (targilonim), and the very clear “quiz style” method of questioning and answering, like during the Passover Seder, was immensely educational. “My father felt that this was truly the best way to carry on the mesorah of the Torah.”
“The Chidon was not for kids to show off what they do, but the preparation, the many questions and answers that would teach kids Torah, was the essence of the Chidon,” Polak explained.
In addition to the Chidon preparation books, teacher’s guides and learning aids, Isseroff also had a scholarly academic specialty. He published, between 1985 and 1994, books on Rashi’s grammatical explanations of the five books of the Chumash, plus Sefer Tehillim.
Isseroff was also intimately involved in many projects for educators through the Jewish Agency. “Beginning in 1957, my father started bringing educators, principals and teachers to Israel every summer, headquartered at Bar-Ilan. He continued working on these programs for the next 25 years. They would get credit toward their studies. It was his life to educate teachers about Israel and Hebrew language and literature,” she said.
Isseroff taught for many years in many settings, and many current teachers consider him among their favorites. But for Polak, perhaps his most powerful role was combined as an educator and loving father. “He would always tell me life is like climbing a mountain. If you don’t enjoy climbing up, you don’t enjoy life,” recalled Polak.
During the first-ever digital USA Chidon HaTanach finals in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was officially named The Dr. Shimshon Isseroff Chidon HaTanach USA. Hundreds of young students who compete nationwide in this Tanach quiz-of-quizzes, including many from New York- and New Jersey-area yeshivot, will now know and remember Dr. Isseroff’s name, as well as the story of his love for Tanach.
The Chidon was widely considered by Isseroff and other forward-thinking American Jewish educators as an intensive, hands-on way to teach Torah in a collaborative, welcoming and exciting environment. A member of the Metropolitan Council on Talmud Torah Education (later folded into the BJE), and one of the first chairs of the Chidon HaTanach USA when the Jewish Agency launched it 57 years ago, Isseroff was also among the founders of Camp Morasha, in Lake Como, Pennsylvania, which was initially intended to include students of varied religious backgrounds so they could socialize and play sports, spending the summer in a religious environment.
Arthur Sandman, president of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s North American Council, expressed thoughts on the extraordinary person Dr. Isseroff was, in a note to the Polaks following the kevurah. “His scholarship, his worldliness, and his devotion to Jewish life...As I watched the funeral, I could not help but notice the setting—in Yerushalayim, but with the fast rail line crossing in the distance. It struck me that the view—the ancient hills and the modern progress—represented so much of who he was and the joy he must have taken in watching the State of Israel arise and thrive in his lifetime. Your dedication of the Chidon in his name was a beautiful gift he lived to enjoy that will now serve to perpetuate his memory in the most fitting of ways.”
In addition to his daughter and son-in-law, Dr. Isseroff is survived by numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in both America and Israel.