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“The Best of Three Worlds”: A Tribute to Professor Walter Ackerman (Acky) z”l (1925-2003)

Eulogies and Words of Tribute
Responsa by David Golinkin

Insight Israel Vol. 4, No. 3

Delivered at a joint Faculty-Staff Meeting of the Schechter Institute

October 27, 2003

At the end of the weekly portion of Noah (11:31), we read:

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran,   and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram;  and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans,  to go to the land of Canaan;  but when they had come as far Haran, they settled  there.

Afterwards, in Lekh Lekha (12:4), Abram leaves Haran and goes forth to the land of Canaan.

In other words, Abraham our Patriarch lived in three different places and absorbed three different cultures – those of the Ur of the Chaldeeans, Haran, and Canaan – and, no doubt, each culture influenced him in various ways.

Professor Ackerman z”l, who was universally known as Acky, actually had three names: Velvel, Yitzhak Ze’ev and Walter. These names reflect the fact that he grew up in three different cultures, despite living in only two countries.

Acky was born and raised in Dorchester, a Jewish neighborhood or “ghetto” in Boston.  There, he absorbed the language and culture of Eastern Europe, and in the years I knew him, liked to quote proverbs and tell jokes in Yiddish.

Acky attended public school, and later Boston Latin School and Harvard, where he absorbed American culture at its best.

Finally, he studied at the Beth El talmud torah, and at the Boston Hebrew College.  His teachers there were graduates of Tarbut schools in Eastern Europe.  They weren’t observant, but loved Jewish culture, including Bible and Talmud, and were passionate about the Hebrew language and Zionism.

As a result of growing up in three worlds, Acky absorbed the best of Yiddish, American, and Hebrew culture, filtered everything through his brilliant mind, and created a wonderful mixture – an educated Zionist mit a Yiddishe neshomeh, who stood for American values such as equality and democracy.

When Acky started to work at the Schechter Institute some five years ago as the Dean of Education and Senior Advisor to the TALI Education Fund, I didn’t know him, only his reputation.  Indeed, anyone who reads his curriculum vitae cannot help but be impressed. There has been almost no important project in education, or in Jewish education, during the last fifty years in which Acky was not involved.

Acky was the Director of Camp Yavneh, one of the outstanding summer camps in the U.S., in the 1950s; Director of Camp Ramah in California for twelve years, and afterwards in Canada for three years; Director of Education for The United Synagogue; Dean of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and later Vice President for Academic Affairs; Chair of the Education Department at Ben Gurion University – twice; Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University; Professor of Education at Ben Gurion University; Member of the Israeli Council for Higher Education; Director of Adult Education at Ben Gurion University; Visiting Professor, Brandeis University – twice; Visiting Professor,  Cleveland College of Jewish Studies; and author of over 100 books,  articles,  reports and book reviews.

And then Acky, at the age of 73, arrived at the Schechter Institute and began to work!   In other words, he did not come to rest on his laurels, but he also initiated new projects. Here is a partial list of his activities at the Schechter Institute: He was an active member of the Institute’s Directorate. He served as Chairman of the Board of the TALI Education Fund and then as Senior Advisor to the Fund. He took an active interest in our Midreshet Yerushalayim outreach program in Israel. He served as advisor to Gila Katz, Director of Midreshet Yerushalayim in the Ukraine and he traveled to Hungary to supervise our projects at the Jewish University in Budapest.

Acky also supervised our outreach program for the general public including “Midrash Hadash” lectures for the IDF and chaired the Joint Education Committee of the Schechter Institute, the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel. Finally, he continued to take an active interest in the academic study of Jewish Education. While at Schechter, he helped found The Israeli Association for Research in Jewish Education; he chaired the Committee for Academic Development at Schechter; and he served as advisor to DHL students at Schechter.

In truth, every time we set up an ad-hoc committee for something at Schechter, Acky would volunteer to take part.  I did not really understand this phenomenon until I read Prof. Arnold Band’s fascinating memoir “Confluent Myths”, which appeared in the jubilee volume honoring Acky (Judaism and Education, Be’er Sheva, 1998, p. 17):

…it is undeniable that his work usually encompasses

the group, the institution, while mine focuses upon individuals. These varying valences in the fusion are easily discernible, even though his studies in philosophy of education rarely neglect the individual student, and my critical approaches to literature always insist upon historical contextualization. Acky studies schools, even school systems; I study individual authors … or specific literary works. For me, institutions are a necessary evil whose justification is the protection and fostering of individual talents and aspirations; for him, they are the natural organ through which individuals grow. Briefly, Acky likes committee meetings and I don’t.

This is an excellent description of Acky. He loved meetings. He would frequently sit quietly listening to everyone’s opinion. Then he would summarize in a few sentences what everyone had said and then ask a perceptive question, which made everyone change their minds.

Acky had may fine qualities, but if I had to name his outstanding attribute, I would do it in one word:  hokhmah.  And I don’t mean hokhmah merely in the sense of IQ or intelligence, but hokhmah in the sense of wisdom.  He brought to every discussion a mixture of sharpness, experience, farsightedness, and an ability to see the forest, and not just the trees.

Indeed, after I met Acky, I concluded that our Sages were right when they said in the Tractate of Shabbat (152a): “Sages, as they get older, they get wiser”.   

 Likewise, he fit the definition of “hakham” which appears in Pirkei Avot (5:7): 

There are seven marks of the … wise man:

The wise man does not speak before one that is greater than he in wisdom;

he does not break in upon the words of his fellow;

he is not hasty in giving an answer;

he asks what is relevant and answers according to the halakhah;

he speaks on the first point first and on the last point last;

and of what he has heard no tradition he says,

“I have not heard”;  and he agrees to what is true.

This is a wonderfully accurate description of Acky!

The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies is named after Professor Solomon Schechter, who passed away in November, 1915.  At the memorial ceremony, which took place on his first yahrzeit, Professor Louis Ginzberg said:

A tenacious memory, a quick perception, and other mental equipments, do enable men to acquire information; but to be a scholar or, to use the Hebrew term, Hakham, Sage, who with creative power interprets the information acquired in his own way, one must be in possession of a great soul.  (Students, Scholars, and Saints, Philadelphia, 1928, p. 242.)

Professor Ackerman “possessed a great soul”.  He wasn’t only concerned with the success of the Schechter Institute and the TALI Education Fund.   He also cared deeply about the employees and faculty with whom he worked.  Time after time he said to me,  “We need to look out for him”,  “We need to help her”.  And he didn’t just say it; he truly cared about the people who work at the Schechter Institute and at the TALI Education Fund.

Acky will be sorely missed by the staffs of Schechter and TALI, by the thousands of people whom he taught, and by lovers of Jewish education throughout the world.

Yehi zikhro barukh! May his memory be for a blessing!


All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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