By Dr. Susie Tanchel, Head of School
Yaffah Korinow z”l is treasured in the JCDS community. Much has been said and written about Yaffah recently that describes so movingly what an extraordinary soul she was. For me, Yaffah’s essence is captured in the biblical verse:
כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ
Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God. (Micah 6:8)
Yaffah was the true embodiment of the habits of mind and heart we are educating toward at JCDS. She lived a life of meaning, purpose, and joy through her profoundly Jewish lens. Yaffah walked through the world with abiding curiosity and legendary humility. She sought to nurture a perpetual sense of wonder in our children.
I will never forget how passionately, with her entire body, Yaffah told a biblical story. She animatedly brought the characters to life with her dramatic, exaggerated movements by modulating her voice and moving the figures around on her well-known felt-board. Her story was always the original biblical text—she never compromised on that—and our students found authentic ways to connect to it. Yaffa told the story in her strong Boston Hebrew accent and remarkably even those who knew almost no Hebrew could follow along without missing a beat. Her love of Tanakh and Hebrew was infectious.
It was never about Yaffah for Yaffah, it was always about giving her children opportunities to develop a relationship to Judaism and to our sacred language and texts.
Someone only had to spend a few minutes with Yaffah to see that she was a master teacher. She understood this importance of constantly reflecting on one’s craft and the complex practice of teaching. With an open mind growth mindset, was always looking to improve. When I led mentor meetings in my first year as Head of School, she openly asked for help in responding to a new teacher’s resistance. Yaffah was so committed to doing right by the teacher and the students.
More recently, in a meeting of our pluralism teacher taskforce, Yaffah presented her work on what it means for people to be created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image. With her usual level of enthusiasm, she described why she was asking parents for their understandings of the concept because, as she put it, “What do I know?” Of course, she knew more than any of us. Nonetheless, Yaffah proceeded to present the new questions she had refined in her meeting of the K-8 Jewish Studies team. By demonstrating how much she appreciated the collaboration and input of her insightful colleagues, Yaffah was setting a powerful example for our faculty. This master teacher always remained a learner.
As she was battling cancer, Yaffah continued to teach our community. Now the lesson was about dedication, commitment, and how to continue to experience joy even in the midst of struggle. Yaffah deeply wanted to remain at school for as long as she was able; JCDS was a haven for her. She relished teaching our children and this year’s Kitat Oren (first grade) was no exception. Yaffah wanted so very much not to be defined by her cancer and she told me many times recently that teaching was her greatest joy. I am deeply proud that we made it possible for her to be in her beloved classroom for as long as she could be. (As recently as two days prior to her passing, she was texting me about the class.) This was not always easy to accomplish, but it was the right thing to do.
I know some question a decision that asks children to connect with someone who is dying. Occasionally over the course of her illness, particularly during the last month, I wondered whether I should tell her not to come to school because it was so taxing on her. But JCDS was where Yaffah wanted to be. It was here that her life continued to have meaning, purpose and joy. Her husband, Ira, told me twice recently that he believes we extended her life by many months. Instead of pushing out a dying person, rejecting her, and isolating her, ostensibly to protect the children, I wanted Yaffah to be kept warm and loved in our communal embrace.
I didn’t make this choice just for Yaffah; I made it also with the best interests of our children in mind. Yaffah’s last gift to our entire community, adults and children alike, was to provide us with an opportunity to learn how to treat people whom we love when we know they are dying. Our children saw the trusted adults in their lives loving someone and treating her well, mourning when she is no longer with us, and then honoring her memory. This is a powerful lesson in what it means to be part of a Jewish community.
I wanted our first graders to have the opportunity to learn with and from this incredible teacher for as long as they could. The memories and the passions she evoked within them will last for the span of their lifetimes. I wanted our children and Yaffah to know and to feel that she always had a home here at a JCDS. I wanted to honor Yaffah in the way that she honored each person she met.
It is difficult to describe the enormity of Yaffah’s impact on our community. She has taught almost all of the students in the school as well as the faculty. Through her deep love of and connection to Tefillah, Tanakh, and everything Jewish, Yaffah inspired all of us to see the beauty in ourselves, in each other, and in the Torah and instilled in our children a love of Hebrew, Torah and yiddishkeit. The words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describe Yaffah beautifully: “What we need more than anything else is not text-books but text-people. It is the personality of the teacher, which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.”
We are so blessed that our children had the opportunity to “read” her for 7 years. She was a remarkable and beautiful soul. Now physically absent, but still very present in my heart, I will strive to continue to honor her memory by acting justly, honoring each person and walking humbly before God. Master teacher, strong teacher-leader, perennial learner, and exceptional human being, Yaffah, how we will miss you.