Elsie (Simonofsky) Chomsky was a gifted, inspiring teacher of modern Hebrew and a rigorous yet supportive trainer of Hebrew school teachers. She was one of a cadre of Jewish educators infused with the progressive, Hebraist vision of Samson Benderly. With her husband William Chomsky, noted grammarian and scholar of the Hebrew language and for years chair of the faculty at Philadelphia's Gratz College, she embraced and promoted a rich vision of Jewish education at Gratz that included choral singing, Israeli folk dance, and drama. In her later years she became a beloved teacher of wide-ranging aspects of Jewish life and belief to a younger generation of Hadassah women.
Youth in New York
Elsie Simonofsky Chomsky was born, probably in 1903, in Bobruisk, a bustling town near Minsk in what was then czarist Russia and is now Belarus. Her Yiddish-speaking parents, Elimelech and Fanny Simonofsky, emigrated to New York with their six daughters and their son between 1904 and 1906; like many poor immigrants with large families, they came a few at a time, the earlier arrivals helping the others to cross the Atlantic. The family settled in Brownsville, a Jewishly vibrant part of Brooklyn with a rapidly expanding public sector of schools and civic services.
In addition to attending P.S. 109, Elsie began studying at the age of eleven at the Stone Avenue Lit. "study of Torah," but also the name for organizations that established religious schools, and later the specific school systems themselves, including the network of afternoon Hebrew schools in early 20th c. U.S.Talmud Torah. This warm, relatively progressive community institution was influenced by followers of Samson Benderly, a reformer who aimed to modernize the education of American Jewish children and youth and to introduce spoken Hebrew to their classrooms and activities. From there she moved on, with scholarship assistance, to the expanding Hebrew High School, newly opened to girls, while attending Eastern District High School.
After graduating from high school, Elsie was accepted into the three-year program of the Teachers Institute of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, then led by Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement. There she took courses in the Hebrew Bible; Hebrew poetry; Biblical, medieval, and modern Jewish history; pedagogy, and more, and formed strong, intense lifetime bonds with a cadre of future Jewish educators. The group was influenced and inspired by the “child-centered” educational philosophy of John Dewey, who was then teaching at nearby Columbia University.
Starting to Teach
After receiving her teacher’s diploma from the Teachers Institute in 1922, Elsie Simonofsky began teaching at the Florence Marshall School #1 for girls, a supplementary Jewish school housed at Stone Avenue Talmud Torah. She soon became a beloved and appreciated quasi-assistant principal, serving under Samuel Dinin, a Benderly protege who had taken classes with Dewey. Meanwhile, she took postgraduate courses at JTS’s Teachers Institute in Medieval and Modern Hebrew Literature, among other subjects, as well as at the Extension Program at Columbia.
Though the many young Jewish educators Benderly enlisted in his fervor to Americanize Jewish education were nicknamed “Benderly Boys,” the group included many talented women. Their career trajectories were less visible but they were no less significant. Among these women was young Elsie. She absorbed Benderly's emphasis on using spoken Hebrew, songs, art, and drama to engage her students.
Early Years in Philadelphia
Sometime in 1926 or 1927, Elsie Simonofsky moved to Philadelphia for reasons that remain unknown. There she met William Chomsky, whom she married in 1927. He was also from an immigrant Yiddish-speaking family and also committed to a vibrant Hebrew-language culture developed through progressive principles. The Chomsky family had emigrated from Ukraine to Baltimore in 1913, when William was seventeen. He graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1921, then completed an MA program in pedagogy at the University of Pennsylvania.
Elsie and William were full partners in seeking to create model Hebrew schools and to train skilled, committed teachers. However, because William Chomsky eventually completed a doctorate at Philadelphia's Dropsie College and Elsie Chomsky had only her teacher's diploma, others in the academic world sometimes perceived them differently, and different doors were open to them.
The Chomskys’ son Noam was born in 1928, followed by a second son, David, in 1934. In those years as a couple with young children, the Chomskys spent summers at Wildwood Crest, on the Jersey shore. There they would gather with a changing cluster of Elsie Chomsky's dear friends from Teachers Institute, Conservative rabbis, nieces and nephews, and others drawn into their circle. They sang Hebrew songs, discussed Zionism, and enjoyed the seaside.
“The Soul of Gratz”
Both William and Elsie Chomsky became involved with Gratz College, a small institution in downtown Philadelphia that offered students modern Hebrew language instruction, close study of Biblical texts, and courses in Jewish history and culture. Graduates could teach Hebrew school or, in those days before Jewish Studies departments existed at major universities, go on to become scholars or rabbis. William Chomsky ascended to become chair of Gratz’s faculty and continued his scholarly endeavors in Hebrew grammar. Elsie Chomsky—the only woman who taught at Gratz at the time—taught modern Hebrew in the Preparatory (high school) department and pedagogy at the College.
At Gratz, Elsie Chomsky was also head of the College’s School of Observation and Practice (SOOP). For decades she trained and supervised Hebrew school teachers. These young people were teaching in the after-school programs of local Conservative and Reform congregations, designed to give Jewish children who attended public schools basic Hebrew reading skills and some knowledge of Jewish holidays and traditions. She traveled all over Philadelphia on buses and streetcars to observe and critique her students, who recall her as a memorable, incisive, sometimes intimidating but often inspiring influence.
Elsie Chomsky also organized and inspired a rich program at Gratz of dramatic productions, chorus, and Israeli folk dance. The core group, “Ivriah,” met one Sunday each month for these lively activities and Hebrew conversation, followed by a festive dinner provided by parents. Through her planning and attention to detail, Chomsky integrated learning with performance. In these activities, her creative, student-centered inspiration reached its apex. She and her husband were so central to the school's energy and achievements that they were sometimes called “The soul of Gratz.”
Writer and Translator
Around the time Israeli became a state, Elsie Chomsky wrote two books in simple Hebrew for young people, Yigael Hashomer [Yigal the Watchman] and Em HaShomrim [Mother of the Watchmen]. Each book was part of a series intended to provide new, lively, and accessible reading in Hebrew for Jewish-American youth. Almost two decades later, with the assistance of a former student who had made Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.aliyah, Chomsky translated from Hebrew to English a posthumous edition of the letters of two renowned brothers killed in the 1948 war.
Two contrasting articles published seventeen years apart show the excitement of a gifted young teacher and the extensive, often frustrating consultation and supervision process Chomsky carried on later in her career with teachers and administrators of weekday after-school programs. In the 1933 article, she describes the steps by which the children in her class, at first hesitant, later exultant, composed their own play for the Jewish holiday of Purim using Hebrew words and phrases they had learned. In the 1950 article, she is frank about the difficulties of adequately supervising, training, and encouraging the part-time, often temporary teachers at congregational Hebrew schools.
Teacher to Hadassah Women
Along with her commitments to Gratz College, teacher training, and her family, Elsie Chomsky began in the 1940s to teach local Hadassah women and to advise Hadassah chapters on education. These Hadassah activities expanded significantly in the 1960s, when she inspired a whole new generation of Hadassah women through a series of “Young Dialogue” courses on the Bible and on Zionism. Lecture notes preserved for decades by her devoted students reveal a highly sophisticated integration of various modes of Biblical criticism, with particular emphasis on the differentiated messages of the prophets.
Through these Hadassah courses, Chomsky became close to a number of her students, women in their thirties who were dazzled by her intellect and drawn to her personally. She welcomed some to her home for group lunches, and for a few became an almost-pastoral counselor whom they could consult about marital, ethical, and spiritual problems. In 1967, Hadassah recognized her contributions by honoring her at its Annual Leaders' Conference and inscribing her in its Book of Builders.
Mother of Noam Chomsky
In the years after Israel became a state, the Chomskys often spent part of the summer there. They rejoiced in the development of the country and spent time with former students who had gone there to live and flourish. Meanwhile, the Chomskys' older son Noam was becoming world-famous not only as a brilliant, innovative scholar of linguistics but also as an outspoken critic of the form of Zionism embraced by Israel's leaders. Elsie Chomsky had to contend with often virulent denunciation of Noam coming from within her own community. According to friends, she always defended him either by pointing out his extraordinary achievements or insisting that he was misunderstood; how she coped internally is unknown. Many who knew her simply avoided mentioning Noam, lest they wound her. She never let politics separate her from her family, which came to include five beloved grandchildren—Noam and his wife Carol's three children, and David and his wife Judith's two children.
Death and Remembrance
Elsie Chomsky died of a heart attack on January 22, 1972. After family and friends gathered for a simple funeral, she was buried in Haym Solomon Memorial Park, outside Philadelphia. William Chomsky died in 1977. On October 12, 1994, after Gratz College had moved from downtown Philadelphia to a new campus in suburban Melrose Park, the Elsie and William Chomsky Reading Room in the Tuttleman Library was dedicated in their memory.
Works by Elsie Chomsky
Em Hashomrim. New York: Histadrut Ivrit, 1949.
Yigael Hashomer. New York: United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education, 1949.
“Experience with a Holiday Program as a Center of Interest in the Curriculum.” Jewish Education 5:2 (1933): 95-100.
“Three Years of Experience in a Consultation Program." Jewish Education 21:2 (1950): 17-22, 64.
(translator) Two Brothers, from the posthumous papers of Ephraim and Zvi Guber, by Ephraim Guber, Zvi Guber, and Rivkah Guber. Translated by Elsie Chomsky and M. Lask. Tel Aviv: Massada, 1966.
Avni, Sharon. "Hebrew Learning Ideologies and the Reconceptualization of American Judaism: Language Debates in American Jewish Schooling in the Early 20th Century." International Journal of the Sociology of Language (2016): 119-137.
Avni, Sharon "Hebrew Education in the United States: Historical Perspectives and Future Directions." Journal of Jewish Education 80 (2014): 256-286.
Dinin, Samuel. "The Influence of John Dewey on some Pioneer Jewish Educators." Jewish Education 48:1: 6-18.
Feiman-Nemser, Sharon. "Preparing Teachers for Jewish Schools: Enduring Issues in Changing Contexts." International Handbook of Jewish Education, Volume 2 (Springer 2011): 937-958.
Feinberg, Harriet. "Elsie Chomsky: A Life in Jewish Education," 1998; https://www.bjpa.org/content/upload/bjpa/fein/Feinbergworkingpaper.pdf. Published in shortened form in Courtyard, A Journal of Research and Thought in Jewish Education, 1999-2000: 179-221.
Ingall, Carol K., ed. The Women who Reconstructed American Jewish Education, 1910-1965. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2010.
King, Diane, William Lakritz and Saul Wachs. "A Generation of Learning: Jewish Education in Philadelphia, 1940-1980." in Davies, et al., Philadelphia Jewish Life, 1940-2000, edited by Murray Friedman, 159-176. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.
Krasner, Jonathan. The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2011.
Stern, Miriam Heller. "A Dream Not Quite True: Reassessing the Benderly Era in Jewish Education." Journal of Jewish Education 70 (2004): 16-26.