Shulamith Reich Elster
Shulamith Reich Elster was known as the dean of Jewish Education in America. She put Jewish day school education on the map, first as guidance counselor followed by Upper School Principal and then ten years as Headmaster of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School of Greater Washington. Her resume caught the attention of the prestigious Mandel Commission, where she served two years as chief education officer at the Council for Initiatives In Jewish Education, consulting on a myriad of projects as an outgrowth of the landmark 1990 study on Jewish education A Time To Act. The last decade of her career was spent as Executive Director of Hillel of Greater Washington.
In the 1980s, when she served as headmaster of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in suburban Washington, D.C., Shulamith Elster was often referred to as the dean of Jewish education.
Biography and Personal Life
The eldest daughter of Anna (Machlis) Reich, a Hebrew teacher, and Rabbi Paul Reich, Shulamith Reich Elster was born on May 18, 1939, in Norfolk, Virginia, where her father was rabbi of Congregation Beth-El (Conservative). As a teenager, Shulamith was one of the founders of United Synagogue Youth. Graduating from New York University in 1958 with a double major in history and sociology/anthropology, she taught religious school at New York’s B’nai Jeshurun Congregation during the school year and spent summers either on the staff of Camp Ramah, a breeding ground for leadership in the Conservative Movement, or studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She received an M.A. in the teaching of history from Teachers College (Columbia University) in 1959, after which she taught core English/history in the New York City public schools. In 1958, she married Sheldon Elster, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. When he assumed a pulpit in Youngstown, Ohio, she became an associate professor of social sciences and communications at Youngstown State University, where she was also the faculty adviser to the Jewish Student Union from 1964 to 1968. They have three children: Jonathan (married to Gayle), Elana Beth (married to Jordan Horvath), and Adam Jeremy (married to Kimberly) and six grandchildren. Rabbi Elster died in 2018.
Years at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School
In 1968, the family moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and enrolled their oldest child in the Solomon Schechter Day School, then a fledgling school in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was as a day school parent that Elster’s career in Jewish education started its climb. She served in volunteer positions at the school, pursued doctoral studies at George Washington University (Ed.D. 1975), and became a part-time school counselor at Schechter. Her roles expanded to include admissions, college counseling, staff development, special needs education, and long-range planning. While working part-time at Schechter, she volunteered with Wider Opportunities for Women, a government-funded agency that provided career counseling to women; Elster led initiatives in career counseling and established a ground-breaking program in peer-to-peer counseling for high school students. She served as the co-director of WOW’s career guidance programs from 1973 to 1975. This position led to the founding of Binder Elster Associates, which later became Binder, Elster, Mendelson and Wheeler, Inc, a career counseling company.
The Solomon Schechter Day School continued to grow, and in 1979, Elster became the assistant principal of the upper school. By that time, the school had become a community day school called the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. In 1982, she was appointed the school’s headmaster. It was under Elster’s tutelage that the school grew to over 1000 students and 150 faculty. She is credited with turning the school into a model day school and gaining international recognition for its excellent programs in general and Jewish studies. During Elster’s tenure at the school, over 500 students graduated. Some of them were admitted to the finest universities in the United States.
Her Career on the College Campus
With the school as her résumé, Elster was invited to become the chief education officer of the newly established Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education in 1991. In 1993, Elster was invited to found a graduate program in Jewish education at Baltimore Hebrew University, where she became associate professor of education and was the director of Graduate Programs in Jewish Education from 1994 to 1998. While at BHU she became director of Machon L’Morim, the Meyerhoff Fellows in Jewish Education, from 1993 to 1997; this program,established by the children of Harvey and Lynn Meyerhoff, focused on congregational middle school education and Jewish early childhood education.
In 1997 Elster became the executive director of Hillel of Greater Washington: The Regional Center for Jewish Campus Life. On July 1, 2004, the “dean of Jewish education” became the executive director of the newly formed Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, a position from which she retired in 2005. In retirement, Dr. Elster continued to consult with communities and day schools across the continent under the aegis of PEJE (The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education), now known as PRIZMAH, which argues that day schools are essential for fostering an engaged Jewish people.
Awards and Honors
Dr. Elster was the recipient of numerous honors and awards. In 1986, Na’amat (formerly Pioneer Women) named her a Woman of Distinction. The Washington Jewish Week bestowed upon her the Community Leadership Award in 1988. B’nai B’rith Women Middle Atlantic Region granted her its Women of the Year Achievement Award in 1990. The following year, on the occasion of her retirement, The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School named her its annual Decalogue honoree.
While at the Baltimore Hebrew University in both 1994 and 1997, Elster was given the President’s Award for Exemplary Service. She was awarded an honorary doctorate in pedagogy from The Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999. The Foundation for Jewish Studies of Washington bestowed upon her its Master Teacher Award.
Upon her retirement from the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, the Shulamith Reich Elster Resource Center was established in her honor at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Shulamith Reich Elster died on February 25, 2021.
Binder Mendelson Elster and Wheeler. Developing Options. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, 1979.
“Dinosaurs and Dreidls: Jewish Books for Young People,” Women’s League Outlook. New York: Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, 1965.
“Lessons to be Learned, Lessons to be Taught.” Sh’ma, 1993.
“No More Prizes for Building Arks.” Women’s League Outlook. New York: Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, 1991.
“Rabbi, Teacher, Preacher-Leader?” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly. New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1991.
Self-Assessment for Career Planning. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1981.
To Step Forward: Selected Works from the Writings of Alex Singer, co-authored with Suzanne Singer, 1990.
Unimagined Bridges in Touching the Future: Mentoring and the Jewish Professional, The Wexner Foundation for the Rhea Hirsch School of Education of Hebrew Union College (1994)