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.
The eldest daughter of Anna (Machlis) Reich, a Hebrew teacher, and Rabbi Paul Reich, Shulamith Reich Elster was born on May 19, 1939, in Norfolk, Virginia, where her father was rabbi of 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 degree in sociology/anthropology, she taught confirmation class at New York’s B’nai Jeshurun Congregation during the school year and spent summers on the staff of Camp Ramah, a breeding ground for leadership in the Conservative Movement. She received an M.A. in secondary school education from Teachers College (Columbia University) in 1959, after which she taught social studies in the New York City public schools. That year 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, Elana Beth, and Adam Jeremy.
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. In 1978, with two other women, she founded Binder, Elster, Mendelson and Wheeler, Inc., a career counseling firm that emphasized service to women. She was also the codirector of career guidance programs of Wider Opportunities for Women in Washington, D.C.
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 a thousand 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 five hundred students graduated. Some of them were admitted to the finest universities in the United States.
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. The organization was established by the Commission on Jewish Education in North America to implement its report, “A Time to Act,” its Jewish continuity agenda for the 1990s. In 1993, Elster was invited to found a graduate program in Jewish education at Baltimore Hebrew University, where she became associate professor of education. In 1997 she 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.
Developing Options (1979); “No More Prizes for Building Arks.” Women’s League Outlook (1991); “Rabbi, Teacher, Preacher-Leader?” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly (1991); Self-Assessment for Career Planning. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1981).
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Kaufman, Jan Caryl. "Shulamith Reich Elster." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 17, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/elster-shulamith-reich>.