I am shattered and heartbroken to report that my beautiful and brilliant friend, Dr. Chaya Gorsetman, died this week.
Chaya was a master educator and lifelong learner in every aspect of her life. She was driven by the most beautiful desire to make every child – and every human being – feel heard, valued, and respected. These were not platitudes. She had deep, thought-through ideas and practices for how to make this happen. In every interaction – whether with adults or children, with students, mentees, colleagues, friends, or family members – she approached the other person as a spirit who needed and deserved to be cared for. I was privileged to be at the receiving end of those gestures, as a friend and colleague. When Chaya was recently describing her work on developing mentoring practices in Jewish education, I told her that I often considered her a mentor. She told me that many people tell her that. I understand why.
I “met” Chaya in March 2003. We “met” by email and became quick pen pals. I was in Australia, pregnant, and she was expecting a new grandchild. I approached her to ask her about her gender curriculum that she wrote with Sara Hurwitz (now Rabba Hurwitz) about gender in Breishit. We ended up talking about everything – about motherhood, family, religion, upcoming Pesach cleaning, educating around the seder table, relationships, therapy, and what it meant to be a religious Jewish woman in the world. Essentially, what it means to be human. And of course gender, and the ways in which our work and ideas connected. Gender was always a connecting thread, but it really wasn’t what our conversations were about at their core. They were about life – how we want the world to be, for us, for our daughters, for our sons, for our communities. Shared experiences, lessons learned, dreams for the future. We connected on so many levels.
We spent the whole year corresponding – and it was never stam, it was never just chit chat. It was always deep and interesting. Thoughtful. About life in all its meanings. I loved that about her so much. About how she was always thinking about how she wanted the world to be. Always. I cherished that.
When we finally met in person in February 2004, it felt like we knew each other forever. It felt like I needed Chaya to help me understand the world. That was what she was for me. She was the person who helped me understand how life works. She just knew. She knew right from wrong, she knew how to cut through the rubbish and see the truth. And she wasn’t afraid to say it. She always saw, and her insights were vital for my own growth, and for the world. She was my knower of things.
Ten years later, we did research together and finally wrote our book together, which reflected all of this. Chaya’s spirit is threaded throughout the book. It’s not just about gender, or about how to be a teacher or how to build classrooms. It is about how to live. The title, which was Chaya’s idea, Educating in the Divine Image, is everything Chaya wanted as an educator, as a parent, as a friend, and as a human being. She wanted every human being to be treated in the way that they deserve, as if they are all creatures created in God’s image. That was so entirely Chaya.
Around six months ago, Chaya approached me to ask me to help her write her memoirs. I was so honoured to take on this sacred task. It is a big responsibility to hold someone else’s life story in your hands. Now, it’s even more of a responsibility. I feel like she was asking me to make sure that her story is heard. She had so much to impart. I’m sure she did impart it well in her life, but she was in a way asking me to safeguard her story for the future. I am doing that now with love and trepidation. I hope I am doing it right.
I interviewed her many times over the past few months and we had some wonderful conversations. I learned some incredible things about her, some of which I didn’t know – despite a friendship that spanned nearly 20 years and included countless deep, heart-to-heart conversations. I want to share a few of her stories.
When I asked her what was the main message she wants to share in her book, she said, “No matter how tough things are, you can get through anything.” Everything is okay, and you can get through it. It’s a message of grit, resilience, power, optimism, faith, and mostly courage.
It was how Chaya lived. Fighting her way through, sticking to her truth and persevering.
Chaya had a particularly challenging childhood, which defined her life goals and her entire educational philosophy as well as her overall life mission without ever getting her down. She was an optimist and a fighter, and kept fighting not only to build herself up and get where she wanted to go, but also to create schools, communities, and institutions based on her spectacular vision of humanity and what the world should look like.
She was born in Israel (then Palestine) in 1947, in Ramat Gan, when Ramat Gan was not yet paved. As a child, she walked around in the sand where streets would eventually be constructed, barefoot. Those were yemei tzena, when food was rationed but everyone was happy because they were building community. At the end of first grade, her family moved to Switzerland for a year, where she did second grade in Swiss and then the family moved to America and settled in Washington Heights, New York, where she would start third grade.
Imagine this: each of your first three years in school studying in a different country in a different language! She knew Hebrew, German and Swiss before coming to America, but no English at all, and then was suddenly thrown into a class where she had to teach herself English and catch up to her third-grade friends. Decades later, when she would complete her dissertation, she said, “Do you believe, I taught myself to read and write in English – and here I am completing my doctorate! Who would have believed!” She did it. That was her way. Not giving up or giving in. Just doing it.
Life as an immigrant child, especially the oldest in the family, was also challenging for Chaya. Her parents were very hard workers and often away from home. She took her younger sisters to school, from the age of eight and often served them dinner. She would talk about how she spent her childhood clueless. “I had no clue. No clue!” She did not know how the educational system worked, rarely had her parents come to school. She didn’t know what SATs were, for example, until she heard kids at school talking about it. And she often struggled on her own. When her father was away for work, in particular, she once got to a point when she stopped doing schoolwork. Just stopped.
She had a teacher at the time, Rabbi Abraham Kahana who would later become the principal of The Yeshiva of Flatbush, who she credits with saving her. He was the first teacher she had who noticed her, who recognised that she was smart, but also that she was struggling. He took her under his wing, he took an interest in her life, and helped her get what she needed. It was because of him, she said, that she wanted to become a teacher. Although she also said, that she knew already from when she was very young that she would become a teacher. But Rabbi Kahana taught her the potential of what a real teacher can do for a child.
She mostly credited her father with turning her into the person she was – educator, lover of people, practitioner of compassion. Her father gave her a love of learning, and especially a love of Yiddishkeit. She said her father would learn Gemara with her from the sixth grade. He loved Gemara and he made it come alive for her. She talked about how he would use people from the community as examples. When they were learning Hamafkid, he would say, “If Ollie, was going on vacation and wants me to take care of his animal, what would be?” She said that’s how the Gemara became alive for her, because she had the relationship with people like Ollie. It’s from there that she became an ardent learner. Back in the early 1970s, before women’s learning became a thing, she was spending her summer at Lincoln Square Synagogue learning Gemara and Chumash. It wasn’t a feminist thing or trying to prove any point. She had no point to prove. It was totally normal for her to learn Gemara and didn’t even know that some people disapproved of it. She did it out of pure love of learning, which she got from her father.
Her father also taught her a love of davening. “I’m a davener,” she often said. She said that every morning her father would make breakfast and before he would run out of the house, he would say: “Chaya, Varda, Schlomit, don’t forget to say Mode Ani, Shema and Shmone Esre!” And if he left before they got up, there would be a note on the dining room table with breakfast that said the same thing: “Don’t forget to say Mode Ani, Shema and Shmone Esre!” she said, “We all have that in our entire body, till today. I daven all the time. I daven every morning. And he made it simple enough for us. He wanted us to love the practice. He wanted us to love davening the way he did, and to practice all of Yiddishkeit from that place of love.” And she carried that with her.
On her own, though, facing the school system and American culture, she often struggled. One of her biggest traumas, which she carried for decades, was when the principal of her elementary school called her “hopeless”. He told her she would never amount to anything and would never make it through school. Those were years when her father was away a lot and she was having a very hard time. After being told by the principal that she was hopeless, she stopped trying. She mentally dropped out of school.
But she said that the experience was in a certain way empowering. It gave her a window to grab the reins of her own life, the inner fortitude and chutzpah to do something that she said was the most courageous thing she ever did in her life. She decided to leave the Jewish school. Not just leave the school, but force them to expel her. At the end of ninth grade, after carrying the words, “You’re hopeless” around in her head, she walked in to her final exams and failed every single exam. On purpose! She left every single exam booklet empty. The principal did, in fact, expel her for that, but she was thrilled. She was liberated! She got on a bus to the local public school, found a guidance counsellor, told her that she wanted to switch schools but she failed 9th grade. The guidance counsellor didn’t blink, and said, “Don’t worry, you can go to college. Everything is possible. I’ll tell you how.” Chaya put her past behind her, transferred to public school, and that was it. She talked about this story as one of the most important moments of her life. Where she took matters into her own hands and crafted her own life. But she was also deeply sad at how easily a Jewish school let go of a Jewish kid without a second thought.
And yes, Chaya did go to college, as the guidance counsellor told her. She got degrees and teaching certificates and made an amazing career as a master teacher, a teacher of teachers.
And what guided her throughout her life were the memories of her childhood and the way her traumas affected her. She wanted to make sure that kids were seen, supported and cared for. That was at the root of her entire educational philosophy. Listen to kids, trust that they have complex and beautiful inner lives, support their developmental processes, treat them like whole beings, create environments in which they can thrive and become who they are. She also believed in enabling kids – and everyone – to be independent thinkers. She wanted to give kids tools to nurture their wonder, their natural curiosity, to make them lifelong learners. She herself was a lifelong learner, always looking to master ideas and knowledge that she wanted next. For her, being a learner and being an educator were interconnected. They were one and the same. To teach you have to listen and learn. That’s at the core of it.
She also was a big believer in giving kids freedom and independence. One of the things that bothered her most was the way schools so often put people in boxes. She was critical of practices aimed at what she described as shovelling information into kids’ brains without any skills for critical thinking. Without supporting children’s natural desire to learn, innate wonder, innate curiosity. She hated that. As a teacher and as a person. She did not fit into any boxes herself, she fiercely resisted those processes in her own life and she wanted to give kids the same freedom and independence to be who they want to be.
These ideas guided her as both a professional educator and as a parent. In the early 1970s, she decided to homeschool her kids, starting with Atara, because there was no Jewish school that reflected her ideas. In their Great Listening Tour around 1976, she and Rose Landowne visited thirty-five Jewish schools in the tristate area and could not find one! She was so proud of that experience and laughed about how gutsy they were. That gutsiness was such a theme in her life. In the end, with not a single school worthy of her incredible wisdom, she and Rose Landowne homeschooled. In between they also spent a few years creating a special program in SAR. But when parents in the regular classes complained that they weren’t getting the special program, the school closed it down. In the 1980s, she was the first early childhood director at Heschel, where she developed an entire program based on her ideas, in a spirit of Jewish pluralism. She loved that work, and they loved her. She was right about all of it.
There is so much more to say. She was so incredibly beautiful. I learned so much from her over the years. She was my go-to person for all things education, emotional processes, family relationships and just understanding life. She was so special and wise, even though the world around her did not always welcome her vast offerings. She was way ahead of her time.
With Chaya’s passing, the world has lost a gem of a Jewish woman. I am bereft. I already miss her so much.
I want to say thank you to Chaya for being my friend, teacher, mentor, colleague, conspirator, co-author, thinker, spiritual guide, and inspiration. You taught me and changed me. I am better off for having known you. I will continue to carry your beautiful spirit with me wherever I go.
Sending my deepest condolences to Fred, their children and grandchildren, Chaya’s siblings, and Chaya’s mother and hugs to the many friends and relatives who are grieving Chaya’s absence.
If Chaya impacted you, please share your stories with me to include in her memoirs. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was previously published in Jewfem.com