July 12, 2006

by Andrew Silow-Carroll
Seymour Fox, z''l

We lost a major force in Jewish education this week: Seymour Fox, Professor of Education, Emeritus, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he
directed the School of Education, died in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Fox was the Director of Program of the Mandel Foundation, and founded the Jerusalem Fellows. He was ordained at JTS in 1956, and served as Assistant to the Chancellor and later as Dean of the Teachers Institute. He worked closely with the Melton Research Center and and was instrumental in the development of the Ramah Camps until he made aliyah in 1966.

Fox was a disciple of educational theorist Joseph Schwab of the College of the University of Chicago during the thirties - fifties, and Jerusalem Fellows were obligated to memorize Schwab's four "commonplaces" of education: Instructors, learners, content and milieu.

Fox's philosphy is summarized in the title of a monograph he put out in 1997 with famed ghostwriter William Novak: “Vision at the Heart: Lessons From Camp Ramah on the Power of Ideas in Shaping Educational Institutions.” "A great vision," Fox tells Novak, "will inspire educators to creativity and even to the invention of new kinds of institutions. Goals certainly matter, but by themselves they're not sufficient. And they are often so pedantic as to leave no room for vision. A vision that is intelligible and worthwhile is guided by great ideas that will survive periods when those ideas are out of favor."

I had mixed feelings about Prof. Fox during my time as a Jerusalem Fellow. He was a force of nature, and seemed large in the way that certain politicians, religious leaders, and football coaches feel large even when they stand a head shorter than you. I found him brusque to the point of rudeness, and felt he tended to overlook all but the obvious "stars" of the program. (Although I did appreciate the fact that, thanks to the distinct Chicago accent with which he pronounced his Hebrew, he was one of the few instructors whose lectures I actually understood.)

But in the years since I left the program, the mantra of "vision" remains with me, and I 've seen both how a clear vision sustains an organization through change, and the lack thereof is a recipe for disaster and irrelevance.

I haven't seen an official bio or obit from Mandel or any of the Israeli papers. Perhaps they'll be able to flesh out his wider impact -- in informal and formal Jewish education, teacher education, and the like. In the meantime there's a collection of essays he co-edited just a few years back, where you can get a taste of his thinking and the disciples who sprung up around him in the Jewish educational establishment.

UPDATE: Barry Holtz hs written this appreciation for the Forward.

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