Rabbi Fred Elias, who served SSDS Bergen for 11 years, was a kind, gentle individual. You knew his care and passion ran deep for Jewish education, the Jewish people, and most of all, for the children he taught and mentored.
I met him last spring prior to moving to New Jersey. In that first encounter, I knew I was in the presence of a caring and giving individual. Even though he was still recovering from a year of fighting his illness, he made himself totally available to me.
This year began hopeful that he would be able to resume his regular duties, but that was not to be. In spite of the return of his cancer, he was unwilling to give an inch to the disease. Through sheer will and force, Rabbi Elias continued to come to school on a regular basis to teach his students and make his mark on the school, especially our Middle School. As long as he had the strength, he was at school. And if you asked him how he felt, he would always say he was fine.
These few months that we were together, I witnessed an educator completely devoted to his students and our school. He continued to make plans for the future and just in the past three months, created new programs for our Middle Schoolers including studying Daf Yomi [a daily page of Oral Torah] with him on Wednesdays. The first Daf Yomi coincided with “Corn Chip Appreciation Day” (Who else would know that?), so, of course he served guac and salsa with the chips! “Pizza, Pez, and Parasha” was recently created and held on Fridays. He was always coming up with new ideas to make Jewish learning more fun. Just ask any Sixth Grader about the Wednesday “Shaharit Rock Live” he created and led with them this year. For many students, it was the highlight of the year. His mind never stopped.
He was a force of nature. Even in sickness. This year I saw him dress up as Solomon Schechter, as he did annually on Schechter’s birthday, walking around the school making sure everyone knew who he was. Prior to Hanukkah, he dressed in ugly Hanukkah sweater attire. Since the holiday would take place over winter break, he led the Middle School in fun and games beforehand. For Rabbi Elias, z”l, there always had to be time for fun.
Just over a month ago, he led an evening of study for alumni and our Beit Midrash was full. It was truly a love fest between Rabbi Elias and his students. And a few weeks ago, he was a presence at the Second-Grade Humash Ceremony, overseeing the wrapping of our children in the Torah scroll and reading a few Pesukim [verses] from it.
I have heard so many stories about Rabbi Elias. Legend has it that he never slept on the annual Eighth-Grade Israel Encounter. He was up all day actively engaging with students and all night, he would write home to parents and our school community as he uploaded countless photos. His energy during this trip was boundless.
Rabbi Elias had an impish smile; like a child up to something. It was the eternal youth inside his soul that made kids gravitate to him. He knew who each child was and what they needed. Countless parents have told me over these past weeks and months about the positive impact Rabbi Elias had on their children. In fact, just scroll through Facebook and you will see numerous messages describing the type of person Rabbi Elias was and the impact he had on everyone who came into his life, whether it was at Schechter or Camp Ramah in the Berkshires and New England (Palmer), where he also was truly beloved.
He was taken from his family and from all of us much too soon. He had so much more to give and he so desperately wanted to do so. He was able to express how unfair this felt, to be taken too soon.
I had the privilege to be able to sit with him a couple of times during the last week of his life. I told him that he was the rare individual who had the opportunity to touch so many lives for the better. And though he was leaving us much too soon, I told him that his life was filled with great purpose, Mitzvot, and meaning and that he had an impact beyond many who have lived longer lives.
It is the exceptional individual who has the opportunity to make a difference in so many lives – Rabbi Elias was one of them. I expressed my sincere regret that we only had a brief time together, but it was an honor to know him and that I, too, was touched for the better because I had met and known Rabbi Fred Elias, a rare and special soul.
May his memory be a source of great blessing to his family, friends, and our Schechter community.