A tribute to Professor Sydney Eisen, who was dedicated to academia and Jewish day school education in Toronto

Sydney Eisen (Credit: Ontario Jewish Archives)

The Toronto Jewish community suffered a great loss with the death of Professor Sydney Eisen on March 27.  Syd was dean when the Faculty of Arts at York University hired me in 1978 as a young and very untested academic. He and his wife, Doris, quickly became dear friends to my whole family. 

Syd put the lie to the belief that a successful academic remains aloof from Jewish community affairs.  Scholars of social science might study the workings of a Jewish community, but it’s rare for professors to become involved in the community’s actual governance.  Syd did, without sacrificing the quality of his academic career.

Syd was born in Apt (Opatov), Poland in 1929, and moved to Toronto as a young child.  Educated at University of Toronto and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, he became a scholar of modern European history, particularly Victorian intellectual history.  He began his academic career in the United States and came to York in the 1960s, in the first years after the university’s founding. 

He helped put York on the map, serving as chair of the history department and acting chair of the division of humanities before becoming dean.  Although his academic area was not in Jewish studies, he became the founding director of York’s Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies.

Syd was a brilliant teacher with exemplary dedication to his students.  I often found him in his office, reading students’ written work together with them, spending hours teaching them to write more effectively.  York recognized his excellence in the three areas valued by the university—administrative work, scholarship, and teaching—and bestowed on him the honorary title of “University Professor” two years before he retired.

In his spare time, Syd was very involved in Jewish communal affairs, particularly in the governance of the Associated Hebrew Schools of Toronto and the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (now TanenbaumCHAT).  Syd was a big believer in non-denominational day schools that cater to Jews of all religious persuasions who want a solid grounding in Hebrew and traditional Jewish texts.

Syd’s two passions—academia and Jewish education—met when he spearheaded the founding of York’s Jewish Teacher Education Program, designed to train teachers for Toronto’s day schools.  I remember when I was looking for a job 44 years ago, reading the York University job ad for an expert in Rabbinics and medieval Judaica, my areas of study. It also said: “Must be willing to work in a Jewish Teacher Training program.”  My wife asked me whether I wanted to do that, and I said, not really, but I would love to have an academic position at York.  After I was hired, Syd and my other mentor, Professor Michael Brown, quickly opened my eyes and helped me realize that actually I did want to be involved in training Jewish teachers, and this proved to be a rewarding part of my job.

Syd was also a dedicated family man.  He and his wife, Doris, raised four admirable children, and they have been blessed with many grandchildren.  A dedicated friend and neighbour, Syd served as a grandfather figure for my own children, and as a source of wise counsel for my wife and me.  Many others say the same.

Syd’s son, Professor Robert Eisen of George Washington University, said in his eulogy: “What my father had went beyond book knowledge. It was insight into people and human affairs that was extraordinary, almost prophetic at times. When he met a person, it was uncanny how quickly he figured them out.”  Syd’s insights, as Robert described them, helped me as a colleague and as a friend on many occasions.

Syd’s contradictions contributed to his fascinating personality: he taught Darwinism at York, yet he was very involved in his Orthodox shul.  He was a true liberal on many social issues, yet he spoke out against intermarriage with vehemence.   In the final analysis, he was a man of impressive intellect, uncanny wisdom, unusual warmth, and deep friendship. 

May his memory be a blessing.

Martin Lockshin is University Professor Emeritus at York University.  He lives in Jerusalem.