Our tradition teaches us that we are each created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God). Which, among other things, means that we cannot be easily categorized, reduced to one or two adjectives intended to describe or contain our humanity. We all contain multitudes.
Many of us hold those multitudes deep beneath the surface, still waters running deep. Ilan’s multitudes were deep but not still; they were more like a technicolor geyser, and if you were close, you were in the splash zone.
It is impossible to simply describe Ilan the Israel educator, or Ilan the teen educator, Ilan the puppeteer, Ilan the swim instructor, Ilan the human rights activist, or Ilan the party animal — because Ilan was all those and more and he presented his whole authentic, multi-faceted, and paradoxical self in any and everything he did.
He was a generous and beloved colleague: “Ilan was always happy to think with me about ANYTHING,” Jenni Mangel, Jewish LearningWorks Director of Educational Leadership told me. “He always took me seriously, and encouraged me to not take myself too seriously.”
One day a deep and thoughtful conversation about Israel. The next, he’d be organizing the annual Jewish LearningWorks Purim party, resplendent in his jester costume, teaching and leading silly songs like “Ha-Kova Sheli.” Or he’d be doing a puppet show for young children at the Library. Then, facilitating a difficult discussion among educators on how to teach Israel in the aftermath of the war in Gaza. Or speaking to an audience about growing up gay on his kibbutz.
Was he serious or silly? Yes. Did he teach adults or teens or little children? Yes. Was he a curriculum developer or teacher or a performer? Yes. Was he a lover of Israel or a seering critic? Yes. If you prefer to understand people by categorizing them in an easily understood box, Ilan was not for you.
Along with his colleague, Vavi Toran, Ilan re-invented Israel education in our community, embracing Israel’s complexity and contradictions. Ilan helped countless educators bring students closer to Israel, employing art, film, dance, music, poetry, and drama, while grappling head-on with its most troubling challenges. Ilan had little patience for those who would paper over those challenges. Like Leonard Cohen, Ilan believed that the cracks are “how the light gets in.”
Ilan’s impact on this community was profound. I had a sense of this early on, as it seemed that everyone in the community knew Ilan and had some story about how he had influenced them.
All of those aspects of his vocation as an educator and of his life (these were intricately connected) – it feels impossible to cover them all adequately in this one essay. So I’ve chosen to focus on one of those roles, and through that focus, offer at least a glimpse of who he was, how he was and how he changed lives – which is ultimately what education is about.
I worked with Ilan, a valued colleague, for many years. But we met under different circumstances: I was a parent; Ilan directed the Diller Teen Fellows, my daughter Becky’s teen program.
I understood from our initial meeting that he was a gifted and unorthodox educator. The parents’ orientation was not your standard “verbal information packet” — it was itself an educational experience in which we deepened our understanding not only of the program but of one another as we were encouraged to share ourselves with each other. Classic Ilan — you expected soft serve vanilla, and he pulls a fast one and it’s sea salt caramel gelato.
“Ilan took a lot of time to listen to me and meet my seriousness with seriousness,” said Becky. “He helped me find fun, and treat my ideas with value.
“Ilan was always encouraging us to be introspective and reflect on our experiences,” fellow Diller participant Elissa Brown told me. “I liked how he acknowledged the ‘good/not so good moments’ and the nuance that exists in everything. In particular, he tried to show us that nothing in the Middle East was black and white.”
Reflection, nuance, nothing is black and white…these qualities permeated his approach to education, whether he was teaching teens, adults, educators, or young children.
Elissa also reported:
“…he genuinely wanted to hear our opinions, which felt special as a teen…One big takeaway was how much he empowered us as teens. I looked through a bunch of old emails, and so many of them were of him getting us to take action to plan retreats/programming/general activism, etc. …There were so many times where it would have been more efficient for him to just make an executive decision about something, but he made us all work through it and take leadership….which in the end was valuable.”
Brian Levenson, another Diller Teen, reinforced similar themes:
“Ilan respected every individual, made us feel seen and heard, and empowered us with his trust. As teenagers entering young adulthood, this grew our confidence, helped us find our identity, and led us to build deep, meaningful relationships.”
At Jewish LearningWorks, we have often spoken about centering the student. Ilan embodied this quality, along with another quality – never taking himself too seriously.. Here are his own words – when he wanted feedback from the teens:
“I really need your input in order to plan the trip for next year. For this purpose I am sending you an evaluation form for you to fill. Besides it being tremendously helpful for me it will also be a good way for you to reflect on this experience and to remember some good/not so good moments and who knows, maybe you’ll feel inclined to run and write in your journal and…oh, shush, Ilan, here is the evaluation.”
Did Ilan, a social justice warrior, teach to change the world or did he teach because he loved to teach? Yes.
When I say he taught to change the world, I don’t mean he was pursuing a specific agenda; rather, he believed that learning illuminates, learning sparks our ability to grow to change, and thus to repair a broken world. And, he understood that life is short and we can best achieve our purpose doing what we love.
My daughter Becky maintained her relationship with Ilan and his husband, Peter. Ilan became a mentor for her – an educator herself, she saw in Ilan the educator she wanted to be.
“In college,” Becky wrote, “I joined a cause I believed in but found other members frustrating and unreliable. I asked him for advice and he said to leave the group and find one with people I liked working with. I didn’t listen and only later recognized how right he was.”
Ilan and Peter taught through the way they lived, including the home they built for themselves and others that was an expression of their values.
After Ilan’s death, Becky wrote about Ilan as a mentor and about Ilan and Peter as friends and role models:
“His house was a place of constant creativity. There was artwork and poetry everywhere and, along with his husband, we would regularly break into spontaneously composing songs or poems on the spot. They made puppets and puppet shows and were always thinking about next ideas.
“They practiced radical hospitality. They welcomed me when I first moved to their city and needed a place to stay, and they regularly hosted refugees as a supportive landing pad into the country.
“Anytime we passed a body of water, he needed to jump into it, no matter the context. I find myself getting more and more like that the older I get.
“His backyard always felt like a paradise to me.”
John Dewey wrote: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Many educators can understand what Dewey meant conceptually. Ilan; I don’t know if Ilan was even aware of it, but more than anyone I have known, Ilan lived it.
The Jerusalem Talmud instructs us: “Everyone must render an account before God of all the good things they beheld in life and did not enjoy” (Kiddushin 66b). Life, the rabbis suggest, is to be lived not by checking boxes but by embracing it in its fullness. Ilan embodied this teaching.
Teacher, story-teller, role-model, cultural critic, curriculum developer, human rights activist, performance artist; Ilan’s life was his art and his curriculum. In his teaching and in his life, he approached it all with passion.
Remembering Ilan in his full glory can obscure a bitter truth: He left us way too soon. His death leaves a gaping hole in our community and in the hearts of those of us who loved him. He had more to teach us, he had more love to give and receive, more life to live. To gloss over this would dishonor who Ilan was as a teacher and as a person. He understood, as Israeli folk singer Naomi Shemer sang, that with the honey comes the bee sting. For so many of us who loved him, Ilan’s loss, and Peter’s as well, sting deeply.
We feel the sting and we mourn his loss. And we remember the sweetness of his life and teaching. On his yahrzeit, I try to remember the Ilan so full of joy that it exploded out of his body and engulfed everyone around him. I remember him rigorously marrying and mastering the serious and the silly: silly seriousness or serious silliness.
Diller Teen Alum Elissa Brown wrote about how Ilan “inspired us to be our best selves.” And, “above all,” Elissa wrote, “ lots of memories of him doing handstands at all moments and just approaching life with a lot of goofiness, openness and love.”
David Waksberg served as CEO of Jewish LearningWorks from 2007 until 2020.
More About Ilan Vitemberg z”l
Ilan Vitemberg was a longtime and beloved staff member at Jewish LearningWorks. He was passionate about Israel Education, and embodied Jewish values through his many talents and interests.