Rabbi Irwin Witty (right), known as “the father of Jewish education in Canada” and a key figure in the founding of the Jewish Teacher Education program at York, passed away on Saturday, July 30. His remains were taken to Israel, where a service was held for him.
Born in Brooklyn, NY, Witty attended Yeshiva University. He worked as an educator in Philadelphia and Winnipeg where he was also a pulpit rabbi and helped establish a charitable organization in support of the Winnipeg Hebrew School. In 1969, he settled in Toronto as executive director of the Toronto Board of Jewish Education (BJE), a position he held for nearly 30 years.
Through his work at BJE, Witty made great strides in Jewish education, including transforming the BJE into a key consultant for educators and a major source of educational subsidies, advocating for government support of Jewish education, and helping create a school for Jewish children with learning disabilities.
He also helped establish the Jewish Teacher Education Program at York. A partnership between York’s Faculty of Education, Faculty of Arts, and the BJE, the program trains teachers to work in Jewish parochial schools. Students complete courses in educational methodology and Judaic Studies, and gain experience teaching in both public and Hebrew Day schools. Those who complete the program at York receive a Bachelor of Arts degree, usually with a major in Jewish Studies, an Education degree, and certification from the BJE.
York is one of only a few North American universities that train teachers to work in Jewish parochial schools. According to Marty Lockshin, Chair of the Division of Humanities who worked with Witty for many years, this is due in large part to Witty’s collaborative vision. “Most people felt a secular university wasn’t capable of providing the deep understanding of Judaism necessary,” said Lockshin. “Rabbi Witty had the vision to see how York could play a role. His cooperation with York is one of the model ‘town and gown’ relationships, in which the university and community work together. It was an honour to work with him.”
Witty’s participation in the Jewish Education Program included joining the department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics as contract faculty to teach the program’s core course. The course, which started out as non-credit, was taught entirely in Hebrew, and was regarded so highly it was eventually changed to a for-credit offering. Witty also proved willing to help in other ways. For example, when an introductory Hebrew instructor was needed, he gladly took on the role.
With the end of his tenure at the BJE in 1997, Witty’s specific role at York tapered off. However, his connection with the university endures. Despite the fact that he has not taught at York for several years, some students still refer to the core course in the Jewish Teacher Education Program as “Rabbi Witty’s course.”
Rabbit Witty is survived by his wife, Shulamith, four children and 22 grandchildren.