April 20, 2011
VBS’ beloved adult Hebrew tutor has a way with words
Yossi Dresner has coached teens for their b’nai mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) for 40 years. He has run the adult b’nai mitzvah program for 26. As ritual director, he also conducts VBS’ morning and evening minyans and coordinates holiday services.
Yet despite all of that, he insists he hardly does anything at the synagogue.
“I’m an old guy — I’m on the way out,” Dresner, 72, said on a recent afternoon.
Beloved as much for his self-effacing humor, delivered in a lilting Israeli accent, as for his vast knowledge of Torah and Jewish tradition, Dresner has been VBS’ b’nai mitzvah guru for two-thirds of the Encino congregation’s life. That’s why, as the synagogue turns 60, officials will honor him May 11 with a fête celebrating his years of contribution to Jewish education.
During his tenure as ritual director, Dresner has taught Torah trope and the Shabbat service prayers to thousands of children and hundreds of adults — and throughout the decades has maintained an unassuming demeanor and quiet dedication to duty that peers recognize as his trademark.
Asked about his accomplishments, the former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) paratrooper waxes reticent. “I cannot talk about myself,” he said. “Maybe someone else can.”
Gathered at the VBS sanctuary on a recent Tuesday night, a coterie of Dresner’s fans can’t say enough about him. The nine students in this year’s adult b’nai mitzvah class have been meeting with their teacher weekly since September, preparing to read passages from Parashat Ki Tisa in a shared ceremony April 23.
One by one, Dresner calls students up to the Torah to recite the blessings and practice their assigned passage. As they rehearse the haftarah, he stands next to them at the podium in his wire-frame glasses, correcting pronunciation. “Beautiful,” he interjects at one point. At another, “One, two, breathe.”
Students range in age from 40 to 83 and came to the class with different levels of Hebrew-language skill and familiarity with the synagogue service. When prompted to specify their favorite part of the process, however, they all point to their tutor.
“Yossi is the best. He’s so understanding and so learned,” says Jackie Shapiro, 75. “He’s just a joy to have as a teacher.”
“Learning from him is an honor and a privilege,” adds David Bashiri, 40, as others nod in agreement.
Dresner peppers his instruction with jokes and conversational anecdotes that keep the mood lively. Near the end of class, he reminds students the Torah service will be videotaped on the big day, “so don’t make faces,” he scolds, pointing a finger in mock sternness. “But don’t be too serious,” he also urges. “The point is to have fun. Do it to the best of your ability, and enjoy yourselves.”
The advice echoes Dresner’s customary parting words: “Enjoy life.”
“Yossi is a character — that’s the first thing you need to know about him,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at VBS. “He is unique. He’s got this wonderful manner where no one impresses him — whether you’re rich, poor, famous or anonymous, everyone in his classes gets treated with the same sense of respect and held to the same level of responsibility. He’s a lovely soul who makes everyone feel at home.”
Born in Tel Aviv in 1938, Dresner said he ended up living in the United States “by accident” — he took a trip to visit friends, liked the weather and stayed. He began teaching b’nai mitzvah students at VBS in 1971, and eventually met his wife, Dr. Maxine Newman-Dresner, at the synagogue.
“The first 10 years went like the wind,” Dresner recalled. “It happened — you don’t ask questions. It’s according to God.”
Dresner still takes on a few teenage students now and then, but he mostly concentrates on his adult classes. Older students decide to become b’nai mitzvah for a number of reasons — some, especially women, weren’t offered the choice when they were young, others have converted to Judaism, and many weren’t able to practice their faith in their native countries.
Whatever their motivation, this year’s students wrote in a class statement they are glad Dresner was guiding their journey: “We are so grateful to Yossi, who patiently taught and encouraged us each week. He always said, ‘Ask questions, because how will you understand if you don’t ask?’ Yossi made us feel that just by walking through the door of class each week, we demonstrated our commitment to a path of learning and spiritual growth.”
The walls and tables in Dresner’s office are crammed with photographs of previous students — framed, tucked into the corners of other frames, lining every edge of the modest room. A needlepoint picture of a menorah hangs on the wall behind his desk bearing the words, “Thank you Yossi!” On another wall is a framed Scrabble board, with words like “inspiring,” “daven” and “mentor” intersecting Dresner’s name.
“I have 1 million stories,” he said. “It’s always a pleasure to see people come, who never believed they can do it, and a few months later, they’re shining.”
In a moment of reflection, Dresner marveled at his eventful career. “If you can stay in one place for 40 years, and they want to keep you around — well, I guess they like me,” he said. Then, after a pause, he returned to laconic form: “The main point is, I have a job to do, so I do it.”