Remembering Rabbi Phillip Russ: A Tribute to a Leader and Mentor

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Morris Massry

 

In the halls of Magen David Yeshivah, Rabbi Phillip Russ, a”h, stood as a towering figure, not just as a school principal, but as a mentor who left an indelible mark on the lives of all his students.

In Pursuit of Excellence

Mishlei 27:17 teaches us that just as iron sharpens iron, so too do individuals sharpen one another. Rabbi Russ embodied this principle, shaping the character and potential of countless young minds throughout his many years serving as the head of MDY.

Rabbi Russ challenged us all to strive for greatness, urging us to reach beyond our perceived limitations. His commitment to this ideal was evident in everything he did, and he instilled that same sense of determination in all those around him.

Beneath the Stern Façade, Compassionate Leadership

While his demeanor may have initially intimidated many students, those who experienced his care firsthand can attest to the kindness that emanated from his caring heart, making those who needed it feel valued and understood. Despite my own academic struggles, Rabbi Russ’ belief in my potential never wavered. I recall the day when, after receiving a poor test score, he lifted me up, not with scolding words, but with encouragement, and by literally carrying me over his shoulder to my next class.

In Masechet Rosh Hashanah 17b, we learn that Hashem tempers his justice with mercy. During the Rabbi’s funeral, I learned that his tough love approach was rooted in a deep-seated certainty that all his students could do well, so long as they were given the chance and were guided to success. He never wanted to write a child off as hopeless, just because others had given up on them.

This resonated with me, because while Rabbi Russ projected the image of a stern and formidable authority figure, I was fortunate enough to get a glimpse of this more compassionate side of him. He held a profound belief in uplifting those who faced personal challenges, understanding the significance of offering empathy to them.

I remember getting pink cards through several years of elementary school in Magen David Yeshivah – this was a sort of daily progress report for underperforming students, and every day I’d have to go to Rabbi Russ to get my card signed off. While most kids with pink cards feared these visits to his office, every time I showed him my pink card with good marks for that day, he’d give me a candy from his drawer and tell me he was happy to see I was working hard. So, while it’s true that he pushed us to be the best that we could be, he also knew the importance of providing support to those who were struggling but trying their best.

It was in these moments that I realized Rabbi Russ saw beyond grades; he saw the potential within each of us.

A Living Example of Torah Values

In the Torah, integrity and righteousness are celebrated virtues, ones that Rabbi Russ embodied in his daily life. His moral compass always pointed towards what was right, serving as a beacon of light in our school. Every Friday during Shacharit, Rabbi Russ would impart his wisdom with a simple yet profound message: “Keep Shabbat as a special holy day.” These words weren’t just a reminder of our religious obligation; they encapsulated Rabbi Russ’s reverence for tradition and his desire to instill a love of Torah in everyone around him.

A Lasting Legacy

Rabbi Russ’s impact extended far beyond the walls of our school. He touched the lives of countless children, parents, and colleagues, leaving an enduring legacy of love, kindness, and dedication to Torah values.

His memory will continue to inspire and guide us, reminding us of the importance of pushing for greatness and embodying those values in all that we do.

May his memory be a blessing to all his students, and to  all of Klal Yisrael