Jacob Naveh, South Hills b’nai mitzvah tutor, retires after 50 years
A professional violinist, the soft-spoken Israeli did not set out to be a teacher. Still, he found his calling, and a love for children.
For the last 50 years, “I want to thank Mr. Naveh” has been the customary conclusion to the bar or bat mitzvah speech of anyone coming of age at Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
And for the last 30 years, the phrase has been standard at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills as well.
Since 1969, Jacob Naveh has been training children, and some adults, for their bar or bat mitzvahs. His gentle teaching style, coupled with a firm and unyielding confidence in his students, led to generations of Jews who are now comfortable and proficient in synagogue skills.
At the age of 81, he will be retiring from b’nai mitzvah tutoring at the end of this month.
Naveh, an accomplished, professional violinist, did not intend to fashion a career tutoring 12-year-olds in chanting haftorat. He is at once amused and touched by the irony of a secular Israeli being responsible for preparing more than 1000 young Jews for their milestone celebration.
Born in Haifa in 1938, Naveh lived through the War of Independence, during which his mother was permanently injured — and almost died — after being struck by a dumdum bullet fired by an Arab sharpshooter while she was walking to the market.
An immigrant to Israel from Romania, Naveh’s mother, who was musically inclined, encouraged her son to begin learning violin at the age of 10.
The instrument became “the love of my life,” in addition to his family, Naveh said.
After his army service, Naveh taught at the Conservatory of Music in Haifa, and in 1961, he came to the United States to study at the Mannes School of Music in New York. He moved to New Orleans in 1963, where he played in the New Orleans Symphony for six years. There he met his wife, Edie. The couple came to Pittsburgh in 1969 so that Edie could pursue a Ph.D.
Because he was having some trouble with his eyes which made it difficult for him to sit in an orchestra, Naveh decided to look for other work once he arrived in Pittsburgh.
“I said, ‘Well, I can teach violin and I can teach Hebrew,’” he recalled. “There was no Hebrew teaching job at that time, but the Tree of Life hired me as a music teacher, and Temple Emanuel hired me as assistant to the cantor [Murray Gold] to help with the bar mitzvah students.”
Naveh’s parents were secular Zionists, so he “knew very little about prayers or blessings or things like that,” he said.
Gold asked if Naveh could help with the haftorah tropes. When Naveh asked to see the music, Gold told him he did not have any.
“I said, “OK, sing it and I will write the notes,” Naveh said. “So, he sang, and I wrote the notes of the tropes and studied it.”
The method worked, and Naveh was able to successfully take on many students at Temple Emanuel. After Gold died, shortly after Naveh was hired, the violinist was charged with tutoring all of the b’nai mitzvah students at Temple Emanuel. His duties expanded further when Rabbi Mark Mahler came on board in 1980, as the new rabbi wanted to encourage the temple youth to learn to lead more parts of the service, Naveh said.
In 1989, Naveh left his position teaching music at Tree of Life, and began tutoring the b’nai mitzvah students at Beth El, in addition to those at Temple Emanuel.
Naveh remembers a time when he was training up to 30 b’nai mitzvah students in a given week. Now, he said, the number has decreased by almost half.
That’s not all that has changed, he said.
Back in the early years of tutoring at Beth El, “I was encouraged to teach the students Shacharit and the Torah service, and the Musaf service, and even some of the Friday night service,” Naveh said. “But I found that more and more, kids got more involved with other activities, sports especially, but also dancing and being in plays in school. And the parents less and less asked me to teach them all these things. They would say, ‘Whatever my kid could do.’ Every once in a while I would have someone ask me to teach everything, but that was the exception.”
Another change, Naveh noted, is that the number of students who cannot read Hebrew is increasing. For those students, he painstakingly writes out everything in transliteration.
He doesn’t mind the extra work, because he loves the kids, he said, and is continually impressed with how much they can accomplish.
“Although I came from a secular home, I just love to see the kids tackling almost illogical tasks, because a bar mitzvah in many ways is illogical,” he said. “You are asked to chant, to read, to sing in a language you don’t know. You hardly hear it, you cannot speak it. You learn a few phrases in Hebrew school, but you basically are in a foreign language.
“Many of the students are nervous,” he continued. “Some of them think they can’t do it. I decided my job is to tackle the obstacle and show them that they can overcome it, so they can be proud of themselves and lift their self-esteem.”
In a career that has spanned 50 years, it is not surprising that Naveh often found he was teaching children of his former students.
Howard Ginsburg recalled being a student of Naveh’s at Tree of Life in the 1980s. His son, Henry, was tutored last year by Naveh for his bar mitzvah at Temple Emanuel.
“I remember when Henry came home and told me that his teacher was Mr. Naveh,” Ginsburg said. “I was blown away — that many years later, it was amazing.”
Ginsburg described Naveh as “a soft-spoken man who is caring and understanding and who kept you in line. His impact on the Pittsburgh Jewish community cannot be measured.”
Lisa Sharfstein, a member of Beth El, studied with Naveh when she decided to celebrate her bat mitzvah as an adult 10 years ago. Her two children studied with him a few years later.
“He’s amazing,” Sharfstein said. “For him, it’s like brand new every time. You would never guess he’s been doing this for 50 years.”
Naveh has a keen focus on the needs of the individual student, she said, and tailors the lessons accordingly.
“I was nervous,” she said. “But he was the perfect mix of firm and gentle encouragement. I thrived learning with him and my confidence grew.”
Sharfstein, who is also an educator, learned from Naveh “to really have confidence in your students and to push them as far as they can go,” she said. “He meets students where they are.”
Both Temple Emanuel and Beth El are still working to determine who will take over b’nai mitzvah training after Naveh retires.
Naveh will be difficult to replace, said Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of Beth El.
“He has this quiet way about him,” Greenbaum said. “It was a miracle and a blessing that we had him all these years, and now we’re struggling to figure out the direction we will be going in. There is never going to be another Mr. Naveh.”
Naveh also taught private violin lessons for decades. He retired from that pursuit nine years ago. As his love of music has continued throughout his life, Temple Emanuel planned an evening of chamber music in his honor on June 20, featuring musicians from the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival.
While Naveh does not anticipate missing the frequent commute from his residence in Squirrel Hill to the South Hills, he will definitely be missing his students when he retires.
“I will miss the children, there is no doubt about it,” Naveh said. “There were times in my life — for example when there were wars in Israel, or during the intifada — when I was really down. But when I was with them, I felt great.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at