Students remember him as dashing and sophisticated, a man who always carried a stylish fountain pen and wore perfectly pressed suits and sweater vests. His teaching, they say, was just as elegant.
For more than half a century, Jewish San Franciscans learned Hebrew from Joseph Kornfeld, a man who is remembered not only for his elegance, but also for the longevity, patience and grace that marked his teaching career. At 17, he taught his first Hebrew lesson. He didn't retire until a few years before his death.
Kornfeld died Nov. 3. He was 86.
"He had no children of his own," says his brother Bernard Kernfeld (the siblings spelled their surnames differently). "He was very devoted to his students. When he took on a bar mitzvah student, he made sure they were perfect."
According to his brother, Kornfeld was a gifted language student himself. First, he learned English at age 12 after emigrating to the Bay Area from Ukraine. He studied at San Francisco's prestigious Lowell High School, undertaking undergraduate and graduate work at U.C. Berkeley and at an Orthodox yeshiva in New York. He spoke English, Yiddish and Hebrew fluently, says Kernfeld.
Kornfeld's first teaching job was at San Francisco's Central Hebrew School, which was at 745 Buchanan St. He went on to teach at Congregations Emanu-El and Beth Sholom.
His pupils, many of whom are now leaders in the Jewish community, describe Kornfeld as strict, thorough, soft-spoken and conscientious.
Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, studied with Kornfeld.
"I don't know of anyone who was in Jewish education as long as he was, or anyone more devoted to Jewish education," he says.
The teacher made an imprint on Teitelbaum that has lasted for decades.
"The way he would speak to you in very soft tones always gave you the impression he was interested in you," says the rabbi, who also remembers the teacher's dashing appearance and ever-present pen.
"He always wrote with a fine-looking fountain pen. I don't know why I remember that, but it made an impression on me. That was part of his elegance, a splendid-looking pen that always had purple ink."
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