Centennial Recollections of a Father’s Time at Hebrew College

By Sydney Gross
Mor d'chai Simons' class picture

When Lou Simons started researching his father’s journey from Eysheshok, Lithuania to the United States, he rediscovered a photograph from his father’s Hebrew Teachers College graduation. He reached out to Hebrew College President Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld for more information.

“I’m sorry to add to your Inbox but couldn’t figure-out who better to address,” he wrote. “If I understand the handwriting (my Hebrew has atrophied) it says ‘first cycle’. He was Mord’chai Simons. I’m trying to give my children/grandchildren more background about him & his flight from behind the emerging Iron Curtain (c. 1919?). Can the date of the document attached be determined?” President Anisfeld was delighted to hear from him and the Hebrew College librarian and Development Office team launched into a treasure hunt in the College archives.

The photo was, indeed, from the first graduating class of Hebrew College, 1924-25, four years after the College was founded in Roxbury in 1921. In Hebrew, the photograph reads, “first cycle” or “first cohort.” The photograph also appears on Hebrew College’s Centennial website.

Simons’ father, Mor d’chai Simons, was born in the late-1890s near Vilna, Lithuania. He attended Yeshiva, studying by a flickering candle so as to not disturb the rest of his family. He planned to become a rabbi. Simons also has a photo of his father in front of a community center in Eysheshok, which he believes may have been his father’s school.

Mor d’chai’s studies continued when his family left for the United States before World War I. He did not pass the eye exam required to board a ship, so he remained with family in Europe. After the war, when he was in his early-20s, he traveled with a companion to France and England, and eventually to the United States, reuniting with his family in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Once in Haverhill, Simons says, his father worked an early-morning shift at a leather factory, and then boarded a train into Boston to attend Hebrew Teachers College. Simons’ father didn’t share much about his Hebrew College experience, but Simons knows that the college changed his father’s life. He suspects that his father’s older brother, who became a successful businessman, guided him to attend the college, “which he loved and was ever thankful for.”

“He was very grateful for his years and experience at the College because it gave him a way to experience America,” Simons said. “I know he graduated. I don’t know what kind of student he was, but I suspect pretty good. Commuting from Haverhill that whole time. It must have been quite a commitment!”

After graduation, Simons’ father took a teaching job in Maine for several years, and then apprenticed himself to a gas station developer. He eventually purchased his own gas station in Lynn, MA, which he ran until retirement. And he always remained passionate about Hebrew and Jewish learning.

“He worked long hours, manual labor, and he’d come home and read Torah and play Torah word-games with me,” Simons said. “He was more of a scholar than I realized in my younger years and never fully appreciated. English was his eighth language and he could still play with words and make jokes with me about puns and wordplay.”

Mor d’chai’s Hebrew College experience remained part of him throughout his adult life. He sent his children to Hebrew high school, and after retirement, tutored students to become bar mitzvot. He also worked in a Jewish funeral home, where he would recite the required prayers overnight, and often served as a lay leader of services in a local synagogue.

“More than once, I heard him express the wonder of going from studying Aramaic by candlelight on a dirt-floor log home to college in America,” Simons said. “Hebrew College gave him America.”

Learn more about Hebrew College’s Centennial year and read more Centennial stories.

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