Nathaniel Deutsch has an indelible memory of how Devorah Shmotkin devoted herself to being more than just a teacher when he was a student at Bader Hillel Academy.
“She was a very kind-hearted, compassionate person who had a real ability to empathize with children and to see the world through their eyes, while still being a very good teacher and role model,” said Deutsch, who went on from Hillel and Milwaukee Rufus King High School to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago after receiving his bachelor and master of arts degrees from the school.
Deutsch taught religion at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Deutsch, 49, lives in Santa Cruz with his wife and two children, ages 13 and 8.
Shmotkin became director at Hillel, where she taught from 1969 to 1987. She has been head of the school for 10 years, with 45 years of experience in education.
Deutsch recalls having Shmotkin as a teacher in fourth or fifth grade. “She had a very strong love of yiddishkeit and communicated that to her students,” Deutsch said. “I remember her face very distinctly. You felt like she was joyful about being with you as a teacher.”
Deutsch was born in Milwaukee when his parents – the late Henri Avi Deutsch and Suzanna – came from Israel on vacation.
After spending his first three years in Israel, he grew up a few blocks away from Washington High School, where his parents lived for more than 30 years.
“The west side shaped a lot of who I am,” said Deutsch, a professor of literature and history at UC Santa Cruz. He holds the Neufeld-Levin Endowed Chair of Holocaust Studies and also is co-director of the university’s Center for Jewish Studies. He is considered a specialist in Judaism, Gnosticism (its ancient adherents shunned the material world and embraced the spiritual world) and early Christianity. He writes and lectures extensively and has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a National Jewish Book Award finalist.
His father, described by Deutsch as a “very charismatic person, very honest and fearless,” was a visa recipient and defender of Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Sousa Mendes was a Portugese diplomat when his country was pro-Hitler and defied a directive to deny safe haven for Jews by issuing 10,000 visas to Jews over a few days – a feat characterized by a Holocaust historian as “the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
Nathaniel Deutch, who said his father was “running away and saved by a righteous gentile,” continues his father’s work to honor the memory of Sousa Mendes.
Shmotkin was instrumental in keeping Deutsch at Hillel. “At one point I was thinking of leaving,” Deutsch said. “She talked to my parents and me and convinced us that I should stay. It turned out to be the right decision because after that, I had a much better experience at the school. She played a very pivotal role not only in my Jewish education, but my life in general.
“Who knows how my life would have turned out had she not intervened at that point?”
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About Nathaniel Deutsch
Family: Married with two children, ages 13 and 8
Residence: Santa Cruz, Calif.
Profession: Professor of literature and history at the University of California, Santa Cruz
Education: Bader Hillel Academy, Milwaukee Rufus King High School, Ph.D. from the University of Chicago from where he also earned bachelor and master of arts degrees