Yossi Hershkovitz, 44, was a man of extraordinary integrity and kindness. His commitment to family and community, and of course to defending his beloved Israel, formed the cornerstone of his life. He had a serious, steadfast, calm demeanor and a smile that warmed your soul. Resolute and principled, he balanced his strength with a soft-spoken, warm, and generously compassionate nature.
Last weekend as one of the 551st brigade he was one of five reservists killed in a booby-trapped tunnel in Gaza next to a mosque in Beit Hanoun fighting for Israel as the first month of the Israel-Hamas war continued.
Yossi was a deeply feeling and caring person and educator. There seemed to be an endless reservoir of goodness within him. Yossi personified the essence of being a “mensch.” He consistently showed up for others and sought to increase the feelings of unity, light, and positivity in the world. When Israel’s innocent were targeted, there was no question that he would rise up to defend them; and, of course, he made the ultimate sacrifice in doing so.
Yossi was born in Jerusalem on May 31, 1979. He graduated from the Horeb School and the Birkat Moshe Yeshiva in Ma’ale Adumim and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Bar Ilan University and a master’s degree in educational administration from Herzog College.
In September 2012, he and his wife Hadas, along with their two children, arrived in the Bronx to work at SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox Yeshiva day school. While this adventure took them away from Israel, its purpose was actually an extension of Yossi’s deep commitment to Israel and the Jewish people, as they spent the next four years working with American students to deepen their connection to Israel, and instill a love of Hebrew and Jewish unity.
They settled in Riverdale, leaving their family and support system behind in Israel. A young couple with two small children who did not speak English, they quickly found a supportive network within the Bronx and at SAR. Even as they worked to adjust to their new community, the Hershkovitz family generously opened their home to others, becoming an integral part of the community rather than “visitors.” During their four-year stay, they left an indelible mark on the neighborhood and hundreds of students.
Teachers from SAR Academy remember how Yossi truly saw the good in every single child he met. Central to SAR’s mission is the idea that every child has a “divine spark,” and it was immediately clear that this came naturally for Yossi, as he effortlessly connected with each child by believing in them fully.
“Yossi’s approach to teaching was rooted in compassion and caring for each student as an individual,” SAR Principal, Rabbi Krauss, shared. “He was a man of strong ideals and Torah principles, living out his beliefs both in and out of the classroom.”
Yossi’s previous work with at-risk youth in Israel gave him a soft spot for connecting with kids in need of extra care, and in his quiet way, he made a tremendous impact in the lives of so many students. His care was felt by all.
As one student, Avi, described: “Moreh Yossi taught me to believe in myself. All of his students looked up to him and sensed he was unique in his courage and heroism.”
This was echoed by another student.
“He taught us discipline and exemplified a focused, serious mindset,” Oren remembered. “At the same time, he laughed with us, and in doing so taught us that completing any task can be enjoyable and meaningful. He taught us important values of living a Godly life.”
Yossi and his Hadas were a power couple.
They gave 110 percent to everything that they did while at SAR. Yossi was an elegant musician who added depth to any musical performance in school, especially on Israel’s Memorial Day. When he played the violin, he did so with everything he had.
“He was a strong, solid fellow, but when he played the violin, his whole soul peaked out from his heart,” Shalom Weil, his colleague in Israel, later wrote of his playing.
He and Hadas took their mission seriously and were roll-up-your-sleeves, “can-do” people who endlessly gave of themselves. Teachers spoke about how when chaperoning a trip, having Yossi around was like having 10 people. No task was beneath him. He was always on board.
The entire family would join the students on weekend retreats. Yossi balanced being a fully engaged teacher and a present father.
Students and teachers remember watching him sitting on the floor with the babies to give his wife time to relax and enjoy during the school trips. As their family grew with the arrival of their new baby in 2014, they continued to make the most of their time in America. They regularly took advantage of time off to travel, packing into their car and traveling cross-country to see the great American sights.
Upon his return to Israel in August 2016, Yossi and Hadas moved to Gush Etzion’s G’vaot. As Rabbi Krauss described, “This community integrates people with special needs — in and of itself a testament to Yossi’s inclusive spirit and commitment to fostering a supportive environment for all.”
He also became the principal of ORT Pelech for Boys in Jerusalem. While the head of school, Yossi was instrumental in introducing the use of an app named “good point” that encourages teachers to spend a few minutes a day writing positive notes about a student into an app which automatically sends the compliment directly to the student and their parents. The app exemplifies Yossi’s commitment to seeing and growing the good in people.
Israeli Education Minister Yoav Kisch expressed his deep sorrow, describing Yossi as “a well-known and beloved educator who inspired his teachers and students… a first-rate educator. The entire education system aches and mourns his fall.”
Above all, Yossi’s enormous heart and belief in humanity could be seen in his deep commitment and connection to his family.
“Hershkovitz was as devoted to his wife, Hadas, and his children as he was to his students,” his former principal wrote. “He truly loved his wife. I learned about how to be a father and how to be a spouse from him.”
Yossi and his Hadas, were true partners in life, making decisions together that exemplified their commitment to each other, their family, and to Israel. His legacy will live on in his five children, Be’eri, Halel, Tal, Shira and Neta, each of whom either spoke or wrote something to be read at his funeral.
They spoke of his deep devotion to them, thanking him for studying with them and for being their hero. While they questioned who would now be strong for them, it was also clear that although there is no way to fill the gaping hole that has been left in this world, his family would certainly carry on his legacy.
Yossi’s deep commitment to Israel shaped his entire life, and he knew that this war could mean the ultimate sacrifice. When he left to join the war, he shared with Hadas that this would probably be the last time he went into battle.
As Zvika Peleg, chief executive of the ORT network, put it, “Yossi’s fall in the war of light against the dark, unjustly, is a symbol of the extraordinary man and educator he was.”
Yossi’s students will need to adjust to entering school without being greeted by his warmth and deep belief in them. Yossi’s children will need to learn how to be strong in his name and live without their hero. Yossi’s wife will need to learn to make her way through life without her partner, her rock, her anchor. Medinat Yisrael will have to learn to forge on without one of their champions, a man molded by the nation’s values and who gave his life protecting them.
And, the world will need to learn how to go on without Yossi’s light, and must make a promise to do whatever it can to make sure that all he stood for is never extinguished.
His funeral took place at Har Herzl in Israel on Nov. 12.
May his memory be a blessing.