As rain fell in torrents outside, love for Eric Rothschild overflowed the Woman’s Club of White Plains at a memorial gathering attended by well over 200 friends and family members Monday afternoon, Nov. 26.
Rothschild, a 1954 graduate of Scarsdale High School who taught American history there for 34 years, died Oct. 30. He was 81.
Rabbi Peter Weintraub summed up his friend’s impact on the community: “Eric touched — correction, touches — many lives every minute of every day.”
The fame of the beloved Scarsdale High School teacher spread well beyond his hometown. Weintraub described meeting a man on a beach who asked him, upon learning he was from Scarsdale, if he knew Eric Rothschild. “He changed my life,” the stranger said. “He inspired me to become a teacher.”
The mention of Rothschild’s name brought smiles of thanks, appreciation and love to all who knew him, Weintraub said. “Eric did that to you. While he was teaching, you were his world.” But the student-teacher relationships didn’t end with graduation. Rothschild kept up with his former students, remembering not only where they went to college and what they were doing afterward but even “what subject they wrote on” when they were in his class. In his private life, Weintraub said, Rothschild was totally devoted to his wife Christine, “his woman of strength and valor.” Christine Rothschild died in 2012.
Retired Scarsdale teachers Neil Ginsberg and Maggie Favretti alternated recollections of the man who was a mentor and inspiration to both.
Early in his career, a mentor told Ginsberg to go see the best social studies teacher in Westchester County — Eric Rothschild. “I went to the classroom and it was magic … his preparation, his energy, his intelligence. There was love for teaching his students, and it was pure love,” Ginsberg said.
Ginsberg said Rothschild “made me feel valued, like part of the team [and] really championed all of us. He listened to our ideas, no matter how off beat.”
As head of the history department Rothschild encouraged his colleagues to be and do more, rearranging schedules so they could attend graduate school and conferences. When the internet was introduced, Favretti said, Rothschild wondered how he could use it in class. “He typed in ‘slavery and bondage’ and ran down the hall shouting ‘How do I make it stop?’”
Favretti and Ginsberg read comments sent from Rothschild’s many grateful students. “He always seemed so excited every day — his cheeks flushed, his eyes bright” — “He was the most curious person I ever met” — “His creative class projects changed how I thought about myself” — “He challenged [us] to be curious [and] his passion for learning was contagious.”
“Of all the wonderful teachers at Scarsdale High School, he was in a class of his own,” one student wrote. “Our country would not be in the mess it is in today if everyone had the privilege of being taught by Eric Rothschild,” said another.
Rashid Silvera, a retired social studies and psychology teacher who grew up in Roxbury, Massachusetts, told the audience that while people had aspirations for him when he was growing up, what he saw on the street was not encouraging. “I made my mistakes, fell down and got up repeatedly,” he said. On one of those rebounds, Silvera said he met Eric Rothschild and “understood immediately there was something different about him. He was soulful.” Silvera was honored to join the “dream team” at SHS, headed by Rothschild.
Silvera said Rothschild was shaped by the history during his lifetime, including two 1954 decisions, Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregated schools unconstitutional and Hernandez v. Texas that granted Mexican-Americans equal protection under the 14th Amendment.
Later attempts to undo these decisions in Georgia and Arkansas and the Birmingham bombing that occurred as Rothschild was beginning his teaching career made it clear the battle was not over. “Eric paid attention. It got into his system,” Silvera said.
In 1966, Rothschild helped found the Student Transfer Education Plan (STEP) to provide talented minority students from the south the opportunity to attend Scarsdale High School. The program created a bond between Scarsdale and the students that extended in both directions.
Rothschild knew that Silvera’s grandmother was a very important influence in his life. When she died, he dispatched his son Adam to the funeral in Roxbury, “to assure me the distance between Scarsdale and Roxbury was not so great.” Like Silvera, Rothschild had a strong woman who helped shape him — his mother Amelie, Silvera said.
Describing Rothschild’s influence, Silvera paraphrased a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire: “Eric said, ‘Come to the edge’ and we said, ‘We can’t, it’s too high’ and he said, ‘Come to the edge,’ and we said ‘We might fall’ and he said ‘Come to the edge.’ We came and he pushed us and we flew.”
Rosalind Leviatin said she and her husband Victor Leviatin, also a retired history teacher, met Rothschild in 1962 when he started teaching at Woodlands High School in Greenburgh, challenging students with new techniques like primary sources, simulations, visiting speakers and learning outside the classroom. Later on he helped establish the Woodlands Individualized Senior Experience (WISE) program at Woodlands and other schools and the senior options program in Scarsdale and remained on the board of WISE services.
Historian Anne Rubin said that Eric and Christine Rothschild were friends of her parents, so she knew Eric before she had him as a teacher. “Every day he came to class brimming with enthusiasm,” she said. “He used transparencies and documentaries to bring history to life. He taught us the power of humor and music.” Assignments included writing a diary as if you were traveling on the Oregon Trail and analyzing a political cartoon about the Civil War.
Rubin said that while she thought her relationship with Rothschild was special, she came to realize that he had this kind of relationship with many students. “He stayed in touch with scores of students — before the internet, he was a one-man social network. He had the kindest, biggest heart I’ve ever known. He gave of himself unstintingly. He loved what he did and we loved him for it.”
Rothschild’s brother Peter said Eric’s passion to help students realize their potential extended beyond the boundaries of the classroom. “He began teaching American history in 1961 and his enthusiasm and vibrancy never waned. He deeply believed in the importance of public education” and felt that increasing individuals’ sense of self-worth adds value to society by enabling them to make better decisions. “He was dedicated to helping others become what they ought to be and in return he became all that he ought to be,” Peter said.
Alan Rothschild said his father loved his students and took more pride in their success than his own. The devotion to children took a different form in summer when the Rothschilds went to a camp in Maine where Eric was the head counselor and tennis coach and Christine the camp nurse. On other vacations, the family visited “historic sites everywhere on the East Coast.”
Alan’s children recited a paraphrased version of the Gettysburg address honoring the memory of their grandfather.
Oldest son Adam said he couldn’t think of his father without his mother because they were “inseparable.” Growing up as Eric Rothschild’s son was not always easy, Adam said, with SHS students in and out of the house and often on the phone. “I shared my dad with you guys,” he said. “It was like having a very, very large family — They’re supportive but it can be difficult.”
Adam said the most common words in the many condolence letters he received were “He changed my life.” In closing, he quoted from one that said, “ Your dad was my inspiration and my hero. He was teaching race studies before it was cool. He helped us understand that we mattered.”