Bella Porter Smith was a lifelong teacher, so much so that in her final months, she asked visitors to read aloud a pamphlet about thanking God for every aspect of life before they left her home.
“She wanted to make it a learning opportunity,” said Mindy Daitchman, Smith’s daughter, “so the person could see and hear and know that we all have so much to be thankful for. And she herself wanted to keep hearing it.”
Smith died on April 14 after a long battle with cancer and a recent diagnosis of congestive heart failure. She was 66.
Smith was a beloved teacher at Torah Academy in St. Louis Park, where she taught kindergarten for more than 30 years. She “delighted in the children and watching them grow,” said Rabbi Joshua Borenstein, the school’s executive director.
Borenstein recalled Smith as a kind, patient, and enthusiastic educator – both from his days as a student and in his current role at the school. Smith would get on the ground to act out the weekly Torah portion for her students, and was understanding of every child’s needs.
“The kid who might be getting into trouble because they’ve got a little too much wit and a little too much curiosity – she could find the humor in that,” Borenstein said, “as opposed to getting frustrated.”
Smith’s dedication to teaching began in Milwaukee, where she was born Bella Porter on Nov. 7, 1953, to parents who had survived the Holocaust. Her father would often ask, “why did I survive and everyone else was killed?”
The answer: “To raise another generation of Jews.”
“My mother really lived her life with that mission,” Daitchman said.
After high school, Smith traveled to Israel and taught kindergarten on a kibbutz. And in the late 1970s, she met her husband, Rabbi Meir Smith – who brought her to Minnesota in 1978 after he was hired to work at Torah Academy.
Alongside her husband, Smith also established the Minneapolis chapter of NCSY, the youth organization of the Orthodox Union. In 2014, she was awarded NCSY’s Leadership Award and inducted into the Alumni Hall of Fame for her work.
“[Smith] has served NCSY on the chapter level for as long, if not longer, than anyone in our history, transforming and enriching so many lives,” said David Luchins, a vice-president of the OU, at the time.
But perhaps even more than her reputation as an educator, Smith was known in the St. Louis Park community for being a close friend to many. During the shiva, the seven-day mourning period, Daitchman said that people who called to offer condolences often spoke of Smith’s smile, her joy for life, and her attentiveness to those she knew.
“She was always able to connect with people of all ages,” Daitchman said. “And make everyone feel very special.”
For the family, Smith served – and continues to serve – as an example of leadership.
“By the way she acted, we learned a tremendous amount,” Daitchman said. “She didn’t need to verbalize that you need to be kind to people, you need to be less judgmental to people, that you need to give people more of your time…she just lived it.”
If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, Borenstein said that over 500 people would have come to Smith’s funeral, “easy.”
Instead, those hundreds watched the burial over the video conferencing software Zoom, which also shaped the shiva. Family members, spread across the country, kept a Zoom call open roughly 13 hours each day, which Daitchman said felt like sitting together in one room.
Still, “it’s definitely hard,” she said. “You’d never think that the way you’d be sitting shiva would essentially be alone. Physically alone in an empty house.”
But her mother’s faith sustains her, Daitchman said.
“Even when things are hard, just this strong faith in God that there’s a purpose and there’s a reason,” she said.
“My mother passed away at 66…and she impacted and affected and built genuine relationships with more people in those short years than maybe some people do in many [more] years.”
Smith is survived by her husband, Meir; her children Yisroel, Avi, Shragi, Aryeh, and Mindy; and 18 grandchildren.
This piece received 2nd Place in the category Award for Excellence in News Obituaries from the American Jewish Press Association at the 40th annual Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism