Eliot Shimoff, a longtime psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Jewish scholar who led an e-mail study group for students of the Talmud, died Saturday at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center & Hospital.
A resident of Baltimore's Mount Washington neighborhood, Dr. Shimoff died on his 61st birthday after a three-year struggle with a rare form of prostate cancer, his family said.
Dr. Shimoff was a fixture of UMBC's psychology department for more than three decades. Thousands of psychology majors took his introductory course. A dynamic lecturer, he charmed students with magic tricks, jokes and personal stories, including his chestnut about how he enticed his children to do their homework.
He worked until November, his colleagues said, traversing the campus with a walker and fighting bouts of vertigo in hopes of inspiring one more classroom of young minds.
"He was one of the most important parts of the academic foundation of UMBC, having been among the first faculty members," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the university president. "But most important, he was a consummate teacher."
Dr. Shimoff got up at 5:30 most mornings to debate the Talmud in study sessions at his synagogue. In the late 1990s, he started an e-mail discussion group on the complex books of Jewish laws.
"Regrettably, the Talmud is often a closed book that remains a mystery to many people," he wrote on the group's Web site, which he ran with a colleague in Israel. "The function of this e-mail study group is to give novices a taste of what the Talmud is all about."
The e-mail group has tackled subjects ranging from the duty to relieve animals' suffering to the circumstances under which a person who finds a lost item can keep it. This week, it has been flooded with expressions of sorrow.
"My husband was a scholar," said his wife, the former Sandra Steinhardt, a UMBC history professor who married him three years after they met as 19-year-old counselors at a Jewish summer camp. "His life was in books and in disseminating information and in bringing people together."
Dr. Shimoff was born in Richmond, Va., and moved as a boy to Queens, where his father, Ephraim Shimoff, became a prominent Orthodox rabbi.
He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York and a Ph.D. from Columbia University before UMBC hired him in 1970 as one of the fledgling campus' first professors. He eventually became director of his department's undergraduate program.
An intellectual disciple of renowned behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, Dr. Shimoff experimented on rats, pigeons and, more recently, college students, to understand the interplay between environment, language and behavior.
One study led to a finding that any teacher might do well to heed: Students who know that attendance is taken every day will achieve better grades, even if their attendance records don't count toward those grades.
"He would discover simple things for which nobody else had any data," said A. Charles Catania, a UMBC psychology professor, research collaborator and friend.
Dr. Shimoff's funeral was held Sunday at his synagogue, Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore. He was buried Monday in Israel, a country he visited nearly every year.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Daniel Shimoff of Beit Shemesh, Israel, and Michael Shimoff of Kemp Hill in Montgomery County; two daughters, Wendy Dixler of Baltimore and Randi Shuster of Edison, N.J.; a sister, Barbara Jacobson of Staten Island, N.Y.; and 11 grandchildren.