Sunday, January 31, 1999

Joseph Kaminetzky

(Written in December 1995)

The publication of Joseph Kaminetsky’s memoirs provides an opportunity to reflect on the life of an outstanding Jewish public servant, as well as on the present state of the day school movement.

I must confess at the outset a strong aversion to publications about personalities which present a steady stream of no more than half-credible stories describing their wondrous qualities and extraordinary accomplishments. This hagiography, which already constitutes too great a proportion of the reading material of the Orthodox Jewish public, distorts history and is a danger to the intellectual health of our community.

Happily, Dr. Kaminetsky’s book is not of this genre. Although it is informed by a certain sweetness, as is the author, it treats the telling of history as an enterprise which demands the truth. This is evident as Dr. Joe - as he is fondly called by many - tells of the struggle to build the day school movement, a struggle which inevitably entailed compromises, conflict and disappointment. On occasion, the reader may want to know more about certain episodes, especially since it is obvious that
Dr. Kaminetsky knows more than he is willing to put in the book. But he does not regard his memoirs as an invitation to settle scores or to put anyone in a bad light. His vignettes are brief history lessons which will be useful when the history of religious Jewish education in the United States is written.

Joe Kaminetsky’s early years were spent in East New York and Brownsville. He attended Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin for elementary school and, for high school, Talmudical Academy, then located on the Lower East Side. Upon graduation he entered the newly-established Yeshiva College as a member of its first class.

Despite family hardship, he was a first-rate student, ultimately earning both smicha (ordination) and a doctorate from Teachers College at Columbia University. He was active in Hapoel Hamizrachi and Yeshiva College, commitments which were maintained in one fashion or another throughout his professional career in Jewish education, at first at the Talmud Torah established by Rabbi Leo Jung at the Jewish Center in Manhattan where he served as principal, and also Manhattan Day School.

Dr. Kaminetsky’s life was permanently changed when he was asked by Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz to join the staff of Torah Umesorah (the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools) which he had established not long before. Day school education was not a new idea by the mid-1940’s. Rabbi Mendlowitz’s great contribution was in teaching that meaningful Torah education could be provided in all communities and instilling in talented young men a lifelong commitment to chinuch. His sense of mission was awesome and while he passed away four years after the organization was founded, he continues to be alive in the people and communities inspired by his message.
Dr. Joe eventually became Torah Umosorah’s National Director, as the day school movement grew rapidly, perhaps beyond the most optimistic hopes of its early leaders. When he retired in the early 1980’s, there was in fact a day school or elementary school yeshiva in just about every North American locality with more than a modest Jewish population.

What happened wasn’t fore-ordained. Yeshivas and day schools in New York and places of significant Jewish settlement were inevitable. What occurred in dozens of smaller communities resulted from the actions and dedication of people of vision, many of whom receive recognition in the book. I was particularly moved by “the wife of a Conservative Rabbi in Massachusetts who baked challah every week and sold it to her friends so that she could buy furniture for the day school.”

In many communities, Dr. Kaminetsky and his colleagues were the catalysts needed to get a day school launched, providing professional guidance and spiritual inspiration. They criss-crossed the country, traveling under arduous conditions, always bringing with them the message that a day school education is an imperative that is within the reach of every community. They encountered opposition and experienced failure, at times when plans for a new school were stillborn and, more painfully, when a school closed, usually because of a lack of funds. Still, the landscape of American Jewish life was altered.

This is the outline of a noble career, a noble life.

The special chemistry of Torah Umesorah needs to be understood, for the world described by Dr. Kaminetsky has changed and some of the elements that were vital to the day school movement can scarcely be recognized.

In its extended productive period, Torah Umesorah represented a coming together in common cause of a remarkable group of Roshei Yeshiva, lay leaders and staff. The Roshei Yeshiva set the over-all policy and decided difficult questions. Led by Rav Aharon Kotler, the transcendent Torah leader of American Orthodoxy in the post-Holocaust years, their involvement in day schools was remarkable in view of their personal histories and the character of the institutions which they headed. Their Torah Umesorah activities entailed, in a certain way, a measure of compromise, for they were sanctioning schools whose standards were at times more than a notch below what they ordinarily would be willing to accept. Yet they all knew that the building of Torah in America required nurturing.

The Roshei Yeshiva were all clearly in the Agudah camp, at least by the 1950’s, while the lay leaders clearly were not. They were, in the main, Modern Orthodox, people with little Torah education who saw that Jewish continuity required more than the diluted Talmud Torah experience. Emphatically, the union between the Yeshiva deans and laymen was not an arrangement dictated by convenience or necessity. It arose from deep reservoirs of respect, at times affection.

The staff was a varied lot. It should be noted that Dr. Kaminetsky never sought to shine at the expense of colleagues. He was generous to his staff, according them respect and responsibility.

There were strains, some serious, in the tripartite arrangement. Dr. Joe served as “the mediator between the yeshivish world of Torah Umesorah leadership and the Modern Orthodox community.” In several key passages, he describes his own vulnerability:
“Although I felt sympathetic to the ideals of both the pure yeshivish and Modern Orthodox worlds, I was typed as a ‘modern’ by some of the Torah Umesorah kehillah.”

“In truth, in those early years, I did indeed find myself living ideologically in two worlds: the Modern Orthodox milieu of Yeshiva University and the more traditional yeshiva world of my early Brownsville days and of Torah Umesorah.... I was criticized now and then by the ‘kanaim’ - religiously conservative people who objected to any hint of ideological flexibility on the day-school initiative - while at the same time, many of my former friends at Yeshiva called me a ‘black-hatter.’ Yet the L-rd was good to me and enabled me to maintain a careful equilibrium between the two worlds and to work with both for the sake of Torah.”
Joe Kaminetsky weathered the storm and the tripartite arrangement endured, as its leaders were encouraged by the statistics of success. Each year, there were more schools, more students.

Even as the organization was celebrating the flow of good news, it was adversely affected by a confluence of forces - paradoxically including its own achievements - which left it in a weakened state. Although Dr. Kaminetsky provides only traces of this story, over an extended period Torah Umesorah was limited in the activities it could undertake, at times by the decision of Roshei Yeshiva and at times by external developments. As one significant example, thirty years ago, when government aid to parochial schools was a major issue, Torah Umesorah was an active participant. Slowly, its governmental role was lost, so that Agudath Israel became the address to turn to. Separately, outside organizations were formed to accredit advanced yeshivas, train day school teachers and provide other functions which might well have been within Torah Umesorah's sphere of activities.

The organization was left, of course, with its core day school responsibilities, but even these were changing as the need - as well as the impulse - to establish new schools dwindled and the existing institutions required a different kind of attention. By the 1970's, at the latest, it had evolved primarily into a service organization, placing administrators and faculty, providing curriculum guidance and helping school officials with all sorts of problems. Service activities are vital to any educational enterprise, as this writer knows from his experience as president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, but they rarely generate enthusiasm. As important as Torah Umesorah continued to be to many schools and communities, interest in its work waned.

By the 1970's, as well, the yeshiva world had fully emerged with an ambiance and attitude that set it apart from day schools. The gap between the different sectors of Orthodoxy was now less ideological and decidedly more behavioral; to the detriment of the day school movement, behavioral differences have defined the character of particular schools. The distinction between yeshivas and day schools became more pronounced, bringing with it diminished interest in day schools on the part of many in the yeshiva world.

As in communal life everywhere, there has been a sharp drop in voluntary activity. This has been especially apparent within Orthodoxy, perhaps because several social realities have resulted in people being far busier and less able to commit themselves. Family size has grown significantly, as have the number of events, organizations and causes. The upshot is that our best people are now check-writers and dinner-attendees and no longer community activists.

Attitudinal forces have exacerbated a worsening situation. The prevailing view is that day school and yeshiva education is a product being sold to consumers who happen to be parents and they should shoulder the burden, not outsiders. There are exceptions, such as schools for Russians and the small number of avowedly kiruv institutions.

Perhaps the Roshei Yeshiva could have rallied the masses, encouraging those who are generous with their time and resources to enlist in Torah Umesorah's behalf. The passing of the outstanding group of yeshiva deans, nearly all of whom were greatly committed to the day school movement, has been an additional burden. The Torah leaders in the generation after the Holocaust were men of exceptional stature who shaped the evolving Torah community and who provided guidance and inspiration, including a strongly positive message about their commitment to Torah Umesorah. Their successors are good and talented men, but still of lessor stature and of diminished capacity to inspire others to act. They are also overburdened, even harassed, by communal obligations, and with few exceptions, their involvement in Torah Umesorah is not as persistent as their predecessors' was.

Toward the end of the book, Dr. Kaminetsky challenges the notion that the day school movement is no more. Torah Umesorah's publications, curriculum material and book fair, its annual convention, the help it provides to schools regarding staff recruitment, its creative role in helping to resolve intra-school and communal disputes are all testimony to its ongoing importance. But the movement isn't the force that it once was if only because it does not have the requisite resources.

The weakening of Torah Umesorah parallels in a way the tshuva phenomenon which, as Dr. Kaminetsky underscores, provides new challenges and opportunities. More generally, the organized American Jewish community is far more favorably inclined to day school education than it used to be. There is a window of opportunity which will not remain permanently open. American Jewry needs the vitality of Torah Umesorah, of the day school movement.

Many - and perhaps most - of the new day schools that have been established in the 1990s are under non-Orthodox auspices and in too many places the existing Torah Umesorah schools feel vulnerable, if not also abandoned.

Torah Umesorah is needed and it needs, in turn, the kind of commitment from within the Orthodox community - from yeshiva deans and lay people - which was so crucial to its glorious accomplishments. It also needs people like Dr. Kaminetsky, rightly described by Torah Umesorah's present Executive Vice President, Rabbi Joshua Fishman, as “a man who gave his heart for the education of Jewish children.”