Wednesday, December 12, 2001

A Reply and an Appeal

This column, about which I am already uncomfortable, is essentially a response to a note that I received and an appeal for support for the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. I am in my 28th year as RJJ’s president – a voluntary position – and only the fifth president in our 102 years. I can say that my predecessors have been persons of distinction.

RJJ publishes the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, a scholarly semi-annual publication devoted to an analysis of modern-day issues in the context of religious Jewish law. This is a successful project in that it has an impressive subscriber base and is well received. Volume 42 was recently published. The Journal is but one of our special projects for we also support the publication of important scholarly books through the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press and provide food for the Jewish poor before Pesach. Since the Journal loses money and, besides, RJJ’s four schools certainly need philanthropic support, it is my practice to enclose a fundraising letter in the Rosh Hashanah issue.

In this year’s letter, I wrote that our situation is difficult because of the economic downturn and “also because I have found it necessary to devote a significant proportion of my time to helping yeshivas and day schools around the country. RJJ has suffered as a consequence.” One subscriber returned the letter, underlying the quoted portion with a yellow marker and attached a post-it averring that “I didn’t find this paragraph inspiring” and “to put that in a letter and then ask for $ is inappropriate. Please address this in your next letter.” The next letter is eight months off and since the writer did not include a name, this column serves as a reply.

I suppose that the writer has a point, although it could have been made in a more sensitive way. There are community leaders aplenty who devote themselves nearly entirely to a single cause for which they have accepted responsibility. They rarely roam far a field or accept new challenges. They reason that they have a job to do and other tasks should not interfere. There’s much to be said for this approach, if only because of the benefits that usually accrue to the institutions that are led by people who give it all they’ve got.

The RJJ tradition is to be engaged. Samuel Andron, the key person in the family that founded the school in late 1899 and RJJ’s first president, was one of the founders of what is now Yeshiva University. Jacob Dukas, his successor, was the head of the Hebrew Free Loan Society and a good deal else, while Joseph Golding and Irving Bunim were widely respected as outstanding community leaders who devoted themselves to a multiplicity of causes. And so I am following in rather respectable footsteps. More importantly to me, for fifty years I have been inspired by the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, Rabbi Aharon Kottler of blessed memory, the transcendent Torah leader of the past two generations. He had the burden of his own yeshiva yet he embraced other daunting responsibilities, here and in Israel. Lakewood was hurt financially because of this.

I have tried to follow the example of Rabbi Kottler because I believe that that is what he wanted of me. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to write with grace about one’s community activity. I will simply say that I have always been involved in an array of causes and activities. What has changed in recent years is that there have been additional challenges and responsibilities, including research and writing and an exhausting effort to assist other schools, many projects and activities outside of the United States.

The fact that RJJ has been hurt is not a sufficient reason for anyone else to care. Each cause must stand on its own merit. Our four schools and 1,100 students form an arrangement that I believe is unprecedented in American Jewish life. There are two core schools on Staten Island, separately for boys and girls, and an advanced dormitory yeshiva and Beth Medrash in Edison, New Jersey that is regarded as one of the best in the country. The fourth school is the Jewish Foundation School, a co-educational day school on Staten Island that was in danger of collapse because of a mountain of debt. To prevent its closing, in an extraordinary act of communal altruism RJJ assumed full responsibility for all of the debt, which has been paid in full. RJJ has also maintained the school’s mission and character and strengthened its program.

This is remarkable when we consider that the educational philosophies of the two institutions were widely divergent, even incompatible. The truth is that we weakened ourselves – financially and in other ways – to assist a Jewish school whose loss would have deprived many hundreds of children of the Jewish education they needed. It is also the fulfillment of what should be the guiding principal in religious Jewish education, chanoch l’naar al pi darcho. Children should be educated according to the ways that provide for their advancement.

During the year that this column has appeared, I have received hundreds of communications, some asking how they could help my work. These inquiries have added to my willingness, albeit in a state of discomfort, to ask readers to assist RJJ.

I began this column on a flight from Russia, concluding a difficult nine-day trip whose sole purpose was to look at Jewish life and to recommend how philanthropic assistance might be effective, particularly in the educational domain. I hope that the trip, which came at a crucial time for RJJ, will result in much benefit.

I hope as well that there will be readers who will provide support for an institution that has been a treasure of American Jewish life for more than a century, for an institution that welcomes the challenge of being vibrant in its second century.

Contributions can be sent to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, 350 Broadway, Room 300, New York, NY 10013.