Monday, November 07, 2005

Johnny and Joey

When across the span of two full generations a student who has achieved scholarly eminence recognizes the influence of a teacher, the glorious fruit of educational excellence are revealed. Shortly before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, Robert Aumann - Johnny in his student days and to his friends - was interviewed by an admiring Hebrew University colleague for a fascinating long piece that has been published in Macroeconomics Dynamics.

Asked at the outset to identify "the milestones on your scientific route," he responded, "My interest in mathematics actually started in high school - the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva on the lower east side of New York City. There was a marvelous teacher of mathematics, by the name of Joseph Gansler. The classes were very small; the high school had just started operating. He used to gather the students around his desk. What really turned me on was geometry, theorems and proofs. So all the credit belongs to Joey Gansler." This is thrilling to old RJJers, adding to the enormous pride in the recognition being given to Johnny Aumann. Joey Gansler was a masterful teacher and also quite idiosyncratic, the subject of stories and jokes told by students long after they last sat in his classroom. His life ended tragically and yet Professor Aumann's tribute makes us understand that his teaching brought forth extraordinary fruit.

I am in my thirty-third year as RJJ's president - only the fourth in the school's on--hundred and six years - and the responsibility is difficult and voluntary. My focus here is not on the recent period but on the years immediately after the Holocaust when despite great improbability, RJJ rose to greatness, the lesson once more being that people of devotion and talent can overcome long odds. Doubtlessly, this assessment is not shared by all who attended the school in the 1940's and 1950's, yet it is close to the mark, especially when we consider that all educational enterprises have shortcomings. Inevitably, there were flaws, and yet there was a great deal that worked in a truly impressive way.

What was improbable about RJJ's achievements in the 1940's and 1950's? Enrollment in the 1940's was below what it had been thirty years earlier. Previous efforts to establish a high school had ended in failure, primarily because of a lack of funds. Certainly, there was little money in the till. Faculty were badly underpaid and they were not paid on time. The Lower East Side was way past its prime. It was hard to recruit top-flight educational leaders. The school's new principal was Rabbi Dr. Hillel Weiss, a late 1930's refugee from Germany. He was an imposing man but how could he run a school for American boys, much less mold it into an outstanding institution?

That's exactly what he did. This exceptional noble man turned out to be a great educational leader. He was a person of integrity and good judgment. He recruited some talented people and he was aided by an enormously dedicated staff, including Louis Sternfield and Hyman Brill on the educational side and Abraham Block and Samuel Bernstein in the office. RJJ somehow scaled the heights and its reputation grew. Students came from across the metropolitan area - quite a few from Borough Park, Johnny Aumann and me among them - and many were attracted by the excellence of the academic program directed by Herman Winter, the "English Principal" and a Stuyvesant High School faculty member who recruited effective teachers, including Joey Gansler.

RJJ's new stature was at least as pronounced on the religious education side as Rabbi Weiss worked closely with Irving M. Bunim, my predecessor as RJJ's president and an outstanding lay leader of the emerging American Orthodox community. Mr. Bunim's close relationship with Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the transcendent religious leader who established the great yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, contributed importantly to RJJ's achievements. Torah scholars, nearly all of them refugees from the Holocaust, were added to the faculty. For years, a significant proportion of Lakewood's stellar students came from RJJ.

This, too, was an improbable outcome. How could these new faculty members who were certainly Talmudic scholars but who scarcely spoke English relate to American students who were meshuga about baseball and other alien pursuits? In truth, at times they did not and the results were not always salutary from either a religious or educational standpoint. Yet, there was abundant success and it is evident today because in the world of Torah scholarship there is a significant cadre of RJJ alumni who have made their mark. This is, of course, true also of alumni who have achieved prominence in academia and other fields.

Well into the interview, Johnny Aumann was asked, "who are the people who have most influenced your life?" After speaking about his family, especially his remarkable mother, and then mentioning once more Joey Gansler, he said, "On the Jewish side, the high school teacher who influenced me most was Rabbi Shmuel Warshavchik. He had spent the years of the Second World War with the Mir Yeshiva in China, having escaped from the Nazis; after the war he made his way to the United States. He had a tremendous influence on me. He attracted me to the beauty of Talmudic study and the beauty of religious observance… Warshavchik's enthusiasm and intensity - the fire in his eyes - lit a fire in me also."

Fifty years after I was in his shiur, I continue to feel the warmth of Rabbi Warshavchik, an elegant man who was a devoted and excellent teacher who like other Talmudic scholars who were refugees served as a spiritual link between the great pre-Holocaust yeshivas and the yeshivas that were taking root on American soil. There was a special chemistry to RJJ in these years and it means much that Johnny Aumann at the peak of his fame has helped to bring back memories of a truly glorious experience.