Friday, December 09, 2005

The Yeshiva on Henry Street

Allen and I came to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on Henry Street on the Lower East Side in November 1943, eight years after our older brother Arthur. Allen is my twin and we were nine, fourth-graders for "English," as secular studies were then called in all yeshivas and the way they are still called in many of our schools.

We were in first grade for Hebrew, a circumstance arising from the sudden death of our father on Purim in 1938 which resulted in our family being dispersed as our mother who had four children ages 3-7 and was left penniless struggled to rebuild her life and make a home in Boro Park for her children.

Our first grade rebbe was Rabbi Nachman Mandel, already a veteran teacher, although he had another sixty years of classroom activity ahead of him before he retired after teaching for about a generation at a Los Angeles yeshiva.

While we progressed nicely, it wasn't easy to adapt to the age differential and this plus my rambunctious nature led to Rabbi Hillel Weiss, RJJ's gifted and devoted principal who had studied with our father at the great yeshiva in Pressburg, telling our mother that another school should have the privilege of educating her precious twins. For four years we were at Toras Emes in Boro Park, a beneficial experience, and then we returned to RJJ for the tenth grade and remained through high school and then for five years in the bais medrash.

By 1943, RJJ was well into its fifth decade. Referred to by its loyalists as "the Mama Yeshiva," it was the oldest Jewish parochial school in continuous operation in North America. There had been good times and bad times, the latter especially during the Depression years when enrollment declined in the small number of American yeshivas and day schools, with some of them being forced to close. Those who survived lived a penurious existence. Several RJJ attempts to establish a high school had floundered because of financial difficulties.

The country had mostly recovered from the Depression by 1943 and RJJ was on a path toward unprecedented growth. The yeshiva was imbued with new vigor, thanks to Rabbi Weiss and talented faculty and staff and a new high school, this despite the enormous decrease in the Jewish population of the Lower East Side.

That decline was hardly evident in the Jewish enclave below Delancey Street. On East Broadway and directly behind RJJ there was the Forward building, the tallest structure on the Lower East Side. The Morning Journal, another Yiddish daily, was published a few doors away. On the corner there was the Garden Cafeteria, then open on Shabbos and therefore unreliable and avoided by yeshiva students, although its food was cheap and inviting.

Seward Park was on the other side of East Broadway, serving as a hangout for yeshiva students playing hookey and as an outdoor gym. It was also a meeting place for the remnants of American Jewish Socialism, old men who would argue about the revolution that wasn`t coming.

We also hung out at the Seward Park Library and spent time at the Educational Alliance, the historic settlement house which then catered almost exclusively to Jews, and where RJJ rented space in the 1950's as its enrollment grew.

All around there were shtiblach, Jewish organizations and signs of a vibant Jewish life. Across the street from RJJ there was Anshe Maimad where exceptional Talmudic scholars who were esteemed in pre-Holocaust Europe but lost on these shores studied, argued and earned a pittance saying Kaddish for those who paid for the privilege.

RJJ itself consisted of a building dating from around 1915, a connecting annex that was built in the 1920's and, separated by a small yard, a renovated high school building that was the gift of the Golding family and which, as I recall, was opened in the early 1950's. Poor maintenance was the common denominator for all of these facilities.

On the corner of Henry Street and Rutgers there was a small playground - it's still there - dedicated in memory of Captain Jacob Joseph, a Marine who was killed in Guadalcanal in 1942. He was the great-grandson of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, New York's only chief rabbi, after whom the yeshiva is named, and the son of Lazarus Joseph, a Democratic Party leader who was a state senator and then New York City's comptroller while being active in RJJ.

The yeshiva was nearly always broke and behind in paying salaries to underpaid faculty and staff. Tuition was low and nonexistent for more than a few students but RJJ also had as officers and directors people of considerable means and reach. I am in my thirty-third year as president - a longer period than any of my more distinguished predecessors - and I have never been able to figure out why the school could not get its financial act together.

In 1943, the United States was at war. Irving M. Bunim, who two years later would become RJJ's president, was intensely engaged in Vaad Hatzala, the notable Orthodox rescue organization. I remember students saying Tehillim on D-Day in June 1944 when the Allies landed in Normandy. I also remember the yeshiva being engulfed in a sea of tears when the news came in April 1945 that President Roosevelt had died. Yet the Holocaust scarcely penetrated the psyche of the yeshiva, reflecting the inability of American Jewry at the time and for much of the generation after the Holocaust to come to grips with the destruction of European Jewry.

By the war's end, the yeshiva world was in transition. Beis medrash or seminary programs were established or enlarged and there were students who continued in kollel after they married. New faculty were hired, many of them refugees from the great European yeshivas that somehow found a sanctuary in Shanghai during the Holocaust. Among the veteran faculty, in RJJ and elsewhere, there was a sprinkling of "Haskalahniks," men who were well educated in Bible, Hebrew and Jewish history, but not particularly observant. This reflected the reality that for much of the first half of the twentieth century there was a limited pool of prospective Judaic teachers.

My second grade Hebrew teacher, Mr. Markoff, taught at RJJ for about fifty years. He was kindly but firm. For the third grade, I had Mr. Reisberg. They taught the fundamentals of dikduk or Hebrew grammar and they and others account for the fact that RJJ students and alumni were generally more adept in Hebrew language and grammar than students at other yeshivas. Less welcome during this period was the willingness of some teachers to hit students, a practice that thankfully is no longer tolerated in our yeshivas and day schools.

RJJ blossomed during the late 1940's and into the 1950's, thanks to the tireless work of Rabbi Weiss who gave fully of his heart, soul and even of his meager financial resources. Through Mr. Bunim, he developed a relatonship with the Great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler, a number of whose students - including Rabbi Mendel Krawiec, who was the highest rosh yeshiva - joined the faculty.

I remember Rav Aharon coming to RJJ, being introduced in awe by Rabbi Weiss and speaking to the students, few of whom understood what he was saying. Yet many were touched by the experience. A number of the familiar pictures of this greatest of Jews ever to set foot in North America are from these talks at RJJ. They show a man who though in his sixties looked close to 100, with a fire glowing from his face. I tremble whenever I look at these pictures and I tremble as I write these lines.

In truth, the quality of the Hebrew Department was uneven. There was a Hebrew Language division that dated back to RJJ's second decade and which justifiably or not was regarded as a place for weaker students or those who did not care. In the main Judaic Division where Yiddish and English were the languages of instruction, there were teachers who couldn't teach. Some were refugees whose level of knowledge was far too high for the students in their classroom and others whose nerves were shot.

These faculty members could not effectively relate to American boys. I can still see the pain etched on the faces of these good men who had lost so much in the Holocaust and who were now lost in an environment that was alien to them.

There were many students who did well, with a significant number going to Lakewood. Some have become noted roshei yeshiva. Of the "non-learners," a great many developed into serious religious lay people who in their adulthood have been more committed to Torah study than they were in yeshiva. In sharp contrast to the present attitude of showing the door to students who do not fully measure up, in the 1940's and 1950's there was greater tolerance and this sense of tolerance has yielded much good fruit over the years.

All of the old religious faculty are gone, with the exception of the saintly Rav Zeidel Epstein, a true tzaddik from his earliest days who well into his tenth decade continues to inspire RJJ alumni.

For all the merit of the religious studies program, at least at the high school level the English Department was the primary magnet, attracting an ever-growing number of students from outside of the Lower East Side. What made this more remarkable was the length of the school day, which ran until 6 p.m., including Sundays. This was arduous, especially for those who traveled as much as two hours a day, but it did allow for a serious and fully developed secular studies program.

Directed by Herman Winter, a remote but capable man, the whole of the secular studies curriculum was greater than the parts. Most of the teachers were good but far from outstanding, with several exceptions, including Joey Gansler, our fabled math teacher. Mr. Winter had been on Stuyvesant High School's faculty and some of its retirees taught at RJJ, with at best mixed results because there were those who were too old and feeble to cope with hyperactive yeshiva boys who by mid-afternoon and later were more than a bit antsy.

What made the English curriculum exceptional was its seriousness and a number of special touches. Although high school enrollment was modest until the early 1950's - my June 1952 graduating class had about two dozen students - there were electives and extra-curricular activities that included a remarkable range of clubs for students to participate in. In a word, what elevated RJJ was an environment that encouraged study.

There were brilliant students, although this would not be evident if we judged by the grades they received. Nowadays, a 90 on the report card for a good student can beget tears and protests, which is understandable as we are in a period of severe grade inflation. RJJ was draconian in grading. There were two semesters per year and three grading periods per semester. Except in reward for spectacular performance, the practice was to give no more than an 85 for the first grading period, 90 for the second and 95 for the final period. I recall that an 85 average was needed to get into the school's coveted Segula or Honor Society.

Grades provide another notable contrast between today's and yesterday's yeshivas. Parents did not complain if their children did not do as well on tests or papers or the report card as the children and/or parents thought they did. There was a different relationship between parents and school. Unlike today when many parents act as surrogate big brothers and sisters to their children and help with or do the homework, children then did their own work and parents were largely thankful that their kids were in a yeshiva and respected what the school and teachers decided.

RJJ parents were also grateful because there were special manifestations of chesed - of tzedakah and kindness. In addition to the caring and dignified tuition policy, many students were provided with free clothing and food. There was the special project conceived and funded by Joseph Applebaum and continued to this day by his family of distributing kosher food to needy families before Pesach. Camp Deal, now named Camp Dora Golding after its great benefactor, added another touch of caring as RJJ boys were given two wonderful weeks at the handsome sleep-away camp.

Yet, already in our time, the yeshiva was in decline. Further Jewish population losses on the Lower East Side contributed to this, as did the establishment of yeshivas and day schools wherever religious Jews lived in significant numbers. The sudden death of Rabbi Weiss in 1954, was the turning point in RJJ's fortunes. He held the yeshiva together and when he passed away, the atmosphere changed for the worse.

Yeshivas are fragile institutions, bereft of the bureaucratic layers and processes that cushion against the damage that can result from internal conflict. I will not detail here what occurred after Rabbi Weiss's death and it is likely that I never will. But a high cost was exacted as faculty, administrators and even lay people contributed to the potent brew.

The yeshiva was at once fortunate and harmed because lay officers and directors were intensely involved in its operations. This is a final contrast between the yeshiva world in an earlier period and today's pattern. The steep decline in volunteerism throughout American life is reflected in our schools and other institutions.

When I left RJJ in 1957, feelings of hakoras hatov - gratitude - were accompanied by feelings of hurt over what I had witnessed. Although I was already knee-deep in communal activity, Henry Street was not much on my mind. Nor would it be for another fifteen years, when Mr. Bunim, exhausted from his valiant effort to keep the yeshiva going, called to say that RJJ was in a state of collapse and asked me to come into the picture.

A latent sense of hakoras hatov and the belief that I could salvage from the remnants of Henry Street enough to build Torah education elsewhere led to my becoming the yeshiva's president. A third of a century later I am still doing my best to keep the best of Henry Street alive.