Tuesday, May 29, 2007

RJJ Newsletter - May 2007

Last year, I conducted an advocacy campaign on behalf of yeshivas and day schools. One of the messages was a full-page ad in the Jewish Press asking parents who had the means to do so to join together and provide Pesach bonuses to those who teach Torah to their children. That effort largely fell on deaf ears, perhaps because a good number of those who had the resources to provide help were busy preparing for their expensive trip to one or another hotel for the holiday. I can more readily understand why people go to hotels for Pesach than I can understand why it occurs to so few that underpaid teachers merit special assistance. Pesach bonuses are a rarity in yeshivas and day schools and that’s a shame, especially in view of the spreading affluence in our ranks.

What is at work, in a way, is an extension of the attitude that I constantly challenge in these bi-monthly exercises and in other writings. We have come to regard the schools that provide basic Torah education as a low tzedakah priority. If few of us are willing to help the schools, why should we expect that those who teach in them will be helped? In short, neglect breeds additional neglect.

Although it is unintended, we are enmeshed in a certain callousness. It is not that a conscious decision is made not to help the faculty. Rather, the issue is not considered. It is off the radar screen of Orthodox life. Pesach trips are on the radar screen, as are foolish trips by the tens of thousands to European destinations and other items on our expanding list of expensive self-indulgence. We do not realize the extent to which hedonism has become our false religion.

We must begin to open our hearts and pockets by assisting those who teach Torah. It is remarkable that the new Orthodox affluence coincides with the worsening of the economic position of many yeshiva and day school faculty members. Yeshiva salaries have always been low and they have stagnated in recent years, this at a time when tuition has risen significantly and scholarship assistance has declined. Salary stagnation is incongruous, yet it is the inevitable result of contributions being a declining share of the typical yeshiva budget. In the recent period, there has been a substantial escalation in the costs of insurance, energy, security and other fixed expenses. There is little in the till to pay for salary increases.

In my early years as the yeshiva’s president, a rebbe retired and the question arose about his severance pay, which at the time was set at $15,000. One board member objected to this payment. I said to him, “have you ever made an investment and after a number of years your broker called saying that he can sell at a $15,000 profit and you responded that $15,000 is chickenfeed?” The fellow retracted his opposition. Perhaps some of today’s yeshiva-world affluent would reflect on the situation of women teachers who earn $20,000 – and often less – and have family responsibilities. Perhaps they would think more about rebbes, many of whom earn below $40,000.

I am proud of what we at RJJ have done twice a year to give a little extra to our religious studies faculty. In other ways, as well, we have been caring to those who serve the yeshiva with devotion. I calculate that apart from bonuses, we have spent well over one-million dollars on severance pay and unfunded pension payments to retired faculty. In turn, we have been repaid in kind by the appreciation that these people have shown to us.

For all that we have done, we do not do enough. After the last Newsletter appeared, I was asked why we do not include those who teach secular studies. A good part of the answer is that we do not have the funds to cover the entire faculty. At least for some who teach these subjects, the answer is not good enough. Hopefully, the next time we ask parents and friends to join in what we are doing, the response will be greater and this will allow us to expand this vital project.

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Manny Reich was the youngest and perhaps the brightest in a group of outstanding RJJ alumni who were known as “Mr. Dukas’ Boys,” a reference to our second president who was an eminent lay leader of American Jewry in the early decades of the last century. These boys attended RJJ on Henry Street about ninety years ago and after graduation they went to a short-lived dormitory yeshiva high school that was established by Mr. Dukas at Congregation Zichron Ephraim, now known as the Park East Synagogue, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Mr. Dukas was also president of this shul.

This experience forged in these boys a loyalty to RJJ that has not been matched by any other group of alumni. I remember the winter day about twenty years ago when about ten of these now elderly men trudged to the Edison Mesivta to dedicate a plaque in memory of their beloved Mr. Dukas.

After graduation, Manny went to college and then to law school. He worked for a time for the Gottesman family, which brought him into close contact with Mendel Gottesman, another remarkable figure in American Jewish life, and this led to his involvement in Yeshiva College. Manny played a key role in its early years.

At some point he went into business on his own and he was successful. Many of our board meetings took place at his office on Seventh Avenue, across from Penn Station. In every way possible he supported and encouraged what we were doing.

Ultimately, the business was closed. It became evident that there was much pain in Manny’s life. His final years were at Aishel Avraham, a nursing home/assisted living facility in Williamsburg that is operated by a chassidic group. He liked it there but he became blind. I believe that in the last several years of his life I was the only non-family member to visit him regularly, along with my friend Didi Levitan.

By then, a granddaughter whom he was close to had married and was living in Tucson, Arizona. Ten years ago, she gave birth to a son and although she was not observant, she and Manny wanted a bris and asked for my help in arranging one. I contacted the local Chabad rabbi who was enormously helpful. Subsequently, I lost contact with the granddaughter, as she moved from Tucson. She called before Pesach, asking if I remembered her, and said that she now had a second son and was living in Las Vegas. With evident joy she told me that both boys were enrolled in a chabad day school and that she was also teaching a bit at the school. My joy equaled hers because of what Manny meant to RJJ. Manny’s spirit is now linked to the living, in fulfillment of what we say when a righteous Jew departs from this world, החיים בצרור צרורה נפשו תהא.