Thursday, June 27, 2013
I have completed forty years as president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. In 1973, we were in our death throes after nearly three-quarters of a century on the Lower East Side. From 1957 when I received smicha (ordination) until 1973, I had scant contact with the Yeshiva. Several twists of fate reconnected me with RJJ and forty years ago I acceded to the plea of Irving M. Bunim and the old board of directors that I become president, thinking at the time that this acceptance would fulfill the final request made of me by the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler, ztl, more than a decade earlier. Shortly before he died and shortly before I was married, he asked that I devote my life to assisting Torah institutions. In a way, I knew what I was getting into. The evidence of RJJ’s decline was everywhere, including a huge debt and few students. But as is true of nearly all relationships, until one is there it is difficult to grasp the total situation. There are always surprises and unanticipated challenges. With respect to RJJ, a number of the problems we faced were worse than I had anticipated. The greatest surprise concerned fundraising, meaning how difficult it turned out to be. I had had some experience fundraising on a voluntary basis and I had no problem asking people to contribute. I reckoned that I would be successful in my new responsibility, which then and now was voluntary, because RJJ had tons of alumni, many of them successful. The response, especially from younger alumni, was stunning. There was an avalanche of criticism of RJJ, the thrust being that few people I spoke to had fond recollections of their years at the Yeshiva. The constant refrain was that this rebbi or teacher did not treat a student properly or that, more generally, the school was not an outstanding educational institution. Of course, there were some who did appreciate what RJJ did for them, whether doing for them meant accepting the student irrespective of the family’s ability to pay little or no tuition or whether it meant appreciation of a good education. In my second year as president, we relocated to Staten Island and that engendered a new round of complaints which resonates to this day, the argument being that RJJ died when we left Henry Street and that retaining the name on Staten Island had no real meaning as anyone could construct and erect a sign. My response that in this dynamic world institutions move frequently and even change their mission scarcely served as an effective rejoinder. As all human experience is dialectical, there was a beneficial aspect to the difficulty I encountered because it bred a powerful incentive to establish an endowment. When we sold the Henry Street property for a shockingly low figure because there was no market for it and the buildings were being vandalized, I insisted that the proceeds be used to establish an endowment, this despite our still being heavily in debt. We later decided that bequests would not go toward the operating budget but would be added to the endowment. The income from this fund is a significant factor in our ability to meet our obligations. The negative feeling of some alumni, as well as others whom I approached for support, provided insight into how yeshivas and day schools are often perceived by those who attended them and, more broadly, by members of our community. There is a negativism toward these vital institutions that is at once undeserved and extremely harmful. To an extent, my reaction toward this negativism has informed my involvement in the Avi Chai Foundation which has accomplished much that is beneficial to the yeshiva and day school world. For all of the critical comments, there were persons who were willing to help, mostly through modest contributions that were often accompanied by words of encouragement. Few of the cadre of original contributors remain. Inevitably, the passage of many years has taken a toll. I can still see in the eye of my mind the faces of older alumni who were overjoyed by the knowledge that RJJ continued to live, that RJJ would once more make a significant contribution to religious Jewish life. There were, to be sure, difficulties during these forty years. There also has been great reward. On the cold winter night in February 1973 when I reconnected with RJJ – I became president several months later – I met Eli Feit, an alumnus who had recently graduated law school and joined a small well-respected firm. There were critical issues to be faced, some of a legal nature, and Eli quickly became the Yeshiva’s attorney, the understanding being that he would never be paid for his work. He still is our attorney and although he is now handling two major matters for us, the original arrangement remains in place. His contribution to what RJJ has achieved is enormous. Eli’s effectiveness as a lawyer is matched by his goodness, by his inherent modesty. As I reflect on these forty years, my gratitude towards Eli has no bounds. For more than a generation, Joseph Applebaum who graduated RJJ around 1920 provided substantial financial support. He was entirely responsible for our yearly effort to assist needy Jews before Pesach. Years before 1973, he and Leila and the children moved to Miami Beach. He continued to be a major contributor. However, he felt that RJJ’s stunning decline was a betrayal and, when I became president, he said he would no longer contribute. With much reluctance, he agreed to see me and so I met with him in Florida. He was adamant and added a new twist to his complaint: As a student, he had poor eyesight and therefore did not do well at school because the Yeshiva had never arranged for him to be tested and provided with eyeglasses. I said to him, “Mr. Applebaum, you are right. We failed you. Had we gotten you eyeglasses you would have been a terrific student and after you graduated you would have taken the test for the Post Office. Because you are smart, you would have scored high and become a postal employee and because you are diligent you would have risen in the ranks, doubtlessly becoming the local Postmaster. Mr. Applebaum, how much will you contribute to RJJ for rescuing you from a life in the Post Office?” He laughed and immediately wrote a check for $20,000 and then gave even more. He passed away too early. Leila Applebaum and her brother Warren A. Weiss, an eminent lawyer, have maintained Joe Applebaum’s noble legacy. There is, for me, the added bonus of Warren Weiss’s friendship. I have mentioned the Avi Chai Foundation which was established by Zalman Bernstein, of blessed memory, a remarkable man with a heart of gold that was the antithesis of his gruff exterior. He added RJJ to the long list of causes that he supported. When he passed away, his great charitable commitments became the responsibility primarily of Arthur W. Fried, a wonderful friend, who like Zalman had made Aliyah. Arthur directed that a significant gift be given to RJJ and this helped further build the endowment. First under Zalman and then through the leadership of Arthur and now Mem Bernstein, the Avi Chai Foundation has provided in many ways extraordinary assistance to the day school world, including via an interest-free loan program to facilitate day school construction. I play a key role in this project. Arthur’s friendship is a blessing, a gift that keeps on giving. I pray that he and Susan will be blessed with health and abundant simcha and nachas. The relationship that I have had with contributors means a great deal to them and to me. When acknowledging contributions, there is no form letter, but rather a personal acknowledgement of the gift. A contribution of $50 from a person of modest means is as deserving of an expression of gratitude as is a much larger gift coming from an affluent person. When a contribution comes from someone who has not been asked and did not contribute previously, my practice is to reach out to that person. About a decade ago, we received a nice contribution in memory of Irving M. Bunim. This gift has led to a relationship with Paul Isaac, a remarkably wise and good man who has become a friend and a person whom I turn to for guidance. His support has been crucial to what we have achieved in recent years. I hope that I will be granted the opportunity to repay his many kindnesses. There are, of course, others who have helped in an important way. I hope that their omission by name from these reflections on my forty years as president will not be taken as an indication of a lack of gratitude. My RJJ responsibilities are as a lay person and therefore my role is limited. Much of what is of importance at our schools is off-limits to lay persons, including curriculum, hiring and retention of faculty and, more generally, how the schools are run on a daily basis. This is the way it should be. If I have one regret, however, about these forty years it is the severe limits that I have encountered, understandable as they may be, on my role in the admission, retention and disciplining of students. For all of what we can celebrate about Torah institutions and their centrality in building religious Jewish life in North America, as a rule they are enveloped in cultural norms that too often are too harsh toward children who, after all, come in different physical, intellectual, behavioral and emotional sizes. They aren’t perfect and some are far from perfect. What they share is that they deserve the opportunity to grow, to improve, and to make a useful contribution to Jewish continuity and to our society. Children need to be given a chance and after they have been given a chance they need to be given another chance and yet at least a third chance. Here is why I feel so strongly about this. My twin brother, Allen, and I were enrolled in RJJ in November 1943 in the third month of the school year. We were nine years and four months old, so that we were fourth graders. We had never been in a yeshiva, a circumstance arising from the sudden death in 1938 of our father, a synagogue rabbi in Manhattan. Our mother was left penniless and with four very young children. Allen and I were placed in an orphans home while our mother rebuilt her life and was able to provide for us. The family was fully united in November 1943 and we immediately came to RJJ where our older brother Arthur was already a student. Rabbi Hillel Weiss of blessed memory, RJJ’s menahel or principal, accepted us and placed us in the first grade for Judaic classes. There we were, two nine-year old boys in a classroom where all of the other students were three or four years younger. To add to our difficulty, we were difficult students. There were behavioral issues because Allen and I clung to each other for dear life. We endured in that first grade because of Rabbi Nachman Mandel of blessed memory, about whom I have written in this Newsletter. To this day, I can strongly sense his love, his patience, his caring for his students. We somehow made it. But if the attitude that has prevailed for far too long in too many yeshivas and day schools would have prevailed in Allen’s and my experience, we would not have made it. We would have been expelled and almost certainly we would have been lost to Jewish life and we would have been emotionally wounded. After more than sixty years of service to the world of Torah education, I am constantly saddened by the attitude of too many Torah educators toward “difficult” students. RJJ now has five schools. Geography has something to do with this, as we did not establish our Mesivta and Beth Medrash on Staten Island because we did not want to seem to compete with the fine yeshiva established on Staten Island by Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl. We therefore went to Edison, NJ, which inevitably meant that the separate schools would go on their separate ways and there would be little linkage, other than what I might provide. A second explanation is that our community is diverse. One size does not fit all and certainly not in Torah education. There are families that only want an intensive religious program, such as the one provided in Edison, and there are Orthodox families with a different orientation. Although we started out modestly on Staten Island with an elementary school level Boys Yeshiva, when the local Beth Jacob School for Girls was closed by its “owner” who looked at Torah education as a profit center, we stepped in and opened the Girls School. Later, when the Jewish Foundation School which actually had preceded RJJ on Staten Island was in a state of collapse, RJJ came to the rescue, despite JFS being a coeducational day school and we had never been a provider of coeducation. The continued existence of JFS is something that I am most proud of because it has meant a stronger Jewish future for many hundreds of its graduates. Our fifth school is the Staten Island Hebrew Academy which has just concluded its second year. Its mission is to educate second and third-generation Russian Jewish families that have relocated to Staten Island. Its Judaic curriculum is lighter than JFS’s, which adds to our diversity. I believe that SIHA will make a strong contribution to Jewish continuity. This multi-school arrangement is unique and certainly unprecedented in the American Jewish experience and perhaps unprecedented in Jewish history. I recognize that diversity does not sell everywhere within our community, that there are persons who do not contribute because they do not like the mission of this or that RJJ school or because they have a complaint about something that happened at one of our schools. I need to mention the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and express gratitude to Rabbi Avrohom Cohen, a close friend who has been its editor since its inception thirty-three years ago. The Journal has made a notable contribution to our religious life and although in common with many scholarly publications, the number of subscribers has declined because of the Internet, we are determined to continue this noteworthy project. I am uncertain whether this Newsletter which appears six times a year can be described as a publication. After all, it is xeroxed on very plain paper which makes it the antithesis to the glossy material routinely sent out by organizations and institutions. Its readership is small. Yet I am proud of the Newsletter and much effort goes into preparing each issue. It serves as an opportunity to discuss issues in Jewish life and education. These are my reflections on forty years as RJJ’s president. For all of the intensity of my commitment and for all that we may have achieved, this is a small canvas in the vast and rich unfolding of Jewish life. There are many who have served on a larger and probably more important stage and there have been times when I have wondered how all of this befell me. But I do feel grateful that I have been able to serve. I know that what RJJ has achieved during these forty years has made a difference, a difference in our community and a difference in many homes. The testimony is provided by more than five-thousand graduates during these forty years, many of whom have already made meaningful contributions to Jewish and American life. Without our presence, the Jewish community of Staten Island community would not be what it has become. This is not a small reward for the effort I have made. The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School is not my only communal commitment. Communal activity has been central for more than sixty years. I do not know whether it is possible to have this commitment and yet adequately fulfill one’s family responsibilities. This is not for me to judge. I can judge the great fortune that I have in Malka and my children, the enormous pride I have in their commitments and all of the good they have achieved. Malka teaches twelfth grade English at the main Beth Jacob High School in Borough Park. Each year, she has more than one-hundred and twenty students, an extraordinary number for a teacher whose mission is to develop the writing skills of those who are in her charge. Her dedication is amazing and inspiring and yet it is matched by the skill that she brings to her important responsibilities. She is a blessing for me and all of our family.