As I entered the store and saw the six-foot-high pyramid of loose-leaf paper, I knew a rite of August, getting the children ready for school, was here. That stack and the surrounding school supplies made me think back to the August of 1979 when my wife and I prepared to send our oldest child, Alisa, to kindergarten.
It was a hot summer and we belonged to the Cabana Club in West Orange, New Jersey. It was a great place for young parents with young children because, in addition to a large swimming pool and places to sit in the shade, it provided a children’s day camp from Tuesday through Sunday. While the cabanas were named after faded hotels in Miami Beach and were faded themselves, everything got a fresh coat of paint before the summer began. There was a screened-in cafeteria snack bar where it seemed that grilled cheese sandwiches with French fries were the house specialty.
Day camp began with your children standing in a big square. The national anthem was sung followed by the Cabana Club song. (Many parents still remember the words.) Then off to their groups they went and the parents went on their own way.
For the women, Mah Jongg games were set up in long established clusters and shouts of three bam, two crack and flower soon could be heard. Cabana boys scurried from table to table bringing iced whipped coffee from the snack bar to the women. On the weekends, some of the men played cards, others tennis, still others napped in lounge chairs in the shade. To young parents, nothing in suburbia could have felt more luxurious.
It was one late August afternoon that Rosalyn called me at the law firm where I worked in New York City and asked when I was coming home. She knew I took the 6:20 PM train from Hoboken, so I told her I should be home about 7. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Your daughter,” she said, “is driving me crazy.” We had two daughters, Alisa the oldest at 4, and Gail, at 2, but when I heard the “your daughter,” I knew she meant Alisa.
When I asked her what was going on, all Rosalyn would say is “wait until you get home.”
Following dinner, we sat in the den and I asked Alisa, “what are you driving Mommy crazy about?”
“Where am I going to kindergarten?”
I reminded Alisa that I had taken her to the public school named after our neighborhood, Pleasantdale, conveniently located around the corner from our home and that she had registered for kindergarten.
“You’re going to the Pleasantdale School,” I said.
She looked at me and her mother and said, “No I’m not, I’m going to a Jewish school with my friend Becky and Mommy has to call Becky’s mommy tonight to find out about because I’m not going to the Pleasantdale School.” And she walked out of the room.
We were young parents and we knew that we could not take marching orders from a 4-year-old. So, Rosalyn waited until the next day to call Becky’s mom to find out about the “Jewish school” her daughter was going to.
It turned out Becky was going to a yeshiva in West Caldwell, a few miles from our home. And two days later, Rosalyn and I are taking a tour of the facility with the yeshiva’s principal Rabbi Wallace Greene.
Rabbi Greene was extolling the virtues of a day school education as we toured the building and, when we returned to his office, he asked if we had any questions. As Rabbi Greene had been talking about giving Alisa an Orthodox Jewish education, a thought ran through my mind. Sure, Rosalyn lit Shabbat candles every Friday night, I said Kiddush, but sometimes it was already dark when I got home. On Saturday mornings, I liked to bond with my daughters. It wasn’t really called “bonding” then, it was “who wants to go to the hardware store with Daddy?”
So, I asked Rabbi Greene if sending Alisa to yeshiva would change my lifestyle. He leaned back in his big chair then leaned towards us and said, “No.” I like to say he lied, but truly cannot because I asked the wrong question. I asked him if a school could change a lifestyle and over the years, Wally has told me that had I asked if the education that Alisa would bring home would one day change our lifestyle, his answer would have been “Yes.”
Yes, we did change our lifestyle. But not because a kindergarten student told us to. We did it because we were fortunate to realize that if you are going to educate your child in the ways of Torah, you should be willing to learn too. It was the education that Alisa brought home and shared with her parents that became the blueprint for her four younger siblings, too.
Yes, Alisa’s education was a paradigm shift for her mother and father and not everything was easy. Many times over the years I thought “what have we gotten ourselves into?” But the rewards are many and are still being reaped today 38 years after that conversation and 22 years since Alisa’s murder in a terror attack.
This week, Alisa’s family of 10 adults and 16 nephews and nieces were at the Kotel to watch the two oldest boys, Jordie and Chaim, put on their tefillin for the first time. I remembered with a big smile that summer evening conversation with Alisa, and accept the fact that our children can be teachers, too. And I’m sure that Alisa’s smile was just as big.