Back in the late 50s, I went to an afternoon Hebrew School, called Talmud Torah Beth Solomon. We went Sunday through Thursday, two hours a day. It was a six-year program, and, theoretically, one could then advance to Hebrew Teachers College in Brookline during High School. I left after five years to play football for Lincoln Junior High School. I wasn’t very good, but the team was; we went undefeated. Getting yelled at by Coach D, and beaten up by larger teammates was an improvement over Hebrew School.
I know I learned how to read Hebrew. We brought a dime every week from the beginning of school for 10 weeks. We, then put a leaf sticker on a chart. On Tu B’Shvat we got a certificate stating that a tree had been planted in Israel. It was cool until they force fed us bokser, a hardened, inedible version of carob or St. John’s bread. Okay, that’s about all I remember.
That was the state of Jewish education in Malden, MA in the 50s.
Actually, this school had been a ground breaking innovation. It was founded by Rabbi Dov Ber Baruchoff (1873-1939). He came from Lithuania to be the rav of Cong. Beth Israel in 1906, and founded the Hebrew School the next year. After Boston formed a Board of Jewish Education in 1910, the school became a community Hebrew School, and served six Orthodox Shuls.
It was a valiant effort, but, ultimately, it wasn’t the solution to the following problem: How can we raise a next generation of knowledgeable, dedicated Jews?
So, how could we educate Jewish kids, so that Judaism and mitzva observance would have a future in America?
Rabbi Zev Leff, formerly of North Miami Beach and now of Moshav Matiyahu, and a magnificent Torah educator and communicator, explained to me what the key was:
Education, without a doubt. There were more Day Schools and then more High Schools. This had a tremendous impact. Education was the main catalyst, but Jewish schools became fashionable. They did a great job of presenting themselves as excellent educational institutions. Torah U’Mesora gets a lot of the credit. Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky (1911-99), Dr. Nulman, Dr. Goldberg, and others deserve a lot of the credit for their tireless efforts to build Jewish schools all over America.
He’s right, of course.
Torah U’mesorah or the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools was founded by Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz (1886-1948) in 1944. He came to America in 1913, and taught in a Hebrew School in Scranton PA until 1920. Then he moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Soon he founded Yeshivat Torah V’Daath, but he was not content with a major high school and yeshiva in Brooklyn. He helped in the founding of Mesivta Chaim Berlin (Brooklyn, 1935, the yeshiva itself had existed since 1905), Telz (Cleveland, 1941) and Yeshiva Gevohah (Lakewood, 1943).
Rav Mendlowitz sent resources of cash, teachers and, even, students to help these other institutions get going.
He was a powerhouse. In spite of ill health, he worked tirelessly for spreading Torah education in American and beyond. He famously helped to set up schools wherever there were refugees after the War. In the words of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein:
Were it not for him, there would be no Torah study and no Fear of Heaven at all in America.
Actually, my hometown of Malden comes back into the picture. To help fund Torah U’Mesorah, Rav Mendlowitz convinced Samuel Fuerstein to be its first president. He held office until his death in 1983. Fuerstein, of course, owned Malden Knitting Mills. This was the first shomer Shabbat factory in America, and I worked there for a couple of summers. Eventually, the mills moved out of Malden and became famous in 1995 when, then owner, Aaron Fuerstein kept the workers on payroll after a horrific fire.
But Rav Mendlowitz formed a formidable organization. He partnered with Dr Joseph Kaminetsky (1911-1999), who worked for Tora U’mesorah for 35 years. Dr. Joe became famous for saying that his goal was to have a Jewish Day School in every community with 5,000 Jews. He came close, by travelling to every community that he believed could support a Day School.
Of course, there were wonderful local individual who put time and money into these schools. It wasn’t easy recruiting. People had to be convinced that their secular education wouldn’t be hurt. In Stamford, CT, Walter Shuchatowitz (1927-2019) had the brilliant idea to call his school, Bi-Cultural Day School. Parents didn’t feel that the American Dream would be threatened. It worked.
And so did all the efforts of the Torah U’Mesorah Movement.
Now for a just few stats. In 1944, when Torah U’Mesorah started there were 9,000 kids in 70 Jewish Day Schools in 21 communities around America. By 1964 (the last date in the great accounting of these stats by Alvin Schiff, and also about the time that we noticed that Orthodoxy was awakening), 65,400 students, in 306 schools, in 117 communities. By 1975, the numbers reached 425 Orthodox day schools, 135 of them high schools, with an enrollment approximated at 82,000. Not too shabby!
I met a number of the people with whom Rav Mendlowitz worked: Dr Joe, Samuel Feurstein (or SF, as we called him in the factory), Rabbi Alexander ‘Sender’ Gross, and Irving Bunim. I wish that I had realized, when I encountered them, how great my debt to them really was, but I was young and oblivious.
If by the 70’s we had a younger generation better educated than its predecessor, we had Rabbi Mendlowitz and his cohorts to thank. And when one met this great rabbi, scholar, teacher and builder, what did he say, ‘Please, call me Mr. Mendlowitz.’ As our Sages taught, ‘Where you find greatness, you find humility.’
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