Much of our attention and concern these days is focused on the explosive increase in antisemitism. In November alone, there was a 125% increase in antisemitic hate crimes in New York City. Also alarming is the continued increase of intermarriage rates, particularly outside of the Orthodox community. While 98% of Orthodox Jews marry Jewish, among non-Orthodox, 72% are marrying a non-Jew.
While resources and efforts are understandably being directed to fighting antisemitism and outreach efforts to stop intermarriage, we must never neglect “in-reach” or take retention in the observant community for granted. While people leave Orthodoxy for all sorts of reasons, some of which are complicated and difficult to solve, one of them should be relatively easy to eliminate – the inability to afford Jewish education.
As long as there have been Jewish Day schools there have been families struggling to pay tuition. Fortunately, though, there have also always been remarkable people devoted to Jewish education and Jewish continuity willing to help.
In 1959, due to insurmountable financial stress, the Board of Directors of the Hebrew Academy of Miami instituted a Draconian policy. If parents didn’t pay tuition, their child could no longer attend the school. One affected family told their young son that he would sadly need to leave the school permanently. The child was devastated. He loved the Academy and was especially enjoying the Torah studies.
The very mature young man boldly wrote a handwritten letter to the dean, Rabbi Alexander (Sender) Gross:
Dear Rabbi Gross,
I would very much like to go to the academy, but even though I cannot, I do not hold anything against you or the board. I believe that if G-d wanted me to go to the Academy everything would have been arranged so I could’ve gone. If G-d wants me to be a rabbi I will be and if not I won’t. Whatever G-d has planned for me to be I will follow faithfully without asking questions or being disappointed.
Rabbi Gross was so touched by the letter that he shared it publicly at the next meeting of the Board of Directors. They decided to let the child continue at the Academy. He stayed through eighth grade and was the class valedictorian. He continued his studies in the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland and became an accomplished and renowned Talmid Chacham, a prominent Rav and popular author.
The young boy who wrote the letter was Rabbi Zev (then known as Billy) Leff. Rav Mordechai Gifter, the famed Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, once told Rabbi Gross, "If the Hebrew Academy was created just so that it could produce this one talmid, Rabbi Zev Leff, dayeinu - it would have been worthwhile."
Rabbi Gross carried the letter of the young Billy Leff in his wallet. It was with him wherever he went and whenever he had a hard time, he opened the letter and drew strength. Once, referring to the letter, he told his family, “This is my entrance into Gan Eden.”
That part of the story is known. What is much less well-known is that while Rav Leff’s letter moved the Board of the Academy, he was able to stay in school only because Rabbi Gross took it upon himself to personally pay his tuition. Indeed, when he passed away, Rabbi Gross’s family were looking through his personal desk and found a folder that had “מיינע קינדר,” my children, written on the outside. It was a list of children that he personally paid tuition for so that they could stay in the Academy and not go to public school.
Rabbi Gross put his money where his heart and his mouth were. He dug deep to enable Jewish children to get a Jewish education and among those it impacted for generations was one of the great rabbis of our generation.
When I heard this story from his own family, I was reminded of a story I read about the great Rav Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, the Disco Rabbi. When he first went to Migdal HaEmek as a young newly married man, he found the city was a center of crime. Arab men were coming into the city and preying on young Jewish girls. He said to himself, the only way Arabs could enter the city and behave in that way is if someone was taking money to protect them and allow them to enter. After inquiring, he found out the crime boss being paid to protect them was an incredibly tough thirty-five year old named Kobi.
Rav Grossman, a young Chassid who had rarely ever left Meah Shearim, decided to pay this crime boss a visit. He knocked on the door and Kobi, a tall and powerfully-built, frightening figure, answered. He barked at the Chassidish man, “What do you want,” and Rav Grossman responded, "I came to drink a l'chaim with you."
Kobi was at a loss for words but motioned for him to come in. When they were sitting across from each other, Rav Grossman said to him without preamble, "Kobi, I'm sure you know what I've been doing for the youth here in Migdal HaEmek." Kobi nodded. "Of course I do. All the chevrah (the gang) talks about you and how much they love you." "Thank you for the compliment. But the truth is I came here tonight to discuss something else - something I saw here in town. Something that disturbed me very much." Rav Grossman described how he found out that Arabs from the nearby towns were coming there to date the Jewish girls of Migdal HaEmek.
After admitting he had been accepting a fee to let the Arabs enter, and after hearing Rav Grossman’s passionate protest, Kobi responded: "I understand you, Rabbi but this is business. It's not easy, making money here in Migdal HaEmek, and this is a good moneymaker. For some reason, these Arabs want to marry Jewish girls, and they're willing to pay money for the opportunity. It's nothing personal."
Rav Grossman knew he had to find another source of income in order to get Kobi to stop. He asked Kobi what he wanted to do and Kobi answered, "If I had my own truck, I could do deliveries around the country and get paid very well for my work. I could make my own schedule and get up when I want and come and go when I please. If you're asking me what I would want to do with my life, that's the answer: I'd be very content working as the driver of my own truck.” Rav Grossman nodded. "I hear you. You just need a truck." They drank a l’chaim and Rav Grossman left.
Rav Grossman's father and father-in-law had purchased the young couple an apartment in Yerushalayim at the time of their marriage. It was their only asset, it represented essentially their entire net worth. The Sunday after meeting with Kobi, Rav Grossman traveled to Yerushalayim, where he put his apartment up for sale. Soon after, with the money received from selling the apartment, he purchased a Volkswagen truck.
Rav Grossman returned to Kobi’s home and knocked on the door. When he was invited in, he placed the keys to the truck on the table and pushed them across the wooden surface toward the speechless Kobi. "You said that your dream is to have your own truck. Well, here it is. Now you have your own truck." With that, Arabs lost their protection and no longer entered Migdal Ha’Emek. The Jewish girls were no longer in danger, their future as proud and practicing Jews more secure.
I find this story simply amazing. To protect young Jewish girls and keep them part of our faith, Rabbi Grossman, without hesitation, sold his apartment and gave all the money he had. How many of us would do the same? How many of us would be bothered and moved enough to give a meaningful gift altogether?
Fighting antisemitism and stemming the tide of assimilation are critically important, but so, too, is ensuring a Jewish education is available to all who seek one. They say if you want to know what someone cares about, check where they spend their money. Granted, the cost of tuition for our own children is not small. Simply paying for one’s own family can take great sacrifice and reflects a profound commitment. But it isn’t enough. We must go into our pockets and do our part to ensure Jewish continuity. As it turns out, there is nobody better to confront antisemitism and be the response to antisemites than young, knowledgable, practicing Jews.
Please consider supporting our BRS Jewish Education Scholarship Fund that enables dozens of children each year to attend a Jewish school. Please visit brsonline.org/jesf to make a contribution of any amount. Donors of $1,000 or more are invited to a fantastic fun event this Thursday night. If Rabbi Gross believed it was his ticket Gan Eden, maybe it could be ours as well.