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“Give kids a good time and then they’ll learn” has been the proven formula for success for Rabbi Moshe Neuman, long-time educator who has just retired after nearly half a century as the principal of Bais Yaakov Academy of Queens. With the inspiration and confidence of his own rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, Rabbi Neuman has traversed the gamut of challenges facing Jewish educators. Reflections of a mechanech’s mechanech.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
There is something about the way Rabbi Moshe Neuman speaks, a vitality and animation that makes conversation with him feel like much more than an interview. It is like I am a child again, and he is the storyteller: all we’re missing is the campfire and popcorn. He weaves a narrative so rich and colorful that one can almost miss the fact that there are insights and lessons in chinuch hidden under every stone.
Rabbi Neuman has just retired after forty-nine years at the helm of Bais Yaakov Academy of Queens, taking it from a fledgling operation with twenty-seven students to a prominent institution with close to 700. Before that, he distinguished himself as a menahel in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a rebbi in Detroit.
And before that ... he just wanted to be a lawyer.
Appropriately, the farewell gift he received from the school is a magnificent painting of the likeness of his rosh yeshivah, Rav Yitzchok Hutner. Indeed, it was the rosh yeshivah who revealed to him that he was destined to be so much more....
A Place for Keeping Shabbos
One of the first things I heard about Rabbi Neuman, even before meeting him, was that the has a high tolerance level for mischievous students. He understands that they too need breaks, down time, space; a student relaxing in the hallway during class might even earn a smile from him.
I hear his story and I understand. “I too was a rebel of sorts,” he grins endearingly, “and I also had to find my place.”
Young Moshe Neuman was precocious, but he was also determined to make his father happy.
His father, Reb Yehuda Yitzchok, arrived in America after a string of miracles saved him from the inferno that was Eastern Europe. The family settled in Washington Heights.
“My mother had two sisters there, so she was comfortable. I was sent to the local public school, and I sustained daily beatings at the hands of the locals. Eventually, I befriended an African-American boy in the apartment building by giving him apples and bananas from my house and in exchange, he was my protector in school. Things got a little better after that, but my father couldn’t come to terms with the religious climate in the neighborhood. We davened in a local shtiebel, filled with heimishe Yidden, but he was stunned when he saw them hurrying through davening that first Shabbos morning, anxious to be finished by eight-fifteen in the morning. ‘This is not Poland, Reb Yehuda Yitzchok, and here you have to work on Shabbos,’ they told him.
“He refused to accept that, and eventually, he learned that in Williamsburg, there was a yeshivah for me, and shuls with people who kept Shabbos. But how was he to convince my mother? So my father, who had nothing, went and rented the largest, most spacious apartment he could find, and one Sunday, he took my mother to Williamsburg to see it. She liked it, of course she did. It was much nicer than the dump where we lived in the Heights. So we moved.”
The young boy was sent to Torah Vodaas, but things didn’t go so smoothly. Some of the rebbeim were themselves new to the country, and still bearing the scars of war. They would often grow frustrated and would resort to corporal punishment — and Moshe Neuman found himself a frequent target of his rebbi.
In desperation, he told his father, who spoke to an acquaintance, Rabbi Lieberman, who ran the junior high school of Torah Vodaas. Rabbi Lieberman met the fifth-grade boy, and, seeing how miserable he was, he welcomed him to the junior high, allowing him to skip two grades.
This isn’t mere history; it’s valuable because so much of Rabbi Neuman’s philosophy was shaped by the negative experience. “My father always told me that I could learn from everyone and anything: from that difficult encounter I learned many things as well.”
Besides the yeshivah, there was another place that proved a seminal influence on him. “We davened on Shabbos at the famous Zeirei Minyan at 616 Bedford Avenue, and the passion and warmth in that place could change anyone. The davening of Dave Maryles, the speeches and conversations of Mike Tress, and the leadership of Rav Gedalia Schorr combined to give us an experience each Shabbos that was me’ein olam haba. It was a room filled with people who were burning with a sense of achrayus for Klal Yisrael, and you got swept into it.”
One of the outstanding figures in that chaburah was Mike Tress’s young assistant, a brilliant German refugee names Gershon Kranzler. “He would type up Mike’s correspondence, but even though he only typed with two fingers, he was much faster than those who could type with two full hands, and often while Mike was still dictating, he had already completed the entire letter. Mike would be amazed at his eloquence and how he had understood his thought process.”
Gershon Kranzler married Moshe Neuman’s sister, Trude, and the dynamics of the family changed.
“My father wasn’t much of a conversationalist, but once Gershon joined the family, he was so personable and interesting that my father became more expressive as well. When Gershon and Trude had their first child, Chaim, my father would go straight from work, even before coming home, to play with his einekel. He was no youngster at the time, and he worked long hours in a factory — but he just needed to stop off there before going home.”
From Torah Vodaas, Moshe traveled to Ner Israel in Baltimore, one of the two great out-of-town yeshivos as the time, where, as a serious and dedicated masmid, he excelled.
“The rosh yeshivah, Rav Ruderman, taught me a valuable chinuch lesson. He was somewhat timid, not so forthcoming, but he had his way of expressing respect for a talmid. One Shabbos afternoon, when everyone was sleeping in the dormitory, I sat alone in the beis medrash learning. The rosh yeshivah entered and walked up and down the deserted aisles, stopping by my seat. “Why aren’t you resting?” he asked. “I have to chazzer, to review,” I replied. He was delighted. “Come, let’s walk together,” and we walked up and down, speaking in learning — a sublime experience.
“At that point, my father, who wasn’t feeling that well, asked me to consider learning closer to home, back in New York.
“At the time, I was attending courses at Johns Hopkins University in order to become a tax lawyer. I had grown up in poverty, and was determined to have a source of parnassah with which to support my own family.
“When I went to take leave of the rosh yeshivah, Rav Ruderman, he asked me what I intended to do with my life. ‘I want to go to be a lawyer,’ I said.
“No” he said, “du darfst veren a rabbi, you ought to be a rabbi.”
“I told the rosh yeshivah that I didn’t want to be a rabbi.”
“He looked at me. ‘Chotch a principal, at least a principal,’ he said.”
He Knew My Strengths
Upon returning to New York, Moshe looked for the right yeshivah. It was Chol HaMoed Succos and his brother-in-law, Gershon, suggested that he join him at the Simchas Beis Hashoeivah of Rav Hutner, in the rooftop succah of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin in Brownsville. There was an immense crowd there, and the atmosphere was like that of the tisch of a chassidic rebbe, with all eyes upon the rosh yeshivah.
“But Gershon had a personal connection with Rav Hutner, and after the maamar was complete, he brought me over to give him shalom. Rav Hutner looked at me and we spoke in learning for a few minutes. He asked me what yeshivah I attended and I told him that I had been in Ner Israel, but was now returning to New York and had not yet registered in a yeshivah. The rosh yeshivah broke out in a smile and said, ‘The problem is solved. You’ll come to our yeshivah after Yom Tov.’ ”
Rabbi Neuman’s eyes involuntarily rest on the picture in the corner of the room and he continues, if a tad more emotionally. “What can I say? He knew my kochos better than I knew them. He saw things in me of which I had no idea. I owe him everything.
“I was a cynical boy, but I was overawed by him, his knowledge, his wisdom, the force of his personality, all of it.”
Moshe Neuman was learning well in Chaim Berlin, and one day, he received a message that the rosh yeshivah wished to speak with him. He hurried in to the office.
“Moishe, listen,” said Rav Hutner, “I need a favor from you.”
“Hineini,” replied the talmid, “whatever the rosh yeshivah wants.”
“The eighth-grade rebbi is ill, and he won’t be here for the next two weeks. The class is a difficult one, and I want you to substitute for him.”
“I was stunned at the request, but the rosh yeshivah couldn’t be dissuaded, so a few days later, without benefit of teacher training or curriculum, I walked in to a classroom for the first time.”
The novice rebbi was greeted with indifference. The boys were playing and chatting among themselves, and one of them looked in his direction. “We don’t want to learn,” he stated unequivocally and went back to his friends.
It was then that Moshe Neuman first applied the theory that would carry him through six decades in education.
“Listen, fellas,” he said, “the rosh yeshivah sent me here for two weeks to teach you boys. Has anyone ever heard the Gemara term ‘chatzi l’Hashem and chatzi lachem?’”
One or two boys hesitantly answered that it was a reference to the mandate to “split” Yom Tov, half for spiritual pursuits, such as learning and davening, and half for physical indulgence, such as eating and resting.
“Right” said the new rebbi, “and that’s the deal I’m offering you here. We’re going to learn for two hours, and then we’re going to go to the playground on Pitkin Avenue and play basketball.”
“How will we get out of the building without getting stopped by the menahel?” asked the boys.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it all worked out. There’s a fire escape right near the class and we’re going to sneak out quietly. You’ll see, we won’t get caught.”
They were partners in crime, rebbi and talmidim, and they started to learn.
Rabbi Neuman smiles proudly.
“They were good boys. We started to learn, one asked a good question, I showed him that it was a Tosafos and another made a comment that was in the Maharsha. It was a pleasant two hours for them as well, and sure enough, at the two-hour mark I closed the Gemara and motioned for them to follow me.”
The group snuck out of the building and had a grand time on Pitkin Avenue, with the rebbi — really just a few years older than them — joining in a spirited basketball game. When two hours passed, the rebbi told them how to go back in to the yeshivah for lunch. “You’ll go in like by the teivah, two by two, and no one will notice a thing.”
The next day, the rebbi came in with the same formula; chatzi l’Hashem and chatzi lachem.
On the third day, Rabbi Neuman said, “Listen, fellas: chatzi lachem is only on Yom Tov, not every single day. We’re up to two-thirds learning and an hour of fun, and I promise that’s the way it will stay.”
He reflects. “They trusted me, they knew we were on the same page, and they had also seen that learning wasn’t as boring as they had thought, so they went along with it for the entire two weeks.”
On Thursday, the substitute invited the eighth-graders to come learn in the yeshivah at night, during mishmar, and to feel free to ask him questions on what they had learned during the week. A fair number of them showed up.
The regular rebbi returned, and the bochur, Moshe Neuman, went back to his seat in the beis medrash. Once again, he was summoned to the rosh yeshivah’s office. “Moshe, I hear that you learned with them, and they even came to mishmar. What did you do? Hust zei farkisheft, did you hypnotize them?” asked Rav Hutner. Moshe hesitated, but the rosh yeshivah prodded him. “Tell me everything.”
Moshe told the entire story, without leaving out a detail. The rosh yeshivah listened in silence, and then began to laugh. Then, he once again turned serious and said, “Moishe, Moishe; America is America, nisht Slabodka uhn nisht Kletzk uhn nisht Mir uhn nisht Telz. It works with basketball and Pitkin Avenue, and that’s how you got them. Remember that.”
Moshe Neuman’s theory had been tried, tested, and now approved by his rebbi.
Destined To Be a Rabbi
The rosh yeshivah wanted Moshe Neuman in his office. “Moishe, I want you to learn for smichah,” said Rav Hutner.
“But, Rebbi, I want to be a lawyer” said Moshe.
That night, Moshe told his father of his conversation with the rosh yeshivah. “My father looked at me and said, ‘You know, Moshe, I never made demands of you in this way, but I always harbored a secret dream of your becoming a rabbi. The Ribono shel Olam saved us, for what?’” Rabbi Neuman reflects. “He didn’t need me to be a rabbi so that he could say ‘my son the rabbi.’ He just thought that smichah would be a worthy attainment.”
Moshe returned to the rosh yeshivah the next day and said he wished to join the chaburah learning Chullin and Yoreh Deiah. The rosh yeshiva gave him a chavrusa and they set out to conquer the material. When the summer came, the rosh yeshivah instructed the pair to go to Camp Morris and learn there. Moshe told him that he had no money for camp.
“Hub ich dir gebetten gelt? Did I ask you for money?” the rosh yeshivah asked him. “I want you two to learn over there with menuchas hanefesh and enjoy the break from the city.”
Rabbi Neuman pauses to comment on the chinuch lesson. “Do you know what that did for us, that kind of encouragement, singling us out like that?”
After a time, Moshe Neuman indeed became a rabbi, earning smichah from Rav Nissan Telushkin, and from the rosh yeshivah himself.
The rosh yeshivah still had plans for Moshe Neuman. He called him over and told him, “Moishe, you are going to Detroit.”
Moshe was astounded. “Me? Detroit?”
“Yes, Reb Avrohom Abba Freedman needs a third-grade rebbi, and you will go teach.”
“But, Rebbi, I’ve never taught before. I’m not up to the task!”
“What?” smiled Rav Hutner, “you could handle eighth grade and not third grade?” He hadn’t forgotten. And sure enough, two weeks later Moshe Neuman was en route to Detroit.
In Detroit, the young mechanech had a full schedule. He taught third grade in the morning, and the Talmud Torah class for public school children in the afternoon. In between he learned one seder, and at night, he attended Wayne State University — Moshe Neuman still planned on becoming a lawyer.
The third grade was a pleasure. But the afternoon group — composed of kids coming from a full day in public school, with no interest in being at the Talmud Torah — was a daunting task. Rabbi Neuman was informed that it was a terror class that had been through a long list of teachers the previous year.
When Rabbi Neuman asked the menahel not to throw him, a novice rebbi, in front of such a difficult class, the menahel said, “If you don’t make it, no one will say a word. More experienced mechanchim couldn’t get anywhere with them. But if you do make it, you’ll be a hero.”
“Look, I love a challenge,” Rabbi Neuman recalls, “so I made two rules with the menahel. One, there would be no curriculum. I would decide what to teach. Two, if I would send a boy out of class, he had to back me up. I didn’t want the boy being led back in after ten minutes. He agreed.”
Moshe Neuman walked into class and saw a bunch of twelve-year-old boys rolling on the floor, wrestling with each other. He waited, but no one paid him any attention.
“So I lifted the heavy metal desk and slammed it down. It was quiet for a moment, and then, this one big bulvan of a boy looks at me and drawls, ‘Look, Superman is here.’
“‘Right’ I said, ‘and Superman wants everyone in their seats right now.’
Rabbi Neuman looks at me. “This is something true in every classroom, for every teacher: you have to identify the problem children. Even though they may be wonderful individuals, there are troublemakers that can really get in the way of teaching the class. The class in its entirety doesn’t have to suffer because of one difficult student, and the quicker you identify him, the quicker you can neutralize him.”
The young Rabbi Neuman realized that the boy was trouble and called him over. “Listen, buddy,” he said to the boy, who towered over him. “I am from Harlem, and I am not scared of you. I want you to try to behave.”
The boy turned around to his friends and laughed aloud.
“He doesn’t get it. We don’t care about learning, rabbi. We’re here because our parents force us to come so we can be bar-mitzvahed.”
Rabbi Neuman stopped him. “Do you play baseball?”
“Yes” the boy replied.
“So then you know the rules, three strikes and you’re out. You’ve got two strikes, so you’re almost there.”
The boy shrugged elaborately. “Who’s gonna throw me out?”
The rabbi walked over to him. “Listen” he whispered, “you’re out of here, fella. I know karate and if you make any sort of problem, it’s going to be real bad for you. Just go out now and I won’t have to embarrass you.”
The kid paused uncertainly, but decided not to take chances. “See you in five minutes, guys,” he waved to the rest of his class on his way out, and they all laughed.
“Once the ringleader is gone, it’s much easier to reach the rest of the class,” interjects Rabbi Neuman. Before he continues, I have a question. What if the boy had called his bluff about knowing karate?
Rabbi Neuman leans over to me. “I do know karate — otherwise I would never have threatened him like that. A teacher has to be prepared to act on his threats if he wants to be taken seriously.”
“Okay, who knows how to play punchball?”
None of the kids did, so Rabbi Neuman made a diagram on the blackboard, explaining the particulars of the game. “Who wants to join?” he asked.
Everyone raised their hands.
“Okay, so listen up. You know that I am not really Superman: my name is Rabbi Neuman and I am pretty strong, and also pretty nice. We are going to have a great day and a great year. Let’s daven something and then we’ll go play.”
The boys davened obediently, eager to go play. There was a knock at the door and the principal stood there with the class leader. Rabbi Neuman walked over to the principal and reminded him, “Rule number two — I threw him out and he isn’t welcome here until I am ready.”
Rabbi Neuman says that throughout his career, he has always tried to remember what he felt like then — to give the teachers the backing they needed, the space to do it their way.
After davening, the young rebbi led his crew outside and taught them how to play punchball. At the end of day, he called together his charges and said, “Listen up, we all had a great day, right? Now you know the rules. We daven with yarmulkes and tzitzis, and then we play punchball. That’s the plan.”
Of course, the next day the yarmulke- and tzitzis-clad crew came to school, eager to play.
“But unlike in Chaim Berlin, here I didn’t try to push them for more learning. I was more focused on making the experience a pleasant one for them, and just held them to davening. But our relationship developed. Before the first Sunday, which was my day off and theirs as well, I asked who wanted to join my club. They seemed interested, so I told them that we would gather to daven, and then we would eat breakfast together. After that we went bowling. The next week, we did davening, breakfast (of course, it was an opportunity to teach them about brachos), and we went downtown to the waterfront.”
The year proceeded splendidly. And the troublemaker? “He came and begged me to return, but I told him he had to wait a little longer. When I finally did allow him to return, he knew he was on trial, so he had lost his swagger. The class was already a unit, working with me, and he no longer had the power to turn them against me.”
It was after that year, when he saw his own success again, that Rabbi Neuman knew Rav Hutner had sent him on a life’s mission. “I accepted that I wasn’t meant to be a lawyer and I switched my major at Wayne State to education”
Rabbi Newman spent three years as a rebbi in Detroit. It was a period that provided the young mechanech with priceless real-life experience, and also allowed him to work with some very gifted educators. “Rabbi Joseph Elias was a master pedagogue, and the Flam brothers, Reb Yisroel and Reb Sholom, were both role models to me there.”
But the rabbi was still a bochur, and a pretty old one at that. It was time for the next stage.
Today, Mrs. Rivka Neuman is well-known as the initiator — along with Cheryle Knobel — of the popular and timeless 613 Torah Avenue series. But even then, Rivka Hollander was a talent. It was obvious to those who knew the chassan and kallah that the couple would do wonders for Jewish education. Indeed, Mrs. Neuman distinguished herself as a pre-1A teacher in Toras Emes for many years.
“My father-in-law, Reb Avrohom Yochanan Hollander, was an exceptional person, a true ehrliche Yid, and he, like my own father, was very supportive of the fact that we wanted to devote our lives to chinuch.”
The Neumans were married on June 17th and just after sheva brachos, the young couple assumed the positions of director and head counselor, respectively, of a summer camp, Machane Yisroel in Orillia, Ontario. “It meant toiveling the keilim and preparing the grounds and hiring counselors and writing the songs” — but it was a wonderful way to start married life.
Rabbi Neuman was offered many teaching jobs, but he had his heart set on being a menahel. It was the end of August when he got a call from Torah Umesorah about a vacant position, as rabbi and principal of the Jewish Community Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“So we went, my wife and I, and moved into a nice apartment in Allentown, and the future seemed promising.”
The rabbi taught a Talmud Torah class and a Sunday class. In time, he noticed that one particular girl only attended class every other Sunday, and he was intrigued. He asked about it and learned that on alternating weeks the girl was in church with her mother.
“Aren’t you mixed up?” he asked the child.
“No, not at all,” she replied, “my parents said that when I turn twelve years old, I can choose a religion.”
Rabbi Neuman took a stand, explaining to the executive director that he was unable to teach Torah to a girl who attended church every second week.
The executive director laughed. “Please, Rabbi,” he scoffed, “don’t start. Your predecessor was Orthodox and he taught her, so it’s not a problem. Furthermore, the girl’s father is extremely wealthy, and one of our most generous supporters. You must continue to teach her.”
“I can’t.” Rabbi Neuman remained firm.
“Why don’t you ask your rabbi?” suggested the executive director, and Rabbi Neuman agreed.
Rabbi Neuman recalls returning home that day. “Rivka,” he told his new wife, “tell the furniture store to hold our order. I’m getting fired.” He called the rosh yeshivah.
“Yeah, Moishe, why are you calling?” asked Rav Hutner.
“I have a sheilah,” replied Reb Moshe, and told Rav Hutner the story.
“And how did you pasken?” queried the rosh yeshivah.
“That I could not teach her,” Rabbi Neuman answered.
“Gut,” said Rav Hutner, and hung up the phone.
Rabbi Neuman looks at me. “He hung up the phone! Do you understand? The rosh yeshivah was telling me that I had done good, there was no discussion, no negotiation, no special dispensation because we were out of town, none of it. Halachah is halachah. He was empowering me to stand by my decision and fight for what was right.”
He went back to the executive director and told him that his rabbi had concurred with his decision and he would not teach the girl.
“You’re going to get fired over this,” the executive shrugged, and called a meeting of the board of directors.
“I was pretty scared. The chairman was a very powerful and forceful individual. I knew who he was, because he would play racquetball at the JCC, and his intensity was evident. I walked into the meeting trembling.”
The chairman looked at Rabbi Neuman and then around the room at his friends. “You rabbis aren’t worth anything,” he said.
Rabbi Neuman met his gaze, and asserted, “This rabbi is, and this rabbi can beat you at racquetball.”
The chairman, who was a champion, burst out laughing. “Everyone is invited this Friday, at one o’clock sharp, to watch me whip the rabbi,” he announced.
(I didn’t have to ask Rabbi Neuman if he could play; I already heard the answer earlier, with the karate story.)
“I had been a pretty good player as a bochur in Baltimore, though I was out of practice and shape, and I hadn’t picked up a racquet in seven years.”
On Friday, the rabbi came to play, the board of directors watching from the stands.
“I felt like Dovid facing Golias, in my yarmulke and tzitzis, he with his gloves and bands all over his arms and on his head.”
It turns out that as good as the chairman was, he was still fifty years old and the rabbi was only twenty-seven. “I had also gotten the school’s athletic director to prepare me for the game, so I was ready for him.”
It was 10–1, and then 12–3, when the rabbi saw it prudent to let his opponent score a few points, just to keep his dignity intact. When the game ended, 21–11, the chairman sat down heavily on a bench and said, “Rabbi, I apologize. You are different.”
Rabbi Neuman smiled at his opponent. “I thank you, but the truth is, I am not. All rabbis are special, and you insulted all of them in public. I think it would be proper for you to rescind your remarks in front of the entire board.”
The chairman called another meeting and apologized once again, this time to all the rabbis in the world. He also told the executive director to send a letter to the girl’s father that he had to make a decision, one way or another, and until then, the girl wasn’t welcome at school.
“But what about the money?” the board members asked with concern.
“No problem,” said the chairman, looking around the room. “I’ll give $10,000 extra, and so will Stan and Willie and Bob and Dennis and there’s the missing money.”
On Chanukah of that year, Rabbi Neuman felt a need to visit to New York, to go see his rosh yeshivah and be part of the Yom Tov there. His wife understood and encouraged him to go. After visiting his parents, Rabbi Neuman drove over to Chaim Berlin, then on Stone Avenue, and entered the packed beis medrash. The rosh yeshivah sat at the head of a huge crowd, presiding over a festive mesibah.
Suddenly, he noticed the newcomer to the beis medrash. “The Allentowneh Rebbe is here,” he cried out, “lozt eim durch, let him through.” The crowd parted in the middle, as if for a dignitary, and the rosh yeshivah motioned for Rabbi Neuman to be seated right next to him. Rav Hutner leaned over to him.
“Moishe, I am surprised at you,” he whispered. “You asked me a sheilah, and you never got back to me with a report.”
“I thought that it was insignificant,” Rabbi Neuman replied, “and I didn’t want to bother the rosh yeshivah.”
“Moishe, tell me exactly what happened.”
Rabbi Neuman paused. Suddenly, he was the young bochur, teaching the tough eighth-grade class and taking them to play basketball again. The rosh yeshivah was waiting. He told Rav Hutner everything.
“Did you win the game?’ asked the rosh yeshivah.
“Yes, Rebbi, I did.”
Once again, as years before, Rav Hutner laughed and said, “Oy, America...” He clapped Rabbi Neuman on the shoulder. “Moishe, you’re all right!”
There is another postscript to the story.
“When our first son was born, I called the rosh yeshivah to tell him the news. He wished me mazel tov, and asked me to relay the bris information to his attendant. He would be coming to participate!”
Rav Hutner came to Allentown and served as sandak, a way of showing his allegiance to his talmid who had chosen to educate Jewish children out there, on the front lines.
“He came again for the bris of my second son, and that was really unexpected. I think it was his way of encouraging me. And it sure did.”
Rabbi Neuman uses the opportunity to make a plug for the many mechanchim and rabbanim today who have chosen to make their careers in out-of-town communities. “You have to be strong and believe in the Torah position, without backing down. There are real nisyonos out there, and to remain completely ehrlich isn’t easy. You have to know yourself and your ability to withstand pressure, often from very pushy lay leaders who are complete amei ha’aretz.”
He has practical advice as well. “When I advise young people wishing to become principals, I tell them they should make it a point — as difficult as it is — to accept the job only when they have an extra bank account with sufficient money in it to support their families for six months. There has to be an option of being able to walk out at any time, not to be beholden to the whims of a board. I know it’s easier said than done, but that independence goes a long way toward allowing them to show real leadership.”
Every Wedding Becomes a Conference
The family was growing, and chinuch was becoming a very real issue for their own children. The Neumans set their sites on New York.
Rabbi Neuman’s brother-in-law, Gershon Kranzler, mentioned a small girls’ elementary school in Queens that had an opening, and Rabbi Neuman applied.
“To me, it was especially attractive because the balabatim were real ehrliche Yidden, a group of Torah Vodaas talmidim from Reb Yankev Teitelbaum’s shul who wanted a real Bais Yaakov education for their daughters.”
Rabbi Neuman got the job, and the family settled in Boro Park.
“That’s something else which I advise young principals — don’t settle in the neighborhood where you work. I was only able to do what I did over the last fifty years, because my wife”—he indicates his eishes chayil, who is waving her hand as if to cut him off—“carried the burden of the household, doing the lion’s share of raising our children and taking care of the family. I was only able to give my children Shabbos, but at least that was theirs. Had I lived in Queens, there would have been no Shabbos either. As it is, I can’t go to a chasunah without people turning it into a conference. I am trying to take a bite at the smorgasbord, and there is always someone who wants to talk about his child, just for five minutes.”
He smirks. “So I started to carry little cards with my phone number on it, and I hand them to people who want to talk at weddings. It doesn’t work.”
The start-up school had twenty-seven students. “It went up until second grade, with a third grade that had four girls. There was no money to pay a teacher for such a small group, so I taught them as well. It was a tiny little building in Corona. When one girl sneezed, the whole school could answer gezundheit, but it was a wonderful place.”
“Even today, when I go to weddings at Terrace on the Park, I make the illegal U-turn so I can go see the old building — just so I can look at it and remember, and say thank you.”
How does one build a Bais Yaakov, get students, find funding, and all the rest?
“First of all, there were remarkable balabatim. They saw it not as a communal need, but as their personal cause, and they would actually get their hands dirty maintaining the building. It was a joint venture, a labor of love. That helped. There was also a tremendous sense of mission. We felt siyata d’Shmaya accompanying us. We were trying to build something great, a real Bais Yaakov.”
The budding school attracted students from out of the area in the most practical way; through offering top-notch education. “As little money as there was, I made sure to find great teachers and offer them just a little bit more. It’s so silly to be cheap with the salaries of rebbeim, moros and general studies teachers — it’s what sets your school apart, and if you try to find a bargain, that’s what you’re going to get.”
It was tough, especially at the beginning. The school was three months behind with salaries and staff morale was affected by it.
“One day, Dan Sukenik, a parent who was essentially my partner, walked into the school. ‘We’re going to lose everything, Dan,’ I told him sadly.
“‘Why?’ he asked.
“‘Because people don’t work for free and we’re three months late.’ He asked me for a complete list of every staff member and what they were owed and within two days he came in with a stack of envelopes. Every staff member was paid in full.”
People heard about the staff, and within a short time, the facilities at Corona were too small. The school moved to Richmond Hill. It was time to take the school to the next level, and Rabbi Neuman’s trusty theory came into play again.
“We were going make Bais Yaakov of Queens such a great place that the girls would go home and speak of nothing else. Our school was right across from Flushing Park, and I made it a point that, each day at recess, we took the whole school there — not for ten minutes, but for a half hour. I wanted them to have fun!”
It worked. Neuman’s Applied Theory: give the kids their fun and then they’ll learn. Word spread. And, just to be sure, Rabbi Neuman had another plan as well.
“I called a parent in the school who worked in electronics, and asked him to give me a discount on a bunch of small transistor radios. I called an assembly and announced that any girl who referred a new student would get a radio as a gift.”
The school blossomed. At the time, there was a great migration from the Bronx toward Queens, where there was affordable housing, and the student body kept increasing. In 1973 the school moved to its present spacious and attractive quarters, in Jamaica. Since the initial move, the school has expanded and added on to meet the needs of its 650 students, bli ayin hara. It is a point of particular pride to Rabbi Neuman that the addition to the building was spearheaded by his very dynamic and talented son, Reb Nosson, who served as his associate dean.
From the comfortable vantage point of success, I ask Rabbi Neuman some tough questions about running a neighborhood school.
With a responsibility to accept everyone, how can you satisfy the demands of a parent body from the right, left and center?
“It was always a challenge, but we succeeded, baruch Hashem, because we looked at the attitude. When people came in with the idea that Bais Yaakov was a step up for their daughter, when the parents were prepared to do whatever was necessary for their daughter to succeed, then we took them. We cared about Shulchan Aruch and ran our school al pi Torah — that was no secret. Anyone who was interested in joining was welcome, as long as they weren’t cynical.
“Our students learned to get along with other Yidden, to love and appreciate other Yidden. We had daughters of kollel yungeleit playing with daughters of mothers who didn’t cover their hair, and everyone gained. As long as they respected that we had the final word, and they valued the education, and didn’t talk badly of Bais Yaakov at home, they had a place with us.”
In today’s world, when there are so many applicants for so few teaching positions, the question begs to be asked: what makes a good teacher? Is it a natural gift? Can it be developed? Is it preparation? Experience?
“My friend, you either got it or you don’t. I can pick out a natural right away.”
He shares a story. “I once had an opening for a second-grade class and I called one of the most distinguished rebbetzins, head of a large and respected seminary, and asked her to recommend someone. ‘I’ll send you my star pupil,’ she said. ‘She’ll be a great teacher.’
“The next day, the girl came in to my office, a sefer under her arm, and introduced herself. We chatted and I had a sense that the girl, while brilliant, was very serious. ‘What would you do if you lose the class?’ I asked her.
“‘Oh,’ she answered, ‘I have this beautiful Ramban that I would share with them, and they would surely be captivated.’
“The next day, I received call from another girl, who introduced herself and told me she’d heard we had an opening. There was laughter in her voice, and I made an appointment to meet her.
“I asked her the same question, what she would do if she lost the attention of the students. ‘It wouldn’t happen,’ she immediately replied, ‘but even if it would, I have a secret weapon. I’ve been a Bnos leader for years, and I know how to get them — with my guitar. If they get jumpy, I’ll start to play a song and I’ll have them right back.’”
Rabbi Neuman continues. “I called the same rebbetzin and asked her about the second girl. There was a long pause and then she said, ‘Also wonderful, but I think the first one has more promise as a teacher.’
“I listened to my instincts, not the rebbetzin. I hired the second girl, and she became one of our greatest teachers. I’m sure the first also found her place, likely in a high school or seminary, but I knew that the second one was a natural. Even if she failed her way through seminary, it made no difference. She just had it.”
I have interviewed people on the eve of retirement before, and the conversations take on a certain reflective air. Rabbi Neuman, however, gets just as enthusiastic about his future goals as he is nostalgic of his past accomplishments. His beloved school is in good hands. His son, Reb Nosson, who served as his father’s right hand for the past fifteen years, will be working alongside the new menahel, Rabbi Mordechai Gewirtz, to maintain and expand upon the school’s success.
“And the two people who worked alongside me for years, Mrs. Bergman and Mrs. Sommerstein, two of the most qualified and dedicated people you’ll ever meet, will continue in their positions, so the school is in good hands.”
Rabbi Neuman plans to invest his considerable energy into a new frontier: kids at risk. “I want to raise money and create tailor-made programs for every child who needs a little more individual attention.”
One imagines that whatever he decides to do, he will bring his gifts to the table: his rebbi’s advice and blessing, his own passion and drive, and, not least ... Neuman’s Theory — now proven six hundred and fifty times over.
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