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The Head of the Class

Yisroel Besser

To those in the know, Richard Altabe, headmaster of Yeshivat Shaare Torah, is a well-respected authority on chinuch and an innovator in the field of yeshiva general studies programs. But even more than he’s an educator, he’s an excellent student, and he recently shared some of the lessons that have had the greatest impact on his life.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

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There are few things as forlorn as a school in the summertime, with its darkened hallways, spotless blackboards, overturned desks, and strong smell of floor wax. But inside the Brooklyn office of Yeshivat Shaare Torah’s headmaster, Mr. Richard Altabe, any illusions of vacation disappear. The only hint of downtime is that his jacket is hanging off to the side.
On this summer day, he is simultaneously involved in three major projects: Working with the Agudah to lobby New York State for a special education bill, preparing the launch of Shaare Torah’s beit medrash program — a groundbreaking project for the Syrian community — and finalizing the establishment of YALA, a mesivta-age special education program that will be hosted by Yeshivah Torah Vodaath.
But while Richard Altabe is most definitely a doer — and a talker who has the self-assurance and enthusiasm of a radio talk show host — he is also a listener. Recognized as an authority on chinuch and an innovator in the field of yeshivah general studies’ programs, he’s earned the respect of roshei yeshivah, and he didn’t get to where he is today without knowing how to listen. But the experiences of his own life have also shaped his educational philosophy, and if he has spent the better part of his career giving of himself to others, it’s only because there were others who gave of themselves to him.


Education runs in the Altabe family. Richard’s father, Professor David Altabe, grew up in the Bronx, a child of Turkish immigrants. He served in the Korean War, graduated from CCNY, and went on to have a distinguished academic career, teaching Judeo-Spanish studies and authoring several books. His mother, Mrs. Joan Altabe, who hails from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was a child of teachers, but she chose a different career path. After graduating from the prestigious New York High School of Music and Art, she became an artist, cartoonist and, eventually, an art critic.
When David and Joan Altabe moved their young family from Manhattan out to picturesque Long Beach, located on the western tip of Long Island’s South Shore, little Richard got carsick on the way — the first of many fortuitous events that were soon to take place. Richard’s father pulled over to the side of the road and the family stepped out of the car for some fresh air. “There was this attractive building there, the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, commonly known as HALB,” Richard recalls. “My parents noticed it and said, ‘What a nice building.’”
He adds, “It was the era of forced desegregation. My parents had no problem with black children in the class, but they realized that until the dust settled, public school would be a commotion. They considered sending me to private school for a year or two, until the desegregation process was complete.”
That didn’t happen, at least not in the way his parents had thought, due to a bit of geographic good fortune. “The local synagogue near our home was Sephardic. My father, who was of Sephardic origin, felt closer to it than he would have felt to an Ashkenazic shul. Our family started to regularly attend this shul and the rabbi, Asher Abittan, was a huge influence on us. He was a kiruv rabbi before there was such a term.”
It was decided; Richard could attend the Jewish school until his bar mitzvah. His father would eventually become president of the shul and his mother designed the magnificent stained glass windows. Although Mrs. Altabe has since retired to Florida, where she is active in the art community as well as in the Partners in Torah learning program, her art can be seen at the shul until today.
As for Richard, he still goes to yeshivah, albeit in a different capacity. And if he’s still in the yeshivah world, he says, it’s because of the mentors he met early on. “There were great people at every juncture, pushing me along the path. Rabbi Abittan was one. In school, there was Rabbi Zev Parnes, who nudged me toward a yeshivah high school. At the time, half the kids at HALB went on to M.T.A., which was Yeshivah University’s high school, and the other half went to yeshivos, usually the relatively new Mesivta of Long Beach.”
He pauses to let the irony sink in: Kids deciding between the yeshivah in Long Beach and M.T.A. “Yes, life was simpler back then.”
There was also a local high school, Hillel (later HAFTR), which could boast of a distinguished principal, Rabbi Dr. Zevulun Lieberman. “He’s of Sephardic descent and his grandfather had been the Chacham Bashi, the chief rabbi, of the Jews in Turkey, which made my father feel comfortable with him.”
After high school, Richard followed the expected path for bright young Jews and went to university, enrolling in NYU’s six-year dental program.
“College was a problem then, and it’s still a problem. Orthodox parents who send their son off to college need to be aware of what kind of challenge they’re pitting him against. I’ll tell you the truth, if not for NCSY I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t have remained religious through four years of college.”
He recalls that the regional NCSY adviser at that time was a Long Island lawyer named Perry Fish, adding, “My parents were supportive of the direction my life was taking, but I needed an anchor in the frum community and he was it. I was there each and every Shabbos, and it allowed my Yiddishkeit to go beneath the surface.
“I felt that the influences of college were getting to me, they were clogging my brain, and I discussed it with Perry. He said, ‘The only way to clear your mind is to connect it to Torah learning, to get a chavrusa and really learn.’”
Today, Richard Altabe advises many young men who attend college, and his guidance echoes what he heard back then. “The only way to survive college with your neshamah intact is to find a way to remain connected; a shiur, a chavrusa, something.”
Perry Fish was helpful in yet another way. When someone suggested that Richard meet Lisa Hartstein, the young lady who would become his wife, they arranged to meet at the Fish home. “I wanted her to see the Shabbos table that was such a big part of my life. She was at Stern College, and we both wanted the same things.”


The Altabes got married, but that wasn’t the only major change in Richard’s life. “I was doing well in dental school, but found that I had no passion for it. I woke up one morning and said to myself, ‘Your whole family are educators. Why are you running away from your destiny?’
“I had been a day camp counselor in the 1970s, in Far Rockaway. There were lots of Russian newcomers at the time, and I taught them to say Kriyas Shema. The fulfillment I felt then was like nothing I’d experienced, and I realized that this was what I was meant to do.’”
Today, that hard-earned lesson is something he tries to share with others. “I never wanted to be a teacher. I tried dental school, but it didn’t help. When you have that clarity that you can do something, and that you enjoy doing it, don’t be a wise guy. Don’t run away from your destiny.”
He stopped his pre-dental classes, but since he had a degree in biology he went to the Board of Education to apply for a teaching job. “Yichus helps there too,” he grins. “I was hired to teach at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn.”
The student body was largely Haitian and Jamaican. It was tough territory, but Mr. Altabe “made his bones” as a teacher there. “One day I was on lunch duty and a gang war broke out. I had to shepherd 400 students out of danger.
“Looking back, I think there was a fundamental mistake in the approach to education. Most of the teachers in that school were Jewish. They tried to inculcate middle-class values in kids who weren’t holding there. You have to educate a person ba’asher hu sham. You can’t pretend he’s more than he is to satisfy your value system. The approach should have been to give them chizuk where they were at. Rather than aiming to teach them manners, it would have been smarter to give them the basic tools to break out of a cycle of poverty.”
Fortunately, things were quieter in Flatbush, where the Altabes had settled and joined a minyan of other young families — until he got a different kind of a jolt. “On Simchas Torah I met another of my NCSY mentors, Rabbi Tully Besser. He was chatting with me, and he asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I was so proud to tell him that I had a frum home and a good job teaching biology. He seemed not to have heard, because he asked again, ‘What are you doing?’
“I got it. He meant that as a frum Yid, I was expected to be accomplishing, not merely existing, so I finally said, ‘Not much.’”
“You need to be connected to a yeshivah, part of Torah education,” Rabbi Besser advised. “Then your whole life will be more vibrant.” Not content to just offer advice, Rabbi Besser arranged for his NCSY protege to obtain a position at Yeshiva of Flatbush, where he was a rebbi.
“If not for that move, I wouldn’t be here today,” says Richard, not for the first time in our conversation.
Yeshiva of Flatbush was more than a routine job for Richard. It engaged him completely, making him an address for all sorts of questions and concerns. “I was suddenly part of this whole community, involved in the lives of the students, their families, their culture; I was doing kiruv without even realizing it. It was a part-time job teaching biology that swallowed up my days and nights. Even Shabbos was spent with the students. I loved it.”
At the age of 27, the very dynamic Mr. Altabe was invited to apply for a position on the hanhalah of Yeshiva of Flatbush. At the same time, he was approached by Rebbetzin Faige Bulka, a parent at a fledgling school in Far Rockaway called Darchei Torah. Darchei Torah, which was led by a young rosh yeshivah named Rabbi Yaakov Bender, was looking for a general studies principal for their elementary school.
Mr. Altabe laughs. “You’ve got to understand that this was 1988. Darchei Torah was still a little school. It was operating out of what was my old summer camp, and I didn’t believe they were ready to hire a full-time general studies principal. In most yeshivos, it was a part-time job that usually was handled by a retiree.”
Rabbi Bender assured Mr. Altabe that Darchei was prepared to hire him for the full day, in order to build up the English department. If Mr. Altabe were to have free time, Rabbi Bender suggested he use it to learn about available government funds and programs that could benefit the school.
“That’s how I got my start in politics.”


He took the jump, ready to grow with Darchei. “I realized that I was going out of my comfort zone, and that if I was to succeed I would have to understand the school’s hashkafos, their approach to Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Yom HaShoah — it was all new to me.”

He was excited, though, about the vision that Rabbi Bender had for his school. “At the time, the Philadelphia Yeshiva was the gold standard in mesivta general studies. Rabbi Bender wanted his graduates to be able to go to Philly and hold their own not just in learning, but in English and math as well.”
Now that he is sitting in the headmaster’s chair, Mr. Altabe can appreciate Rabbi Bender’s management style. “Everyone says that Darchei hires the best people, the most talented people. It’s not true. They hire good people and let them become the best. Rabbi Bender trusted me. He built me up without micromanaging me.”
Darchei eventually opened a high school, and Mr. Altabe faced the challenge of building its general studies department from the bottom up. Most thrilling of all was being part of creating a new reality regarding special education.
“Darchei was an innovative place. It worked with the concept that every single kid has a place within a mainstream mossad. We had the first strong resource room, one where there was a real focus on helping special-needs kids grow and develop, rather than just keeping them out of trouble. It was a big part of the Darchei philosophy that every kid can be reached.”
Mr. Altabe remembers attending a bar mitzvah where the young man was wheelchair bound. “As the circle was going around the young man, I heard the person behind me say to his friend, ‘Rabbi Bender must have a special koach with these children.’ I stopped dancing and said, ‘What, you think Rabbi Bender has a PhD.? You have the same thing he has; it’s called a heart.’
“People began to realize that just as there are kids with red hair and kids with blond hair, so too there are kids in wheelchairs or with hearing disorders.”
The field of special education exploded during the 1990s and, according to Mr. Altabe, there was all sorts of confusion about labels, diagnoses, and whether psychology was helping matters or not. “At Darchei, we learned to use the label to identify strengths, but never weaknesses. If a kid was ADD, we would say, ‘Okay, let’s analyze the kochos of ADD and help this kid grow.’”
Mr. Altabe stops talking and looks at me for a long moment. “You’re a bit jumpy. You probably had a hard time sitting in class, right? [Author’s note: Right.] If you’d been our student, we would have fed you writing, created a diet to fit your specific situation. Writing a lot would have allowed you to be defined by your talents, rather than your deficits.”
As Richard Altabe achieved renown as an educator, he was asked to share his experiences and insights with many different types of audiences. Recalling a speaking engagement in Detroit, he comments, “When I landed, I still didn’t have an opening for the speech, though I knew exactly what I wanted to say. The fellow who picked me up came in this beautiful new Cadillac, and I climbed in. We were stopped at a red light and there was a knock on the window. It was a police officer asking for the fellow’s license and registration. It turned out that the tag on the back of the car was invalid and the car had to be towed to the pound. The driver made other arrangements for me, but as I stood there at the side of the road watching this luxurious vehicle being pulled along by the truck, like an old jalopy, I had my opening: You can have a Cadillac, a car with the best engine and finest engineering, but if it’s tagged incorrectly, it will need to be towed.”
Giving another example, Mr. Altabe recalls the time he was at a wedding of a former student who’d gone on to distinguish himself in the field of technology and was considered to be a computer genius. “This boy couldn’t read until the middle of elementary school. If we’d merely labeled him as a non-reader and, by extension, dumb, that would have been it for him. But Rabbi Bender taught us not to see limitations. There’s always an advantage that can be maximized.”


Richard Altabe was at the helm of Darchei’s general studies department for 18 years. Then it was time for a new challenge. “I had proved that you can teach chareidim English. Who could have imagined?”
Growing serious again, he pauses to reflect on the phenomenon known as chinuch burnout. “It’s a job that takes over your life, and at some point you find that you’re running on empty. The only way to stay fresh and vibrant is to keep finding new challenges, keep raising the bar. We need to learn from the secular universities, where they have career changes and promotions — where you can advance from teaching to professorship to chairmanship — to keep the challenge alive. Otherwise you start to coast. To Rabbi Bender’s credit, he understood this. When I told him I needed a change, he was gracious. He said, ‘You’ve got to keep growing.’”
In a return to his Sephardic roots, Mr. Altabe became the principal of Magen David Yeshiva high school, located in Flatbush. “It was a great experience. I got to learn all about the Syrian community, their sensibilities and values. It’s a magnificent kehillah, one that’s open to growth and doing whatever it takes to raise good, committed Jews.”
Five years later, he took on an even bigger challenge when he assumed the headmastership of another Syrian school, Yeshivat Shaare Torah, where he is currently dean of both the elementary and high schools.
“This place is poised for growth in a way that is so invigorating. It reminds me of Darchei in the early years. There is an exceptional rosh yeshivah, Rav Hillel Haber, as well as an effective lay leadership and an involved parent body. It’s exciting!”
Along the way, Mr. Altabe has emerged as something of an expert on the topic of general studies in yeshivos. “Secular studies aren’t secularism. We, the yeshivah world, have to use the part of the day that is earmarked for general knowledge and use it correctly, as a tool in avodas Hashem. Both at Magen David and here at Shaare Torah we created a class in practical economics. We teach the students how to lease a car, the importance of good credit — we make it real-life and they are really into it. Everything can be made relevant.
“If we’re teaching these kids anyhow, it cannot be a bidi’eved. It has to be done right. When the kids see that their rebbeim or parents don’t take it seriously, they treat the second half of the day with a cavalier attitude. The discipline has to be perfect, and then the learning will follow.”
In addition to being an advocate for secular studies’ programs, Mr. Altabe is considered to be the go-to guy for troubled teens, yet another group that he refuses to give up on.
“I became frum through NCSY, which is mentor based,” he explains. “They teach you that the key to developing yourself is to reach a little higher, to continue to stay in your natural habitat and grow that way. You weren’t a project, a clinical case study, but a regular person. Your mentor was another regular person who was there to give you chizuk.”
This focus on role models has inspired one of his most significant chinuch accomplishments to date.
“In Far Rockaway, there is remarkable unity between the various schools. In the late ’90s, before the words ‘kids at risk’ were part of the common vernacular, we sat at a meeting and we all admitted that we were facing similar problems — if there’s real unity, you can afford to be honest. With a few dollars, we set out to change the world.”
The idea of T.O.V.A. was simple. It called for older mentors — yeshivah bochurim and post-seminary girls — to form meaningful connections with the students identified by their menahalim as needing an extra bit of friendship.
The operating costs were minimal. “We paid the mentors for their time, and covered the pizza shop or bowling trip. But that was like pennies for what we were getting in return. The kids thrived.”
When he’s asked if there was a stigma attached to the program, he says, “The opposite; the students were eager for mentors. They felt so cool to have the phone numbers of their older friends. They were allowed to leave school in the middle of the day if the mentor showed up, sometimes for lunch.”
The concept was so successful that many of the kids who benefited from mentors have gone on to become mentors to younger kids that need them.



“I want to share something personal with you,” he says as he leans forward. “I am a baal teshuvah. I became frum through NCSY and was very content with my level of observance. When I moved to Far Rockaway to take the Darchei job, I sent my kids to HALB.
“Once I was exposed to the Darchei culture, the staff and students, I became very comfortable with that world — the emes and the passion. I switched my kids to Darchei and TAG, and we became, as a family, even more connected. Each of our children has brought us tremendous nachas with the choices they’ve made, from my BJJ daughter with her kollel husband to my college-educated daughter with her working husband. They are all bnei Torah, all serving Hashem their way, and there is a crucial point here.
He draws out the word, taking a break between each of the three syllables, pounding the table for an added effect.
“There are two questions that perplex me. How can parents take a sweet, holy neshamah, saturated with Torah and yiras Shamayim, and expect it to go into life without a rudimentary grasp of English, mathematics, and a grasp of the economic system? And the other is how can parents take a sweet, holy neshamah, saturated with Torah and yiras Shamayim, and expect it to rise above the filth and permissiveness of a secular college campus?”
When I comment that I’ve heard passionate arguments against too much secular education and passionate arguments against being too sheltered, but never both arguments from the same person and in the same paragraph, he laughs.
“It’s about balance. You just need to have balance.” 

Teachers love compliments and recognition from parents. A nice letter of appreciation at the end of the year is worth far more than a gift. (Remember the teacher has spent more waking hours with your child this year than you have.)
Teachers also value a good partnership with parents, and that requires ongoing positive communication throughout the year. On the other hand, they hate accusations of incompetence from angry parents.
Bottom line: If we value mechanchim and support them in their work, we will merit the zchus to have better chinuch for our children.
Final words: Build the mechanchim so they can better build your child.

3 Do’s & don’ts For the new school year
Do have your child prepare for the new school year by helping him organize his supplies, books, and clothing.
Don’t speak negatively about the yeshivah and especially the rebbeim (even if the menahel hasn’t heeded your placement request), or complain about the high cost of tuition in front of your children.

Don’t ask your child what he learned in school that day. Nine times out of ten he will say “nothing.”
Do have your child share an interesting experience he had in school that day.

Don’t validate the difficulty your child is having in math (or any other subject) by admitting that when you were in school you couldn’t do math either.
Do encourage him that through good effort (and perhaps some help, if needed) he can overcome his challenges.

1 A sudden change in mood; any child who suddenly becomes angry and sullen is a red flag.

2 Resistance to getting up in the morning and disinterest in going to school — usually a sign of a social problem, unless he has a big test he didn’t study for.

3 Your child stops showing you his test scores. If this happens, call the school to check on your child’s recent grades.


Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 425.

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