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A Powerhouse of a Principal

Barbara Bensoussan

Small in stature, but large in every other aspect of her life, educator Chaya Newman a”h influenced hundreds of teachers and thousands of students over a span of six decades,

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

principalWhen Family First ran a roundtable on the Jewish view of achieving perfection, one of the participants rushed in a few minutes late: a small, sprightly woman in her 70s with a radiant smile, looking absolutely delighted to find herself in the company of fellow mechanchos.  

Wearing a short blonde wig, tastefully attired and made up, there was a grace in the deliberate way the newcomer unwrapped the scarf from around her neck. My first impression was of a terrific Jewish bubby — not the kind that wears an apron and rarely leaves the kitchen, but the kind that shows up, stylishly dressed, to whisk the grandchildren off to some fantastic museum and lunch at a restaurant. As the roundtable commenced, it quickly became clear this petite figure contained a personality of gargantuan proportions.

Nobody in that room had any idea that Chaya Newman a”h was already battling the illness that would claim her life. She was thin, but she seemed much too vibrant, too happy, to be sick. Her petirah this past September 20 came as a shock to almost everyone.

Mrs. Newman had been a major force in chinuch for almost 60 years — including 37 years as the principal of Bruriah High School in New Jersey and, for the last five years of her career, as a national director for Torah Umesorah. A woman with boundless energy, she earned a master’s degree in counseling while at Bruriah, working with Counterforce and the Yitty Leibel Help Line. She also opened a private practice counseling both singles and couples, with referrals coming in from such revered figures as Rav Gifter, Rav Elya Svei, and the Novominsker Rebbe.

Although her death came unexpectedly, and at a busy time of year, some 2,400 people turned out for her levayah on Erev Shabbos Shuvah in Brooklyn. Hundreds more — including busloads of seminary girls — attended her levayah in Eretz Yisrael the following Sunday. “The directors of practically every girls’ seminary were at the levayah,” reports Elisheva Kaminetsky, a former talmidah who was later recruited by Mrs. Newman to be a Bruriah teacher. The mark she left on chinuch was so deep that, as one woman remarked at the levayah, “When Chaya Newman gets to Shamayim, Sarah Schenirer is going to accompany her to the Kisei HaKavod.”

Raised for the Role
Mrs. Newman was born into a Yiddish-speaking family — the second of four girls — in what was then British Mandate Palestine. “She used to joke that she was a true Palestinian,” says her youngest sister, Judy Kohn.
Since their father, Rabbi Yaakov Blumenkrantz z”l, had no sons, his daughters were the receptacles of his intense love of Torah learning. He is described as a person who was deeply committed to chinuch, which may explain why all four daughters made working in chinuch a focal part of their lives.
When Mrs. Newman was a small child, her father was sent to North America to raise funds for the Novardok yeshivah, leaving behind his wife and then two young daughters. World War II erupted after his departure, making a trip home impossible. He and his wife would remain on opposite sides of the Atlantic for the next seven years, his wife somehow managing to keep the family going.
“I remember stories about how they’d only have one egg per week,” recalls Nechama Frand, the third of the four sisters. “But I would also hear how my mother managed to keep my sisters so nicely turned out, in their pretty hair ribbons, so that people would ask, ‘Who are those girls?’ Somehow she managed to meet all their needs.”
Rebbetzin Blumenkrantz is described in many of the same terms used to characterize her daughter Chaya: feisty, highly energetic, sharp-witted, and warm.
“She would shower people with brachos,” recalls Mrs. Newman’s son Rabbi Eliyahu Newman, menahel of the Mirrer Yeshivah mesivta in Brooklyn.
During the seven years his wife was fending for herself in Palestine, Rabbi Blumenkrantz was establishing himself in Baltimore, working at the Ner Israel yeshivah first as a rebbi, later as an administrative director. He eventually brought over his wife and daughters.
Little Chaya, who was about nine, was enrolled in a Bais Yaakov along with her older sister, Sara (Rebbetzin Sara Heiman Nadav). Due to the lack of Bais Yaakov high schools in Baltimore, the two sisters were later sent to Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan’s Bais Yaakov in Williamsburg. Exceptional students, they were placed a grade or two above their age level. Mrs. Frand remembers how her two older “New York” sisters seemed like “these glamorous, fairy-tale-like young women who would swoop down from the big city to visit us, bearing gifts.… As a child, I worshipped them.” Chaya graduated early, finishing as valedictorian of her class, and continued on to seminary.
Both Sara and Chaya were not yet 17 when they took their first teaching jobs. “They’d pin up their hair, put on high heels, and walk in with that self-confidence they had,” Mrs. Frand says. “Nobody dreamed they were so young.” Chaya began her teaching career with the pre-bar mitzvah class at Yeshivas Ahavas Yisroel in Passaic. “I think nobody knew her age, or they wouldn’t have hired her,” Mrs. Frand remarks.
Chaya went on to do undergraduate coursework at Brooklyn College in mathematics, completing her degree at Case Western in Cleveland. At age 19, she married Avigdor (Victor) Newman, a musmach of the Telshe Yeshivah, with the understanding that they would join the nascent kollel in Cleveland. “She sewed her own magnificent wedding gown,” Mrs. Kohn remembers, “and gowns for us, her little sisters, too.” Mrs. Frand adds wistfully, “I still think it’s the most gorgeous wedding dress I’ve ever seen.
“My sister and her husband went straight to Cleveland after they got married, and had one of their sheva brochos in the yeshivah. Everybody was enchanted by this young, vibrant couple. They were such attractive role models for the community.” Other than the newlyweds, there were only three other couples in the kollel. “My parents were pioneers in that first Telshe kollel,” Rabbi Newman adds.
The Newmans spent five years in Cleveland, where the new Mrs. Newman taught at the Hebrew Academy. Mr. Reuven Dessler recalls that his father, the principal, stated that Chaya Newman was his star teacher. Rav Gifter then decided to send them to Mexico to start a kollel. They bravely packed their suitcases, boned up on Spanish, and traveled south of the border.
In Mexico, Mrs. Newman founded a preschool with a handful of Jewish children, while her husband founded a yeshivah. Two years later, they returned to New York, where Mrs. Newman taught at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach and later at Yeshivah of Flatbush. Even then, her impact was deep: during the shivah, the family received a surprise visit from a doctor with a beard and tzitzis, who pulled out an old, stencil-created Haggadah and announced, “I was a student of Mrs. Newman’s 44 years ago at Yeshivah of Flatbush. I am what I am today because of her … I still take out this Haggadah every Pesach.”

The Job of a Lifetime
In 1970, via a referral by her sister Sara, Mrs. Newman received an offer from Rabbi Pinchas Mordechai Teitz to take over a small community school called Bruriah in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It had about 50 students, and a yeshivah parent body that encompassed a wide range of religious observance.
“She knew how to raise the bar on frumkeit, but also when not to rock the boat,” says Mrs. Naomi Krupenia, who taught at Bruriah for years. Mrs. Zlata Press, principal of Prospect Park Yeshiva High School, adds that she also knew how to “walk the tightrope between often more modern parents and her staff of mostly Lakewood teachers.”
How, for instance, were the halachos of hair covering taught in a milieu where some mothers didn’t cover their hair? Longtime Bruriah teacher Mrs. Yael Kaisman says teachers would approach the subject in an objective, nonjudgmental way, by discussing why people stopped doing it or why they were unaware of it, then present the whole span of Torah opinions on the issue.
Rabbi Newman remembers that his mother would spend her summers preparing for the school year, which included taking photographs of all the incoming students and pasting them to a big sign with the names written underneath. She’d hang it in the house, and by the time September rolled around, she’d memorized all their names and faces and could greet them by name. “It wowed them,” Rabbi Newman says.
Mrs. Press recalls hearing of a new student who found a Danish on her desk accompanied by a little note asking, “How’s it going?”
“She was a master of active listening — she used to teach it at leadership training conferences. When she worked with the Yitty Liebel Help Line, there were people who would wait for her shift to call in,” says her daughter Mrs. Shlomis Peikes, an assistant principal at Bruriah. “The kids trusted her; they’d tell her the most amazing things. Many kids were spared much agony because they’d shared their problems with a responsible adult. She never abused their trust either, even though sometimes she would have to tell them, ‘You know, we need to speak to your parents,’ or ‘You know, this can’t go on.’”
Mrs. Newman knew how to pick battles with teenagers, and was able to see beyond the externals of a child’s dress or behavior into what was really going on. “Her passion, her goal was to bring the girls closer to avodas Hashem,” Mrs. Kaisman says. “She was the ultimate Jewish mother in a mechanechet.” When girls had family situations that had become unbearable, Mrs. Newman often brought them home to live with her for a while. More than once, she organized weddings for students who had no money, even obtaining housewares for the kallah.
The teachers who worked under Mrs. Newman felt just as cared for and valued. “Her energy was contagious — she was a powerhouse — and she fostered tremendous team spirit among the teachers,” says Mrs. Kaisman. “She didn’t micromanage, but she empowered, and she mentored people and created a solid system so that there was a group in place that could take over and continue her vision.”
With characteristic generosity, she never objected when other schools would appropriate her ideas — sometimes to the extent of blanking out her name and the name of the school on documents, and replacing them with their own names. “She was always willing to share programs,” Mrs. Peikes says, “because she never repeated herself. She did postmortems on every event, so even annual events seemed fresh.”
When Mrs. Newman first became ill, about 10 years ago, she made sure no one noticed it, because she didn’t want it to affect her relationship with the students. Her car pool, which included commuting teachers and/or students, would stop for half an hour at Staten Island Hospital while she ran up for chemotherapy, but she’d tell them she was getting treatment for a bad knee. At one point, when she was too weak to walk, she had an air cast put on her leg so the students would think she’d injured her leg. When she was too tired to return to Brooklyn after events, she would lock herself into her office and sleep on the couch, unperturbed to sleep alone in the building.
By the time she left Bruriah, it had grown from 50 students to 400, with girls commuting from all over New Jersey and the New York area. Today there are numerous principals in the chinuch world who started out as teachers or assistants in Bruriah.

Doing It All
Listening to family and colleagues describe Mrs. Newman’s incredible devotion to her students and teachers, the average working mother can’t help but wonder, “How did she also juggle her family: a husband, four sons, and a daughter?” It’s not that she simply kept her head above water; each one of the Newman children married into chashuve families and went on to impressive accomplishments of their own.
“We saw our mother at the beginning of every day, and the end of every day,” Rabbi Newman says. “I remember we’d all sit together in a corner as she finished getting ready in the mornings, and she’d talk to us. She always had time for us — she would make time.”
Adds daughter Shlomis Peikes: “When you talked to her, you were her sole focus. You never felt she was distracted; at home she was totally ours. She was able to compartmentalize work and family. But we did learn to share her from an early age, with the understanding that it was for the purpose of making a difference in other people’s lives. It was like we were five kids with 400 siblings.”
Mrs. Newman knew how to speak to her students — and children — on their level. Rabbi Newman relates that once, one of his brothers tied a blanket around his neck like a cape and began heading for the window, yelling, “I’m going to fly! I’m Superman!”
“My mother said, ‘Do you really think you can?’ She told him to go to the refrigerator and bring her a peach. She wrapped it in the blanket, and threw it out the window — we lived on an upper floor of an apartment building in Boro Park. Then they went down and got the peach, and she showed him how smashed it was, explaining that something similar would happen to him chas v’shalom if he tried to fly out the window.
“Years later, when he would come to speak at Bruriah, she used to introduce him as ‘Super Peach.’”
Gifted with artistic talent, Mrs. Newman sometimes took art classes and painted in the summers, later decorating her office at Bruriah with those paintings. “She put together these terrific, gourmet Shabbos and Yom Tov tables,” Rabbi Newman says. “Even simpler meals were always well presented. The meals felt like a gala event.”
Mrs. Peikes remembers that, as children, “We had the best projects, the best Purim costumes, the best book covers. She used to come up with out-of-the-box ideas for any challenge. I was in eighth grade when my parents finally bought a house. When we moved in, they knew they’d be ‘house-poor’ for a while, until they caught up on expenses. There was no money to buy furniture, much less the beautiful bedroom set I’d been dreaming of ever since I knew I’d be getting my own room. But about two weeks after we moved in, my mother handed me a plastic bag full of magic markers and suggested, ‘Why don’t you decorate your walls yourself?’
“Well, I did, and it was such a good idea for me at the time. When we painted the room later on, it took many coats of paint to cover up those designs!”
The Newman children were frequently called upon to share bedroom space with anyone in need of it. “So many people were adopted into our house,” Rabbi Newman says. “Older singles, students. If we protested, ‘Ma, enough!’ she’d get upset, and tell us these were wonderful people who needed a place for the moment.”
Behind every successful woman there’s a special man, and Mrs. Newman’s husband, Rabbi Dr. Avigdor Newman, is no exception. “My father appreciated and valued my mother and her work, so we did too,” Mrs. Peikes says. A highly talented doctor in his own right, he was gratified rather than threatened by his wife’s successes, filling in for her at home when she was really busy.

A Very Active “Retirement”
As she passed the 70-year mark, Mrs. Newman — dubbed “Bubby the Great” by her grandchildren — prepared to move on from Bruriah to new challenges. “Most people in Chaya’s physical condition would retire and sit in a rocking chair,” says Mrs. Kohn. “My sister did the opposite — she went to work with Torah Umesorah and started flying all over the country giving workshops.”
She came in as director of the National Conference of Yeshiva Principals (Women’s Division) at a time when Torah Umesorah was expanding, and was excited by the prospect of propagating the ideas she’d implemented at Bruriah on a national level. “She wanted to collect all sorts of programs from different schools to make them available to everyone,” Mrs. Krupenia says. “She couldn’t believe it when some people were resistant to sharing ideas — she couldn’t relate at all since she herself was always so selfless about sharing.”
Mrs. Devorah Yudkowsky, Torah Umesorah’s executive coordinator, shared an office with her and recalls her meticulous attention to every detail of her events, from the menus to the table runners. “As much as she mentored principals and teachers — and principals from around the world would call her for advice — she was never shy to ask for feedback,” she says.
She worked hard to pass on tips and tricks of the trade, such as the most effective way for principals to conduct a five-minute walk-through of a classroom to evaluate teacher performance, or how to combine three quizzes so that only one grading session was necessary. “She was always learning, but she wouldn’t just jump on the latest educational bandwagon,” Mrs. Yudkowsky says. “She’d evaluate critically what could be useful and what was not.”
Her output at Torah Umesorah was impressive. Here is but a small sampling: two advisory groups for women principals, a high-tech program on the subject of onaas devarim (in conjunction with the Chofetz Chaim Foundation); a video entitled “Become a Teacher,” aimed at inspiring young people to pursue careers in chinuch; a booklet culled from materials from many schools for a yom iyun for the Yamim Noraim; a winter Motzaei Shabbos program for high school girls, Ner Tehillah, which brings in speakers and refreshments to turn teenagers’ Saturday nights into something more inspirational than going for pizza. With all that, who could have guessed her health was failing?
“She wasn’t afraid of death,” Rabbi Newman says. “She once told me, ‘I’m at peace with dying, if that’s what Hashem wants. But I’d really like a few more years. There are so many things I want to accomplish.’” Aside from many pending Torah Umesorah projects, one of her more ambitious unrealized dreams was to open a girls’ high school in Lakewood. “She was very worried that the Jewish community is losing good classroom teachers, especially in chinuch habanos, since other careers pay so much better.”
“There are some people who are irreplaceable,” Mrs. Press concludes. “Chaya Newman is one of them.”

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