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Good Chemistry

Eytan Kobre

Dr. Emil Kon, a talmid chacham and man of science, has remained a faithful chassid — even if his rekel is a lab coat

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

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BETTER FUTURE He may not wear the levush, but the portraits gracing Dr. Kon’s Upper West Side home speak eloquently of his family’s allegiance to generations of Gerrer rebbes. “We’d meet people on their way to open their stores and my father would tell them, ‘The money you’ll earn from doing business on Shabbos will not have a kiyum.’” Since then, Professor Kon has mentored hundreds of pre-med and pre-dental students, introducing them to the rigors of chemistry and preparing them for meaningful careers (Photos: Amir Levy, Touro College)

I t's early Monday evening in Flatbush, and the engine of night-school activity at Touro College’s Avenue J campus is just beginning to hum. As the clock strikes 5:15 in Room 407, Chemistry 101 gets underway, although the students, 20-something frum fellows all, are still busy squeezing into desks loaded up with textbooks and snacks.

Behind the desk up front sits a white-haired gentleman crisply attired in white shirt and tie, with lively eyes and a wisp of beard. Behind him stands a clean whiteboard that by night’s end will be filled with abstruse scientific notation. Dr. Emil Kon’s dignified bearing and German-inflected, carefully enunciated English, convey an old-world sensibility that hints at a Continental upbringing in another, very different time.

Professor Kon’s job this evening is to introduce the fundamentals of chemistry to scientific neophytes. He brings a light touch to his teaching, leavening the heavy subject matter with touches of subtle humor, but he’s essentially all business, no banter.

Looking around at the roomful of yeshivah guys, I wonder what these tender young souls know about their professor’s life beyond the classroom. If they’re clued into the internal Touro reid, perhaps they’ve heard that he’s now in his 46th year on staff — 25 of them as dean of the science department — and is the only remaining member of its original faculty.

But have they any inkling that his day started that morning at four a.m. with a seder in Talmud Yerushalmi, which he’s now plowing through for the second time? That before them stands someone who at their age had already lived in four countries on two continents, survived two wars and fought in one? Or that he’s maintained a connection to every Gerrer Rebbe from the Imrei Emes through the current one?

Back when Dr. Kon joined the faculty of a fledging Touro College at its campus on Manhattan’s 44th Street, the amenities were a far cry from the sophisticated campus that the college currently boasts — but his pride in decades of successful science students hasn’t changed with the years

That might not be apparent in the classroom, but enter his Upper West Side home, and the influence of Gerrer chassidus looms large, from the portraits of the dynasty’s leaders that sit atop the bookcase to the seforim that line its shelves. There isn’t a spodek in sight, however, because Dr. Kon — like his father before him — is one of a nearly extinct, yet once flourishing eastern European breed: an undercover chassid, devoted to the rebbes of his chassidus and their Torah in heart and soul, but sans the levush. For him, it’s in the DNA, what with a great-grandfather who was in Kotzk in the times of Rav Mendele and a father who as a child merited seeing the Sfas Emes.

Take the Kids and Leave

Emil Kon’s eventful life — the word he uses is “complex” — began on the Gestapo-infested German-Polish border, segued into British Mandatory Palestine, where he nearly lost his life fighting with the Haganah, and eventually, in mid-life, brought him to a decades-long academic career. And through it all, he never severed his connection to the source of his spiritual nourishment.

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