The original Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, or RJJ, no longer exists in Manhattan, but during its existence it long served as an important and successful model for Jewish education in the United States.
This reminiscence is based on one alumnus’s memory and appreciation of his experience there more than 65 years ago, and on his many years of service as a professional in Jewish life in the United States and Israel.
Organized in 1903, RJJ was located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which was the major area of first settlement for Jews immigrating to the United States from Europe.
It graduated from its elementary and high schools thousands of alumni who were or are still active in important leadership roles in Jewish life and Jewish communities in the U.S. and Israel.
What made RJJ unique was that many, if not all, of the initial components of its educational model were initially integrated into many of the day schools and yeshivas that were organized all over the United States. RJJ’s principal for many decades, Rabbi Hillel Weiss, had studied at the Pressburg yeshiva in Hungary and assigned major priority to the limudei kodesh curriculum, supported by the excellent faculty and roshei yeshiva Rabbi Weiss recruited.
What was also very special about RJJ is that it maintained a balanced dual secular program, led for many years by Herman Winter, a faculty member at Stuyvesant High School, one of America’s top secondary public schools. The graduates of RJJ’s high school were, as a result, well fortified to pursue excellent professional careers in the Jewish and secular worlds.
One of the best examples is Robert (Yisrael) Aumann – Nobel laureate, professor at Hebrew University, and outstanding talmid chacham. During the ceremony and dinner at which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he publicly acknowledged his teachers at RJJ, including Joseph Ganzler, his teacher of mathematics, and Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Warshavchik, his rosh yeshiva. All the guests that night were served the same kosher dinner enjoyed by Professor Aumann.
It was quite a Kiddush Hashem on the part of Dr. Aumann and the school he credited for his success.
The evolution of institutions, including yeshivas, is not always characterized by ascent. Some of the right-wing yeshivas have in recent years deemphasized or emasculated their secular programs. This reflects some of the political and ideological changes in parts of the Orthodox community (changes that were already underway even before the establishment of the state of Israel). RJJ also operated a successful ivrit b’ivrit program in its elementary school – a rarity in American day schools today. This diminution of Hebrew in the day school curriculum has had regrettable consequences for the status and knowledge of Hebrew among Orthodox youth in America.
Rabbi Weiss’s relationship with the students made for a very unique ambiance at RJJ. For some of us it only became evident and appreciated long after our graduation. The student body was a considerable challenge. Some students were what in those days was considered rowdy or mischievous.
I remember once making a shiva call for the mother of two RJJ alumni who had become outstanding Jewish educators. The small group present was comprised of outstanding alumni whom had attended RJJ decades earlier. Much of that evening was spent sharing, accompanied with huge gales of laughter, their experiences as students at RJJ – a common occurrence when RJJ alumni gather.
But a smaller number of students, some from religious families, were out of sync with yeshiva life. I was startled to find one of them, an alumnus and neighbor of mine, standing next to me at Rabbi Weiss’s funeral (he had died suddenly in 1954) in front of the yeshiva building. He told me that all the years he was a student at RJJ he was invited to Rabbi Weiss’s office just before Passover. Rabbi Weiss would inquire if he had a new suit for the holiday – which he always subsequently arranged for him.
There were several pool halls near the yeshiva, one just around the corner. They were absolutely off limits to all the students because of the low-class clientele they attracted. The administration once learned that a number of students had been seen shooting pool there. A noisy scandal followed but no students were expelled by Rabbi Weiss, as had been expected. Their names weren’t even released.
What Rabbi Weiss did do, after advising the parents of the boys who were involved, was call a meeting of all the high school students, which took place in the yeshiva’s synagogue just before Shavuot. His theme, very powerfully presented, was that the study of Torah was intended to create principled, moral personalities, not pool players. (Just last year I met one of those students. He was retired and living in Israel after a distinguished career in the rabbinate).
In many right-wing yeshivas today, admission is preceded by an interview, which includes questions about the family’s religious observance. Rabbi Weiss’s approach was to welcome any student to RJJ whatever his age and religious background, provided he believed the boy and his parents were genuinely interested and would benefit from their RJJ experience.
They were not the ba’al teshuvah types of our time. But many succeeded, some in spectacular fashion. One of them, while still at yeshiva, tutored Talmud to weaker students and eventually became one of the leaders in the eida hachareides in Jerusalem. Two of my classmates, star students, went on to complete their graduate studies and settle in Israel, where they worked in Jewish education.
The combination of Rabbi Weiss’s approach and emerging communal demographics produced a very diverse student population at RJJ. Many were from working families or the city’s projects on the Lower East Side. With RJJ’s growing success after World War II, students were enrolled from more established Jewish families living on the East and West sides of Manhattan and in New Jersey. Aside from class differences, there was a vast range in religious observance. The school was also enriched by a small number of Sephardic students.
There was no official or informal dress code at RJJ; each student dressed in his own fashion. This both reflected and fostered their latent individualism (and differed substantially from some of the later right-wing yeshivas with their standard uniform for students of black yarmulkes, pants, white shirt, and black fedora on Shabbat). At that time, the majority of RJJ students were far from being or becoming Xerox copies of one other. It was, I believe a marvelous gift RJJ bestowed on its students. Within the parameters of American Orthodoxy, they could do their own thing religiously while appreciating and respecting the behavior and attitudes of other Orthodox Jews.
One final personal experience. In my freshman year in high school my teacher was HaRav J. Goldman. Like almost all the RJJ rabbis at that time, he was born in Europe, but he maintained a capacity to relate to his American-born students – no small achievement. In class we were studying Bava Kamma, which deals with the arba avot nezikin, the four major sources of damages inflicted on others for which we are responsible. One of them is fire. The Talmud debates the underlying source of our responsibility for damage by fire. One view holds it is damage caused by our property, esho meshum mamono. The other view is esho meshum chitzo, that it’s comparable to one who shoots an arrow – the damage is connected to the individual’s action.
Rav Goldman posed the question of the Ran, a commentator on the Talmud. If fire is esho meshum chitzo, connected to the individual through his action, anyone who lights Sabbath candles should be guilty of desecrating the Sabbath. Once Shabbat has begun, the fire he lit continues to be linked to that individual.
Rav Goldman turned to the class for a reaction. I stood and responded. I have no recollection of what I said that day. All I remember is that he approached me and kissed me gently on my cheek.
That sweet expression of his love more than half a lifetime ago has sustained and inspired me through the vicissitudes of a blessed religious life.