Title: Travails and Conquests: The Life of Dr. Leon A. Reich
Author: Yaakov Kornreich
162 pages. Paperback. $11.95
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing
It can be said that history consists of a collection of the individual stories of people whose lives made a lasting impact. The biography of Dr. Leon Reich is one such story. It spans three critical eras of modern Jewish history. Leon’s story begins during the years before World War II, and describes how Jewish families in Central Europe grappled with the life or death decision of whether to stay or flee in the face of the gathering Nazi storm.
Leon’s story continues as his family joined the struggling Jewish community in Palestine, and describes his unique contributions as a soldier and technician to the defense of the newborn State of Israel in its desperate fight for its survival.
Leon then goes to the United State, and becomes part of the post-war renaissance of the American Orthodox community. He and his wife join a group of dedicated lay leaders in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Leon plays a pivotal role in the development of some of the leading Jewish educational institutions of our times.
As a child Leon and his parents voluntarily gave up their relatively comfortable situation in Poland a few years before the war to face the challenges and hardships of a new life in Palestine. The family arrived and started over with a small dairy farm on the outskirts of Tel Aviv where Leon grew up as a boy.
When he wasn’t in school Leon helped out with the milking and deliveries to the farm’s customers in Tel Aviv. Leon also volunteered for training with the Haganah youth, and was a member of the first unit to be called up for combat duty in November 1947.
Leon experienced the War of Independence from a soldier’s perspective, while remaining true to his Jewish ideals and beliefs. Faced with a moral dilemma, he refused to obey his unit’s orders to go to the beachfront and open fire on the Altalena, an Irgun ship that was filled with Holocaust survivors and arms to defend the country against the Arab invaders.
Eventually, the Israel army recognized Leon’s technical skills and put him in charge of a special unit that modified, repaired and improved the aiming devices on the weapons and equipment used on the front lines. During this period, Leon demonstrated the creativity and imagination that was to mark his professional and communal leadership activities for the next 60 years.
After the war ended, the army wanted Leon to participate in the further development of Israel’s defense industries. But Leon did not want a career in the military. He refused to accept a commission as an officer, and demanded his army discharge so that he could pursue a civilian career in optometry. His goal was to go to the U.S. to enroll in a highly regarded optometry program at Columbia University in New York City. To satisfy the program’s entry requirements, Leon planned to take the required courses at a community college in California, where he would live and support himself with the help of family members living in the Los Angeles area.
Leon arrived at Idlewild (now JFK) Airport in New York City on September 9, 1950, the day before Yom Kippur. Waiting for him at the gate was his father’s cousin, Esther Richman, who invited Leon to spend Yom Kippur with her family at their home in Flatbush before continuing to California.
Richman was accompanied by her daughter, Rosalie, a Brooklyn college student who came along to the airport for the ride. She and Leon quickly developed a friendship. Leon’s invitation to stay for Yom Kippur was extended to Sukkot and beyond. He missed his first semester of college classes, but by the time Leon finally left for California, a lifelong bond had been formed with Rosalie. The two were married the next summer, and returned from California to live in the Richman home in Flatbush when Leon gained admission to the Columbia program.
After obtaining his optometry license, Leon started a neighborhood practice in the Richman home which specialized in the diagnosis and treatment of eye conditions, rather than selling eyeglasses. He became involved in the research and development of a more practical type of hard contact lens that was superior in several ways to the newly introduced soft contact lenses. He also developed a multi-disciplinary approach to diagnosing students with learning disabilities connected to treatable vision problems. In both cases, Leon had to battle the entrenched establishment to gain a hearing for his new ideas.
Leon and Rosalie sank deep roots in the Flatbush community. They bought a home of their own and sent their three children to the Yeshivah of Flatbush. Leon and Rosalie were part of a group of religious parents who successfully fought to establish strict Orthodox standards of conduct for the Yeshivah of Flatbush’s lay leaders. When some of the school’s non-Orthodox donors retaliated by halting their donations, Leon organized a parent volunteer-based fundraising campaign which enabled the yeshiva to finance its operations without having to rely on large individual contributions.
In the 1960’s, Leon launched an ambitious effort to expand an existing advanced studies program for alumni of the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School into an accredited Jewish college. Working with Dr. Bernard Lander, Leon’s plan evolved into the concept for Touro College. Leon was instrumental in enabling Touro to receive its charter from the New York State Department of Higher Education in 1970.
In 1987, Leon was seriously injured in a mugging attack outside his home. After his miraculous recovery, Leon became determined to show his gratitude by applying the practical expertise in construction that he had gained in a side career as a small real estate investor and developer to meeting the needs of the Jewish community. Among those projects, Leon personally supervised the construction of the attractive new building of the Young Israel of Avenue J in Flatbush. Leon was also a driving force behind the establishment of a badly needed regional emergency medical center, located in Efrat, where his daughter and her family now live.
In the meantime, Rosalie earned a Ph.D. from New York University, and became a full professor in the English literature department of the College of Staten Island. In the early 1990’s, Rosalie was asked to serve as national president of Emunah Women. With Leon’s support and encouragement, Rosalie used her communication skills to vigorously defend the rights of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, and to refute supporters of the Oslo peace process in the media and international forums.
This book is much more than a memoir to friends and members of the Reich family. It bears witness to the historical events and accomplishments in which Leon and Rosalie Reich played a significant part. In the process, it paints a vivid picture of the times and Jewish communities in which they lived, illuminating them for all generations, while offering Leon and Rosalie’s unique perspective on issues with which the Jewish community still struggles to this day.
All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the Young Israel of Avenue J. The book may be ordered direct from the Amazon website at amazon.com.Joel Mandel
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