Tanya Rosen is the owner of Shape Fitness. She recently released a kosher, home-workout DVD for women. Dr. Natalie Zelenko is employed as a radiologist at the Cancer Center at Maimonides Medical Centers. Igor Lempert works as an actuary for New York Life. What they and thousands of others share is a life of Torah Judaism, despite having been raised in secular environments and due to the education and warmth they received at Be’er Hagolah Institutes.
In the 1970’s Marc Ratzersdorfer formed a welcoming committee to greet the flood of immigrants from the Soviet Union and provide them with assistance. Marc and his friends from the Young Israel of the West Side visited the hotels where the Russian immigrants were placed. Over and over he heard the same plea from those he met, “Please find a Jewish school for my children.”
With firm resolve, Mr. Ratzersdorfer set out to do just that. In a meeting at the Ratzersdorfer home on Motzei Shabbos HaGadol 1979, all those present decided that a school must be opened. Mr. Zev Wolfson donated the seed money, a Vaad Hachinuch was formed with Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l serving as chairman along with many prominent rabbanim, they hired a principal and Be’er Hagolah was born.
They secured the basement of a school and hung curtains to create makeshift classrooms. Be’er Hagolah opened its doors to welcome any student who wanted a Jewish education. Hundreds of children streamed into the building, the phones rang off the hook; the demand was enormous. The space they had was inadequate to match the growing number of children seeking to attend.
Rav Yaakov called for an emergency meeting with all yeshiva principals in the New York area. In a passionate speech, he implored them to each accept one class of Be’er Hagolah students into their buildings or these children would be lost to Judaism forever. One principal insisted he had no space in his building, but offered to rent a trailer for the “Russian class.” “No,” said Rav Yaakov, unsatisfied. “You put one of your classes into the trailer and make space in the building for the Russian children.”
The school hosted a bar mitzvah for a number of boys in 1990. At the event, Mr. Joseph Gruss z”l, a prominent philanthropist, approached Mrs. Pearl Kaufman, executive director since the school’s inception, and asked, “What would the boys like as a present?”
“The boys need a building,” Pearl responded. A smile spread across Mr. Gruss’s face and he turned to his friend and remarked in his heavily-accented Yiddish, “Ich red fun a kneppel und zi redt fun di gantze kleid (I am speaking about [giving] buttons and she is [asking for] an entire garment.)” He walked away without another word.
The next day, Pearl received a call from Joseph Gruss who told her, “I am going to build a beautiful building for the Russian children.” Along with noted philanthropist, Mr. Albert Reichmann of Toronto, Gruss invested in a magnificent, state-of-the-art, eight-million dollar building. The project was overseen by Mr. Jason Cury, currently president of the Gruss Life Monument Funds, and Mr. Joel Beritz, vice-president, who invested their time and effort to ensure that every minor detail be perfect. Since then, Mr. Cury and Mr. Beritz have remained intimately involved in Be’er Hagolah.
By the time it was completed in 1991, the impressive complex contained spacious classrooms that could accommodate the student body of nearly one thousand students.
In order to ensure that no parent would be forced to send their child to public school, Be’er Hagolah has never turned away a student due to their inability to pay. Most parents pay minimal, if any, tuition. “When it came time to register my son in yeshivah [gedolah] and I received a tuition statement,” says Tanya Rosen, “I was astounded. I didn’t know that the concept of tuition existed. In all my years at Be’er Hagolah, my parents never got a tuition bill. They would never have been able to afford tuition,” stresses Tanya. “I would definitely have been sent to public school. Because of the love of Judaism that my teachers transmitted, instead of being a statistic in assimilated Jewry, my husband and I are raising our family committed to Torah.”
From Chicken to Education
Gary Rozenshteyn was eleven years old when his mother brought him to register for school. Mrs. Rozenshteyn, an obviously secular woman, was taken aback and obviously offended by being asked to furnish proof of her child’s Jewishness, a routine part of the admissions process. Digging into her purse she pulled out a faded photograph of a distinguished looking elderly Jew with a long, white beard.
“Who is this?” asked the staff. “My father,” responded the woman. “How long ago did he pass away?” they inquired. She answered, “Oh! He’s still alive. He lives with us in our apartment in Brighton Beach.”
Gary was admitted into the school. His grandfather was encouraged to visit. The old, pious man arrived, leaning on a cane. At the sight of so many children, looking Jewish and learning Torah, he broke into sobs, weeping uncontrollably. “Machtz mein kind Yiddish,” he cried.
Says Gary, today an active member of the Young Israel of White Plains, board member of the Westchester Day School, and VP/Associate Tax Council at Mac Andrews and Forbes Holdings, “Not only was I accepted into the school without a discussion about tuition, but I will never forget the chicken the Yeshiva delivered to our home for our first Shabbos in the United States.”
“My grandfather was very proud that I was going to a Jewish school,” says Gary. “I am his only grandchild who received a formal Jewish education. For us, Be’er Hagolah was not just a place for me to go to school, [it acted as a social network.] When my grandfather passed away, we did not know how to go about making funeral arrangements. My mother’s first call was to Mrs. Kaufman who arranged it all.”
From Atheist to Observant Jew
In an essay titled, The Portrait, Malka Fleytman Zolotykh, a former student, writes, “A family portrait, dated 1926, captures three generations. The white bearded older man wears a large yarmulke. His wife’s head is covered with a black tichel… They share…an anguished and weary look that betrays their inner pain and turmoil… After all, the place is the Soviet Union… In this picture, their son and his wife wear [modern] clothing and their heads are [bare]. What will the grandchildren look like?
“…In the early ‘80’s the couple passed away… Today, their descendants are dispersed throughout the world… The vast majority of them are non-observant. How can one not feel the pain of the Bubbe and Zaide in the portrait?
“Seventy-five years later,” continues Malka, “The portrait of my ancestors rests on my bookshelf in my Lakewood apartment. The two-year-old child in the picture is my grandmother. My husband, Pinchas, is learning in the Lakewood Kollel, I work in computers, and our baby… well, he’s learning to crawl.
“Thirteen years ago, I was a fifteen year-old atheist, just arrived from Russia,” says Malka. “No, I did not want to come to Be’er Hagolah because I wanted to learn about my heritage and cause drastic changes in my rational and oh so Russian head. ‘If you want to keep Torah, keep it to yourself!’ was my attitude. Yet, love and care from my teachers slowly washed away many of my internal barriers… They transformed the way I viewed the world and myself… They replaced the extended family we left behind. [I began to commit to] Shabbos, kashrus, and then went off to Israel to learn Torah and get a degree in computer science. It’s thanks to Be’er Hagolah that my family and I are living as observant Jews in a Torah metropolis like Lakewood, New Jersey.”
The staff is really invested in their students’ best interest. As Rabbi Avner German, the school’s dean expresses, “The teachers here do not look at it as a nine-to-five job; they look at it as a mission.” Teachers open their hearts and homes to their students. There are some teachers who have students for Shabbos each week so that they could observe Shabbos properly, while others prepare food and package it for some students, whose parents refuse to allow them to leave for the weekened.
Be’er Hagolah is more than just a school to the students, it becomes their second home. There are teachers who take their students clothes shopping so they can learn how to dress appropriately. Many staff members use their personal funds to pay for students to go to summer camp, purchase religious items for students, even things like toaster ovens or dishes so that they could keep kosher in their own homes.
“I have teachers from ten or fifteen years ago that I still keep up with,” remarks Chana Polischuk Touretski, today of Monsey, New York. “They are like my sisters. Our children play together; we do favors for each other.”
Reaching Out and Touching Lives
Victor Boyko enrolled when he was twelve. He had won numerous math awards and was a genius, his parents explained, and they were registering him at the school because they heard it offered an impressive education. Victor could not speak a word of English, yet, he far surpassed his class in academics. Be’er Hagolah hired a private teacher to teach him on his level. Additionally, Rabbi German, a”h connected him with a professor in a well-known college who learned with Victor online in Russian.
He knew nothing about his heritage or religion. When Rabbi German sat down to begin teaching him the Aleph-Bais, those nearby were astounded. Within an hour, Victor was able to read both Hebrew and Rashi fluently. Seeing the need to stimulate him on a higher level, Rabbi German arranged for a chavrusah from Yeshivas Chaim Berlin to learn with Victor. From there he progressed to Yeshiva Ohr Somayach, and then the Boston Kollel where he learned and thrived while simultaneously attending MIT. By the time he was twenty-one, Victor had earned his doctorate. Despite his prestigious degrees in academia, Victor, today R’ Avigdor, chooses to spend his days learning at the kollel of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin. A year after the passing of Rebbetzin Leya German a”h, principal of the school, Avigdor and his wife, Chana gave birth to a baby girl whom they named Leya in memory of Rebbetzin German.
Coming Full Circle
When Soviet Jewry arrived on these shores, they were far removed from the Judaism that their ancestors had practiced devoutly. Without activism and intervention, these immigrants would have assimilated. Be’er Hagolah saw it as a mission to reconnect these children with the heritage that Communism had cruelly ripped away from them. “We’re bringing them back to where their grandparents were before the onset of Communism,” asserts Rabbi German. “When the history of American Jewry will be written, Be’er Hagolah will be there as a chapter heading.”
Miriam Kariyev Peykar, an alumnus who today works as an occupation therapist from Queens, New York, says “Be’er Hagolah was definitely the school and the place that took us away from assimilation and brought us back to our heritage.”
“What the school really helped me do, is to develop a very strong feeling of belonging, an identity and love of being Jewish,” remarks Igor Lempert. “I see guys from my class, including myself, who are taking the steps to becoming more observant.”
“I am married to a wonderful person,” says Dr. Natalie Maryanovsky Zelenko, who graduated in 1996. “And together we have built a home based on Torah values… I think,” continues Natalie, “That the most striking way of measuring how much impact Be’er Hagolah has had on our lives, is to ask my husband. I have heard him tell people that BHI has changed his life. Having come to Torah Judaism through his relationship with me, he attributes every aspect of his Judaism today to Be’er Hagolah. And I know, that for every [tefillah] that he prays, for every Shabbos and Shabbos guest, for every daf of Gemarah , the credit is Be’er Hagolah’s.”
Dr. Zelenko sums it up best, “When an institution can affect changes in the lives of young people, like my husband, who have never stepped through its doors, you know that it and the people who dedicate their lives to it, are truly extraordinary.”
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