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Back in Business 

Two brothers, two schools, one mission: Rabbi Baruch And Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Rothman steer their yeshivos through the storm

Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab

On the last day of camp at Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway this past August, Rabbis Jeff and Baruch Rothman were on hand as boys in shorts were massed on the front steps waiting for pickup. Slowly they disappeared, a few candy wrappers and the occasional abandoned N-95 mask the only evidence of their presence. But Darchei parents Rabbi Baruch Rothman, Darchei Torah’s director of institutional advancement, and his brother Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Rothman, executive director of Yeshivah of Flatbush, had other things on their minds besides camp. In a few days, both schools would be opening under COVID restrictions, and they needed to figure out how to make it work.

A month later, after months of preparation, an unexpected rise in COVID cases turned both Far Rockaway and Flatbush into red zones and forced schools to close. It took a mighty effort for both Rothman brothers to deal with parents and students, adapt to the changes, and work with city and state government and Jewish askanim to get the yeshivos back up and running any way they could.

Both Yeshivah of Flatbush and Darchei Torah are now open again for the second time. They had opened before the Yamim Tovim, hoping to conduct education in as normal a fashion as possible given the requirements of social distancing and masks. But right after Rosh Hashanah, a few cases of COVID at Darchei led to an order to shut the school for two weeks despite the yeshivah’s extra-mile efforts to meet and even exceed the guidelines. Then, during Chol Hamoed Succos, both Far Rockaway and Flatbush became red zones, and all schools were shuttered.

“When they first closed Darchei, we didn’t understand, since we only had a few cases,” Rabbi Baruch Rothman says. “We were told they’d investigate, but they never did. After we became a red zone, though, there was finally clearer government guidance that was in line with what we’d been doing anyway.”

He and others from Darchei worked together with a coalition of every yeshivah in Far Rockaway, representing over 7,000 students, and placed a phone call to the governor’s office to plead for permission to open (arranged by Maury Litwack from Teach NYS, an affiliate of the OU). The governor’s office responded that they wanted more testing to happen, and told them to put together a proposal. The yeshivos sent back a proposal that offered to test students.

“In the end we didn’t need it,” Rabbi Baruch says. “The COVID rates improved, and Far Rockaway became a yellow zone two days before they reviewed our proposal.”

Becoming “yellow” meant that shuls could open at 50 percent capacity, and schools could open if 20 percent of students and staff were tested once a week for COVID (which also means getting consent from all the parents to do nasal swabs). Since Darchei includes about 3,000 people between students and staff, that means testing 600 people each week.

The yeshivah, however, learned back in September about challenging restrictions that don’t make sense.

“The city has shown a willingness to be more open-minded, and not shut us down if two kids are sick, which is a huge win for all yeshivos,” Rabbi Rothman says.

At Yeshivah of Flatbush, his older brother Rabbi Jeffrey Rothman spent June through August preparing for the opening of school, following New York state guidelines that stipulate schools enforce either social distancing (kids six feet apart, not practical for large schools), mask wearing all day (good for some ages, not others), or polycarbonate barriers around desks. Yeshivah of Flatbush installed new air-conditioner filters and created an app for parents to fill out health screenings. But despite all these efforts, the yeshivah soon closed.

“We saw an uptick even before Succos,” Jeffrey says. “We had some individual cases, and had to quarantine some classes. We didn’t have many cases, but those we did have were disruptive for the impacted classes and children.”

Then Flatbush was declared a red zone, and classes continued via Zoom. (The Early Childhood Center was allowed to open, as regulators were stymied trying to figure out what to do for children too young to do Zoom school.)

“The hard part was that the New York City Department of Health kept changing the rules about how to deal with new cases, and they were very strict,” Jeffrey says. “It was harder for us than for schools outside the city. The city and state weren’t always in sync, and we were expected to roll with the changes at a moment’s notice. For smaller schools, it’s a little easier to adapt. But at a big school like Flatbush, with over 2,000 students, it’s very hard to constantly keep changing.”

He worked with a coalition of mostly Sephardic schools, Teach NYS, and local officials to put a workable policy in place so that red zone schools could remain open, even if a few students tested positive. Seven Brooklyn schools wrote a letter to the governor stating this and offering to test students regularly. They finally got the go-ahead at the end of October.

“It was a huge win,” Rabbi Jeffrey says. “Now we can be open if we test 25 percent of our students and staff weekly, and our positivity rate is under 1 percent.”

Jeffrey says one big challenge is doing all that testing without cutting into more learning time — it means testing 600 students every Sunday.

As executive director of the institution, he says communication with parents at this time has been more crucial than ever — especially while some are struggling to pay such high tuition for Zoom schooling. But most parents have been understanding, and they’re thrilled that their children are back in school.

Fraternal Order

The two men are peas who came out of the same pod, and landed more or less in the same one too: helping their yeshivos survive and grow. Two very different schools, two very different jobs, and yet both have landed in the thick of the challenges of running particularly large institutions in the 21st century.

Yet a career in yeshivah management isn’t what one might have predicted for these doctor’s sons. Their father, Dr. Nathan Rothman, is a pulmonologist who’s been the head of ICU and pulmonology services at St. John’s Hospital, just a couple of blocks behind Darchei, for the past 40 years. Dr. Rothman’s two brothers are doctors as well.

But when it came to their own futures, Dr. Rothman’s three kids took a different path. Jeffrey, with his EdD, is the only “doctor” in the family (their sister is a social worker).

“The degree did help ease my father’s concerns when I decided to go into chinuch,” Jeff admits. “He was concerned about my choice, both because of the financial angle, and because I married young, at 20. He told me, ‘If you’re going to do it, do it right, better than everyone else.’ By that he meant I should bring in all my business acumen to make sure Jewish institutions operate financially in a very professional way.”

But even while Dr. Nathan Rothman has a busy practice, managed by his wife, both of them have always maintained strong community involvement, from coaching Little League to serving on the boards of schools and his shul.

What the family inherited, Baruch says, was a strong sense of becoming involved in the organizations that affect your life: shul, yeshivos, even kiddie sports teams.

“We’re not a family that has hobbies,” he says. “We’re a family of doers. As kids, we saw it by example. You see a need in a community institution, you roll up your sleeves and pitch in.”

Still, the two brothers arrived at their respective yeshivah careers through very different paths.

Jeffrey earned semichah through RIETS at Yeshiva University, and a master’s in education from YU’s Azrieli Graduate School. Around the same time, he worked on a master’s in public administration at NYU, finishing all three degrees around 2000. He taught limudei kodesh for four years in Bat Torah — the Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva High School for Girls — then worked until 2015 at HALB/SKA, first as the principal for grades nine and ten of the girls’ school (SKA), then as principal of academic initiatives and advanced learning for all of HALB K–12. During his tenure there he completed his EdD.

He was wooed away from HALB to serve as the head of school at Netivot Torah, a day school in Toronto. He says he loved working there, but his family was less enthusiastic about being uprooted, and so they returned to their native Five Towns, while Jeffrey, who’d committed to another year, remained in Toronto, shuttling back and forth.

In 2017 he accepted his current position as executive director at Yeshivah of Flatbush. But while most executive directors deal with tuition and fundraising, that wasn’t what intrigued him about the position. Jeffrey serves as a conduit between the yeshivah parents and the board, and oversees a staff of 35, with seven directors reporting directly to him in areas such as fundraising, finance, technology, marketing, operations, and admissions.

“I’m not a micromanager,” Jeffrey says. “I have them fill me in on what I need to know, and they know they can call me any time of the day or night.”

Torah Umesorah has organized forums for teachers and principals, but there was never a group for executive directors. So Jeffrey and some colleagues decided to create a group, EDS (Executive Directors Share). They began with 30 participants, and have now increased to over 100. It allows them to network and exchange information, and fulfills his personal passion to bring more leadership coaching into his yeshivah.

So Much to Go Around

Baruch Rothman’s path toward a yeshivah career meandered through other fields. Like everyone else in the family, he started out in Yeshiva University, with an undergrad major in economics.

“My original plan,” he says, “started out as kind of a joke. Rabbi Ari Waxman, my rebbi in Sha’alvim in Eretz Yisrael, told me, ‘You have kochos — you should put them to work for mosdos.’ So when I went in the next morning to daven, I had an idea — I’d get rich quick, retire in my forties, and work for a yeshivah.’ ”

Of course, plans don’t usually work out that way, and a few years later, after learning for a short while at YU and venturing into business, the reality hit: There’s no get rich quick. Baruch tried his hand at a few things — online clothing company closeouts, and serving as the head of operations for an e-commerce site for home goods and clothing long before it was common to sell on Amazon. Along the way, he earned an Executive MBA through Touro College.

He fell into the job at Darchei by Hashgachah pratis. Baruch was interviewing for a position at another institution, where he met board member Mr. Lloyd F. Keilson, who also happened to be on the board at Darchei. Mr. Keilson urged him to meet with Rabbi Yaakov Bender, and there he landed the position of Darchei’s director of institutional advancement.

In practice, his role has included different combinations of fundraising and operations. But Baruch didn’t really want to be a salesman, calling donors and parents to bring in money, so he manages to get around it by turning fundraising into “friend-raising,” considering each new contact a real friend, and going out of his way to help them in any way he can. He still hates making phone calls, though.

“That first call of the day always seems impossible,” he says. “After that, it flows.”

He gleaned a lot about fundraising from a consultant named David Mirsky, who happened to be a Reform clergyman. When he felt discouraged, buried in operations, Mirsky would tell him, “Do you want to be a doctor, or do you want to build hospitals? You can see 10 or 20 patients a day, or you can build an institution that will affect thousands of people.” Change and growth, he’s learned, don’t happen without hands-on effort.

Having worked in the business sector, Baruch brings a strong ethic of customer service to his job.

“Yeshivah parents pay a lot of money, and they deserve service,” he says. “When people call, I always respond, even if it’s just to tell them I’ll call them back later.”

But he clarifies that a yeshivah is a lot more than a business, although today the models seem to intersect.

“The biggest difference,” he says, “is that it’s not all about the bottom line. Of course, you always have to protect mamon hekdesh, but Rabbi Yaakov Bender often reminds me if that if every yeshivah opened only if it had a sound business plan, there would be no yeshivos and no Torah learning. So first and foremost, we have to perpetuate the mesorah, and then we have to find the resources to make it happen.”

In today’s donor climate, however, it’s not always easy. “Baruch Hashem, there are so many good causes to choose from,” Rabbi Rothman notes. “Many people want to give with an open heart, but there’s only so much to go around. What I find is that most donors want to find the most pure and unadulterated way to give. They love to sponsor something specific or be a part of a team of donors making a large impact.

Still, says Rabbi Jeffrey of Yeshivah of Flatbush, the traditional mentality of Jewish schools has not necessarily been about giving parents and students good service. Yeshivos took their administrative culture not from business but from public schools, which were always free, paid for by taxpayer money. Hence, those administrations didn’t feel beholden to the parent body.

“But the truth is, there isn’t really as big a difference between running a school and running a business as some people think,” Jeffrey says. “The main difference is the human element — dealing with children and teachers who have chosen to devote their lives to education. But other than that, it really is a business and the better schools understand that. If you want to have the best product, you need to invest in research and development to be the best.

“So we’re always asking ourselves: Do our parents feel the lines of communication are open, that the administration listens to their feedback? Because the bottom line, as I see it, is that this is a business of service. And, are we able to invest and constantly improve the educational product, all while maintaining a healthy financial position? Parents in our times invest a huge amount of money in their children’s education and expect excellence in return.”

Yes, yeshivah parents are paying customers… and how! Yeshivah of Flatbush currently asks $34,000 a year for high school tuition; Darchei is about half that, but that’s still a lot of money for a middle-class family. Why are tuitions so high? Fifteen years ago, when my own children were in school, we paid about half that price for Brooklyn yeshivos. Where is the money going?

“About 80 percent of it goes to staff,” Jeffrey says. Yeshivah of Flatbush has a huge staff, close to 475 people. “Parents want their children to get the best-quality education — but they have to realize that it costs.”

“About five years ago, New York City public schools released a figure that the annual cost is about $26,000 per student,” Baruch says. “Most yeshivos are asking quite a bit less than that.”

Which is actually pretty remarkable, considering that yeshivos offer a double curriculum. A yeshivah like Darchei, which has a reputation to aim for excellence, is a little more expensive than others in its class, because it’s willing to pay top dollar to attract good staff.

“If Rabbi Bender hears about a really terrific rebbi, he’ll make it worth his while to come to Darchei,” Jeffrey, whose own kids went to Darchei, points out.

Miracles Happen

When parents see that their children are well-adjusted, have exceptional middos, and are comfortable and proud of their Yiddishkeit, that, according to Rabbi Baruch Rothman, is the greatest measure of success. But there are always nissim when it comes to supporting Torah learning and to making sure the next generation can carry on the mesorah. In his line of work, Rabbi Rothman says he’s seen many. One of those nissim happened last June, when they were busy trying to finish off the frazzled COVID school year remotely.

“One day I get a call from a Yeshiva Darchei Torah grandmother who I didn’t know, and who lives out of town and wasn’t on our radar as a potential donor at all. She begins to tell me how her husband is older and sometimes gets confused, so she’s calling me to give me the heads-up that he plans to call. I was about to tell her it wasn’t a good time, that things were hectic and I’d get back to her, but out of derech eretz I stayed on the line prepared to listen to their COVID concerns regarding their grandchildren. All of a sudden, my half ear picks up her saying, ‘…you see, we have a check for $67,500 to Yeshiva Darchei Torah.’ She goes on to tell me how her husband’s brother passed away a few months ago, having never married and with no children. ‘We want to do something to carry on his legacy so we decided to donate it to a tzedakah l’illui nishmaso,’ she told me. ‘You see, the last several years we didn’t have much of a relationship with him, some of the family’s personalities were not easy, but as relatives we received the money and want to put it to good use. He was a talmid chacham as well as a public chool teacher who loved teaching and learning, so we felt it should go to a yeshivah.’

“I was blown away,” Rabbi Rothman continues, “even though this wasn’t the largest donation I facilitated this year. These are not wealthy people, and their children have very little. Yet they decided to give the entire sum to YDT, there grandsons’ yeshivah, because it had made a strong impression on them, even from far. All they asked was for a nondescript plaque in the name of the niftar and that on his first yahrtzeit we learn in his memory.”

Many donations have also caught Rabbi Jeffrey Rothman by surprise. “My first year at Flatbush,” he remembers, “a board member called me up and told me about a young alumnus who contacted him without any solicitation and wanted to donate $75,000 to our endowment. Three years later, that alum has moved back to Brooklyn with his young family and has donated another $150K to our endowment, as well as other annual significant gifts. It turns out he had a positive experience as a high school student here, was planning on sending his own children to us, and simply wanted to give back the blessings he felt he received.”

Today’s donors, he says, aren’t necessarily the types to look for kavod. “Some want to be anonymous, some want recognition, but they all want to help the school grow. Some donors want to give tuition assistance to help those who can’t afford it, and yes, there are others who want their names on a building or a plaque on the wall. I find that more of the younger donors are interested in endowment. They recognize the tuition crisis that many communities have and want to find ways to invest in the future.”

And hopefully, after so many months of Zoom classes and remote learning, that future will include the normal routine of a regular schedule. For the Rothman brothers, just seeing talmidim walk the halls again is reason for joy. Given their dedication to making their yeshivos thrive and bringing in the means to make it happen, what better reward than the sound of children’s learning resounding through the corridors? —

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 842)

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