Encore: Chapter 1| November 6, 2019
Once, at a retreat for askanim, Avi Korman had attended a session on how to fire people. It wasn’t called that, of course — it had a title like Cultivating Greatness in Your School Personnel — but the presenter had ended up fielding a volley of questions about letting go of rebbeim and teachers.
The conference organizers had quickly turned off the video cameras and gotten the hotel staff to start noisily removing chafing dishes from the side tables; the topic was just too uncomfortable and no one needed it at the end of a long day.
But in those first few minutes before the session had been shut down, Avi Korman, then in his first year as a board member at the high school his son attended, learned a few things. First, that it was best not to draw it out and make excuses, but to come out and say it quickly. Also, it was important to do it face-to-face, not by phone or e-mail, and to try to end the conversation on a high note.
Over the past few years, there had been opportunities for Avi to use his knowledge, and he’d discovered that experience didn’t make it easier. Firing staff always took longer than it should, and rarely ended pleasantly.
Now, sitting in the menahel’s office, he sensed another such conversation looming.
“It’s not that he wasn’t a devoted rebbi, and he’s for sure a talmid chacham, it’s just that,” the menahel had spread his arms as far apart as they would go, as if he was trying to embrace an elephant, “it’s just that he really needs his own place. Sholom Wasser has ideas in his head that don’t work for the rest of the team. It’s not nogei’a for him to be here, plain and simple. He’s a very caring rebbi and I hope he’s matzliach.”
It was quiet in the room. There was a stack of photocopy paper behind the menahel, and it looked like it might topple over.
Avi realized that everyone was looking at him. This was his territory.
“Okay.” He shrugged. “I’ll meet with him. He’s been here what, four years? We’ll have to settle with him, I’ll do my best to make it smooth.”
Other board members got to solicit dinner honorees; he got to fire people.
He didn’t waste any time, going directly to Rabbi Wasser’s house, a row house in one of the new developments with too few parking spots.
It was a Sunday evening, two days before the end of the school year. There would be plenty of time for the rebbi to find a position for the following year, Avi thought as he rang the bell.
Rabbi Wasser opened the door, then stepped out onto the porch, as if sensing what was about to come and wanting to spare his family a scene.
Avi spoke calmly and confidently, the way he’d learned at the conference, and braced himself for pushback.
Rabbi Wasser surprised him though, by nodding as if he understood and then shaking Avi’s hand with way more strength than expected. Rabbi Wasser didn’t appear to be deflated: If anything, the look he gave Avi was one of pity, as if he was genuinely sympathetic to the yeshivah that was losing him.
“It’s fine, thank you, Reb Avrohom. I enjoyed teaching Dovi and will continue to daven for his hatzlachah,” Rabbi Wasser said, speaking as casually as if they were discussing the weather.
He turned to go back inside, but Avi wasn’t done.
“Reb Sholom,” he said, unsure of why he wanted the rebbi to stay outside if there was nothing more to say. “Reb Sholom, I just wanted to say that we’re going to help you find something that works for you. No one knows better than me that you’re a great rebbi.”
It was quiet for a moment. Both men remembered Dovi’s rough start to tenth grade, when he’d missed Shacharis for the fourth time in a week and the menahel had suspended him. After he finished teaching for the day, Rabbi Wasser had come directly to the Korman home, sitting with Dovi for two hours and reviewing the shiur with him. Then the rebbi suggested that they try learning together before Shacharis the next day, and the day after that as well. The rebbi had promised he would teach Dovi the glory of the morning: one day, it was watching sunrise from the top of Gilbert’s Peak, the next day, a predawn basketball game. Rabbi Wasser had learned Perek Shirah with Dovi, giving the 16-year-old a new perspective on morning.
There was a picture on Dovi’s dresser, he and his rebbi: Rabbi Wasser in a wrinkled white shirt, outdated clip-on shades extending from his glasses, smiling with his arm around his talmid as the sky glowed like a ripe peach behind them.
“Thank you, Reb Avrohom,” Rabbi Wasser said now. “It will be okay, it really is time for me to move on. It’s all min haShamayim, I wanted to try something different for a long time, open some place away from Lakewood, you know?”
Avi didn’t know, but he felt a sense of relief and was happy he’d extended the conversation. The rebbi would be just fine.
Less than 48 hours later, Avi was sitting at an Ezras Achim executive meeting in Manhattan and some of the others were making fun of their children. David Backman laughed lightly and shook his head and said that his son-in-law had insisted they buy a tract of land in Modena, up the Thruway on the way to Albany. “Modena!” Backman exclaimed and shook his head in wonder. The son-in-law had inside info from a friend who was an aide to a state senator that a new super-hospital was being built nearby.
“So what did they end up building there? No super-hospital,” Backman said, “no plain hospital, not even a doctor’s office. There was a PetSmart for a while, then it closed, and now the land is sitting there. It’s a former motel — two small buildings, a few acres — and worth less than my parking spot downstairs. So much for my eidem’s inside info… but he’s a nice guy and the eineklach are cute, right?”
The other men laughed, nodding their gray heads enthusiastically, as if to say, yes David, we get it, we’ve all dealt with sons-in-law and their clueless perception about how the world really works.
Avi Korman wasn’t as wealthy as most of the others in the room, and he hadn’t earned the right to wink at those who hadn’t made it yet. His seat at the table — the extra chair at the corner, brought in by a secretary after all the large leather chairs were taken — reflected his status.
“The way I see it,” Heshy Hagler, chairman of the organization, looked up over his half-glasses, lowering his voice as if he were about to reveal the number to a Swiss bank account, “you have two options. One is to give the land to a mosad for a write-off. Maybe someone wants to build a camp, or even a yeshivah, who knows. Maybe one of those places for kids at risk where they milk cows or ride horses, you know, every day something else.
“The other option takes work,” he continued, “but it can really be good for the Jews. We’re always talking about the housing crisis, how much of what we do here is a result of the fact that people can’t afford to pay rent, or they’re carrying mortgages that are destroying them. Maybe you can build a little community…. You set up a kollel and the rest just happens, you know?”
“Ha, nice ideas, but I don’t have the time to take on a project like that,” David Backman protested. “I’m completely overwhelmed by business and askanus projects. I can’t build a new city, come on.”
It was quiet, so he continued. “If someone wants to try, I would give them the land.”
What happened next wasn’t clear. Either someone had looked at Avi, or he’d imagined someone was looking at him, and feeling unworthy of being there in the first place, he blurted out, “I have an idea.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 784)
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