Rabbi Dovid Nojowitz of Torah Umesorah fortifies yeshivahs for battles past and present
Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab
Torah schools today don’t have it easy.
They’re suffering from teacher shortages, money shortages, greater expectations from parents, children with cognitive or emotional challenges and lessened attention spans. Complicating the picture, at least in New York, is the threat Torah schools are facing from the New York State Education Department (NYSED) to compromise the independence of yeshivos and impose a curriculum antithetical to Torah.
But the Education Department doesn’t know who it’s up against. Rabbi Dovid Nojowitz, a soft-spoken man — the type who tends to listen more than talk and has no affection for the limelight — has, as head of Torah Umesorah, emerged as an unapologetic fighter for the hundreds of institutions under his purview.
“I’ve always known Reb Dovid to be a leader,” says Rabbi Chaim David Zweibel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America. “But now, in the face of the NYSED challenges, I know him as a front-line soldier.”
Torah Umesorah is known for its solution-oriented approach to a wide range of chinuch issues, but now it’s found itself in the thick of a new fight.
Chinuch under Siege
This past October, New York State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa declared that a boys’ yeshivah in Williamsburg was violating the law by not providing its students with sufficient secular education, and required the yeshivah to work with the NYSED to come up with a plan to fix these lapses (with final approval dependent on the NYSED). This determination was provoked by a 2019 lawsuit brought by a disgruntled parent (who has since left the community) against the school. The New York Times and other media then began their own alleged investigations of chassidic schools, charging that they accept government money but do not use it for its intended purpose, namely secular education, and that students from these Yiddish-speaking yeshivos score abysmally low on standardized tests. Mayor Eric Adams promised to conduct an investigation. Governor Hochul, in the middle of a race for governor, did her best to stay out of the fray.
The NYSED gives the public 30 days to respond to its proposed regulations. Three years ago, when the state sought to interfere in curricula for all parochial schools, 140,000 opposing letters were submitted by the Jewish community. At that time, the authorities backed off. This time, the target is Jewish schools. A coalition of Torah Umesorah, Agudath Israel, and PEARLS (Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools) led a campaign resulting in the submission of a whopping 300,000 letters, all of which were waved aside by NYSED without consideration. Torah Umesorah took responsibility for the bulk of the massive letter-writing campaign, reaching out to its vast network of schools and their parent bodies, including ex-New Yorkers who now live out of state.
“The NYSED is required by law to read the letters,” Rabbi Nojowitz says with evident exasperation. “It is extremely upsetting that out of 300,000 letters, there was not a single idea that they considered in their equation.”
The letter-writing campaign was just one part of the two-pronged counterattack. The legal and political side is being handled by Agudath Israel and PEARLS, with the help of lawyer Avi Schick. The coalition has initiated a lawsuit to prevent state control of private Orthodox Jewish education, and while the case is being decided, the rulings are in abeyance. The result of this week’s gubernatorial race is crucial, because the governor has authority over the Commissioner of Education.
Torah educators across the board are alarmed by the possibility that the state will begin meddling in private education and imposing curricula that are antithetical to the values and beliefs the schools aim to instill. Rabbi Nojowitz says that although chassidic yeshivos were the target of attack, non-Jewish officials don’t distinguish between a shtreimel, a black hat, or a yarmulke. Hence, all Orthodox yeshivos risk coming under fire.
“We’ll fight this, even if it means going to the Supreme Court. Our children’s chinuch is not negotiable,” Rabbi Nojowitz says, noting that it’s in fact the public schools where educational levels have been dropping. As for claims that yeshivos take government money and don’t use it for the reasons it’s been allocated, he scoffs.
“Yeshivos receive, on average, two and a half thousand dollars per student every year to educate them. It costs the public schools close to 30,000 a year per student to educate them — yet who has the better outcome? Obviously, the government has no appreciation for the value of limudei kodesh and no clue what an ehrlicher Yid is.”
There is fear that NYSED will obligate rebbeim and morahs to become certified by the Department of Education, will impose enforced oversight, and will require more hours of general studies.
“Our students would have to stay in school until 8:00 p.m. to meet the kind of demands they want to impose,” Rabbi Nojowitz says. “We don’t know how far this will go, but what we do know is that there is movement to make a rule that if anyone has complaints about a yeshivah — even about noise, or the garbage — it can trigger an investigation of the whole school or result in penalties. If a yeshivah is deemed not to be compliant, its parents could be held responsible for their children’s truancy.”
Our communities, he emphasizes, produce solid citizens who are largely self-sufficient, produce functional families, and boast a thriving infrastructure for our schools — which don’t require metal detectors or police presence except in the case of anti-Semitic threats from outside. “We’re a thorn in their side,” he says. “It’s as if non-Jewish educational authorities feel compelled to bring themselves up by bringing us down.”
While the secular authorities want to infuse yeshivah education with secular knowledge and ideas, Rabbi Nojowitz, for his part, hopes to turn that around: He’d like to infuse secular studies with greater kevod Shamayim.
“We would like to make limudei chol more of a continuation of limudei kodesh,” he says. “When we teach history, for example, we can simultaneously teach students what was happening in the Torah world at the time. We can teach about science while imparting a sense of niflaos haBorei. We don’t have to leave Hashem out of secular studies.”
Rabbi Nojowitz has very broad shoulders, made even broader by the backing of Torah Umesorah’s Vaad Roshei Yeshiva, the rabbanim who give the final word on every move the organization makes (Rav Hillel David is currently head of the Vaad).
Our meeting with Rabbi Nojowitz takes place on the sixth floor of a busy building in Brooklyn — Torah Umesorah’s national headquarters. It’s a modern, inviting, professional-looking space, and Rabbi Nojowitz is welcoming and accommodating as he speaks about himself and the work that has become his life’s mission since taking the reins of the organization in 2007 — making it a leading force for 25,000 teachers and over 800 schools, from raising teacher salaries to sponsoring workshops and conventions to creating materials that make teachers’ lives easier.
He himself is a Brooklyn native, born and raised in Williamsburg. When his parents arrived in the 1930s from Czechoslovakia and opened a grocery, there were only a handful of shtreimels in their neighborhood. The Nojowitz boys were sent to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, and young Dovid also spent three years in mesivta in Boston, where he became very close to his rosh yeshivah, Rav Leib Heiman, who in later years became rav of the Gra shul in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood.
Rabbi Nojowitz continued on to Lakewood, where he became a talmid of Rav Shneur Kotler. At the time, there were only about 300 talmidim and around 40 kollel yungeleit in Lakewood. Rabbi Nojowitz was soon married and joined by his new wife, Rivka, a child of survivors who grew up on the Lower East Side.
In the mid-1970s, Rabbis Gavriel Ginsberg a”h and Mr. Avi Shulman founded Torah Umesorah’s SEED program, sending bochurim to communities that have Jewish populations but little in the way of Torah learning. SEED launched with several programs that first year, including Vancouver, Columbus, and Mexico City. Rabbi Nojowitz, with his wife and baby, went off to Mexico City together with Rav Shaul Kagan a”h and a group of 12 bochurim for the summer. They were so successful, even though they spoke no Spanish, that the locals told them, “You gave us the appetizer, but now we want the main dish.” Not long after, a kollel was established in Mexico City.
The Nojowitzes would actually taste a bit of the main dish, when before the second year on SEED, they co-founded a kiruv center in New Jersey’s Manalapan township called the Shalom Hebrew Institute, an afternoon Talmud Torah. While the kickoff event wasn’t encouraging, Rabbi Nojowitz and his team managed to gather about 150 people for a meeting and Q & A. One of the participants asked, “What do you think about intermarriage?”
Rabbi Nojowitz was taken aback. “I’m against it, of course,” he replied.
“You’re so shallow,” the man said. But despite this inauspicious beginning, the institute grew and thrived into a full-time day school, today known as the Shalom Torah Center. It’s over 50 years old now, and still pursuing its mission to bring Jews back to their roots.
The Nojowitzes left Lakewood when Rabbi Nojowitz was recruited to be a rebbi at the Monsey Mesivta. Living in Monsey brought him close to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, and the two developed a close relationship.
When Rabbi Nojowitz received two offers for a new job — teaching at Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim in Queens, where the menahel at the time was Rav Gavriel Ginsberg, or starting a new mesivta in an out-of-town community — Rav Kamenetsky encouraged him to take the out-of-town position in order to mekarev young people, even though Rabbi Nojowitz was concerned about the community’s level of observance.
“What will it do to me?” he worried.
“Learn mussar,” Rav Yaakov replied. However, when it became clear that the parent body for the proposed mesivta had firm intentions to make the school coed, Rav Kamenetsky directed him to take the job at Chofetz Chaim as a tenth grade rebbi and mashgiach instead.
While at Chofetz Chaim, he happened to walk into the office of Rav Gavriel Ginsberg, who was in the middle of a phone call. “Sure, we’ll help you,” he heard Rav Ginsberg say. Hanging up, he explained, “That was a meshugener friend of mine in Australia who wants to make a kollel.”
A couple of weeks later, Rabbi Nojowitz received a call from Rabbi Dov Lesser at Torah Umesorah. “We have someone from Australia coming,” he said. “Would you mind taking him around to meet people?” Rabbi Nojowitz obliged, even driving him to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. Some time went by, during which Rabbi Moshe Mendel Glustein, rosh yeshivah of the Yeshivah Gedolah of Montreal, visited Australia. Upon his return, he came to New York to see Rabbi Nojowitz with a proposal: He offered him the job of starting a kollel in Melbourne.
Rabbi Nojowitz discussed it with his rosh yeshivah, Rav Shneur Kotler, who urged him to give it a try, and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky told him to go as well. “I’m mekaneh you — I’m jealous,” Reb Yaakov said. “I wish I had the opportunity to bring Torah to a community.”
“I had asked Rav Yaakov about numerous opportunities I had to serve in other parts of the US,” Rabbi Nojowitz relates, “but he always told me no. This was the first time he encouraged me to go.”
Detour Down Under
It would be the first overseas Lakewood Kollel, and it wasn’t an easy task to find a minyan to accompany him.
“I must have gone to Lakewood 70 times to recruit people,” he recounts. “But the yungeleit who did agree were wonderful — so altruistic! No one even talked about how much money they would be offered. In fact, when they were finally ready to travel, the community had only raised enough money for airfare, but not enough to ship their furniture. So they left their furniture behind and came anyway. Once we got there, though, the community pulled together and became our strong supporters. And, of course, all the furniture arrived. My partner, Rav Binyamin Wurzburger, is still the rosh kollel in Melbourne today.”
The Nojowitzes arrived in Australia with no small trepidation in 1981, having committed themselves to spending three years there. Rabbi Nojowitz remembers turning to his wife on the tarmac of the airport and saying, “Okay, only 36 months to go.”
Yet they were more than pleasantly surprised. “It was the most warm, welcoming community,” Mrs. Rivka Nojowitz tells Mishpacha. While there was some initial resistance in the community to the kollel — Melbourne was a mix of chassidic, Chabad, and Young Israel-type kehillos — within a year or two the naysayers were grateful for the infusion of Torah learning.
Australia definitely was far — some members of the community who had come after World War II stated they chose Australia because they wanted to get as far away as possible from Europe. When Rivka Nojowitz gave birth a few months after their arrival (the first of the four women who were expecting when they arrived to do so), her husband called his brother to announce, “My wife had a baby girl!” His brother corrected him. “Mazel tov! You had a baby tomorrow,” he said, referring to their position across the international date line.
“There was an elderly Jew who would wake up very early on the first day of Succos as he wanted to be the first Jew in the world to bentsh lulav and esrog at haneitz hachamah,” Rabbi Nojowitz remembers.
The Nojowitzes would remain in Australia for 26 years, building Melbourne’s Torah community, during which three more children joined the family. During that time, he brought in such prominent rabbanim as Rav Matisyahu Solomon, Dayan Aharon D. Dunner, his former rosh yeshivah Rav Heiman, Rabbi Yissachar Frand, Rav Chaim Dov Keller, and Rabbi Zev Leff, among others. When he brought over Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, he housed him with a prominent local businessman named Yisrael Herzog, who put his own busy life on hold for ten days to wait on the Rav hand and foot. Rav Scheinberg became so close to the family that both Rav Scheinberg and the Herzog family cried when the time came to leave. “If you think you owed me anything for supporting the kollel, you just paid me back in spades,” Herzog told Rabbi Nojowitz.
The Nojowitz children, however, eventually married and moved back across the oceans. During one visit to a married daughter in Lakewood, the couple began to contemplate the idea of moving back to the US themselves. Ten minutes later the phone rang: Someone was offering Rabbi Nojowitz a job as the mashgiach of an American yeshivah.
The job turned out to be unsuitable, but a few weeks later, after he’d returned to Australia, Rabbi Shea Fishman, then the executive vice president of Torah Umesorah, called to insist he attend the Torah Umesorah convention. “I just got back to Australia…” Rabbi Nojowitz protested. But he allowed Rabbi Fishman to twist his arm.
That was the year, 2007, that Rav Steinman and the Gerrer Rebbe traveled to New York. Rav Steinman attended the convention as well, and Rabbi Nojowitz was moved to tears seeing the kavod shown to these two gedolim. Then Torah Umesorah unexpectedly offered him the post of national director.
Rabbi Nojowitz was astounded. “You’re scraping the bottom of the barrel,” he protested. “I’m not an administrator!” But his “exile” to Australia put him at an advantage: Torah Umesorah was looking for someone who had spent time outside the country and was removed from local politics. With his reputation for deep dedication, integrity, diplomacy, and strong Torah hashkafos, Rabbi Nojowitz was an obvious choice.
It was time to move back to America, and take a big-picture position in chinuch.
In 1944, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz founded Torah Umesorah with the goal of establishing Jewish schools in the many North American communities that lacked them. With Europe in flames, he saw that the Jewish world would need to rebuild in America, and Torah chinuch was the obvious key to Jewish continuity.
The initiative, however, met with great resistance. Irving Bunim, one of the early vice presidents, would himself travel around the country trying to convince communities to open schools. “People told him there was no need,” relates Rabbi Mordechai Malek, Torah Umesorah’s director of strategic development. “They believed their children needed a college education to succeed, not a yeshivah education.” Yet inroads were made slowly and steadily, to the point where today every major Jewish community, and many minor ones, boast at least one yeshivah or day school, and often more.
With this mission largely accomplished, Torah Umesorah’s job description changed. It now became a bridge among roshei yeshivah, mechanchim and balabatim, providing support, advocacy and educational leadership for the yeshivah world.
The Teacher Center on the fifth floor of the Torah Umesorah building, for example, is a trove of resources for teachers. “It’s become an indispensable resource for every teacher and rebbi,” says Mrs. Goldy Goldberger, the Brooklyn Center’s director. For a minimal fee, teachers can purchase resource materials, books, decorations, teaching aids and prizes. The Center — one of eight in various cities — also boasts a huge laminating machine and a die-cut machine for producing cutouts in quantity. It gets especially busy before Pesach, and before and during Tishrei. Even those who live out of reach of a Teacher Center use the organization’s website, chinuch.org, which is a trove of invaluable information for mechanchim, offering everything from worksheets to clip art to curriculum ideas.
“We had a frum mother who was home-schooling on an army base in North Carolina call us for help,” says Rabbi Zvi Bloom, TU’s executive director. “And Jews from Panama to New Zealand are going on the site for mentorship and materials.”
While today there are plenty of yeshivah options, there are still students who can’t gain entrance to the right place.
“It’s heartbreaking when I see a child with no place to go,” Rabbi Nojowitz says. “It’s heartbreaking for the children and their parents.” With a “no-student-left behind” policy, Torah Umesorah tries to make sure there’s a place for everyone. Rabbi Nojowitz will spend hundreds of unreimbursed hours to get a talmid into the right yeshivah, which often includes offering assurances to provide supplemental tutoring or whatever other supports are necessary to help the student succeed.
“A lot of parents don’t have money, or connections,” Rabbi Malek says. “But we do, so they turn to us.” A grateful mother wrote to Rabbi Nojowitz, “How to describe how this crisis [of a child without a yeshivah] hits a family?…It hits every fiber of your being! Your entire life is kind of put on hold. Your image, your esteem, your spiritual, mental well-being, everything is affected. You made our journey tolerable, hopeful, and just so much easier.”
Rabbi Nojowitz brings not only compassion but a sense of professional standards to the organization. While a school is a makom Torah, he says, it must be run with fiscal responsibility and accountability.
“Of course, it helps to have money for school structure,” he says, “because then a school can afford to have smaller classes, extra programs, and amenities like in-house nurses and subs. But money isn’t everything — we’re sometimes called in to mediate problems at wealthier schools. It’s definitely harder for a Bais Yaakov morah to teach 40 students than 20, but many of them have tremendous stamina and warmth.”
That said, while Torah Umesorah was founded because there was a shortage of yeshivos, this generation is plagued by a shortage of teachers. The high cost of living drives many young women, both those who hope to support a kollel family and those who don’t, to look for careers that pay better and more reliably. In response, Torah Umesorah has created a $25 million superfund to give morahs a $12,000 salary increase to help them make ends meet. Other platforms being launched to bring teachers back include hands-on teacher training and model lessons in seminaries so that young women get a taste of chinuch, and giving training to brand-new morahs who may have been taught the curriculum but never received training in classroom management, identifying learning issues, and discipline.
Aish Dos, a Torah Umesorah teacher-training program in Lakewood, has trained approximately 1,000 teachers, and is so well reputed that many schools now require it as a condition for hiring. Another program, developed over the last decade, educates mashgichim and classroom teachers about psychological issues and therapy, and includes monthly teleconferences in which mechanchim present problems and discuss them with experts in the field.
While the Torah world doesn’t have a universal standard curriculum, Torah Umesorah offers grade-appropriate limudei kodesh curricula for teachers and schools that want them, and most schools have an education committee that sets standards.
“It might be preferable if we had some sort of country-wide standard of achievement,” Rabbi Nojowitz says, “but we see that our outcomes are good. The larger mesivtas, batei medrash, and seminaries accept students from across the country, and those students succeed, so the out-of-town yeshivos are clearly doing as good a job as are the in-town ones.”
Rabbi Nojowitz’s days are full, meeting with mechanchim, roshei yeshivah, talmidim, and executive and lay leadership in schools across the country, filing away information.
“He’s able to relate to schools in Dallas or Panama as well as Lakewood or Brookyn,” comments executive board member Jeff Weiskopf. “There are times he, together with his executive staff, can spend hours on an issue in one school, or help save a community by battling a loss of enrollment.”
And then there are events like this past week’s national convention, where, together with the entire Torah Umesorah staff and the over 1,500 delegates, he’s privileged to observe the camaraderie and devotion of Klal Yisrael’s mechanchim and mechanchos. The way they share their work in the trenches, shaping the future of the nation, is a source of deep satisfaction to Rabbi Nojowitz.
“I get boundless nachas from it,” he says. “Seeing people sharing their knowledge and passion for this heilige work — it humbles me.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 935)
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