Mourning Boro Park's veteran educator Rabbi Osher Lemel Ehrenreich
Imagine an emerging Jewish community, so small that it doesn’t yet have a girls’ school of its own. It’s in a neighborhood of first- and second-generation Irishmen and Italians slowly resigning themselves to the fact that the Jews, steadily flowing in, hold the brushes in their hands — that they will decide the color of the canvas.
The numbers climb, and the community gets a girls’ school. A young, idealistic man with an air of authority about him leads the blossoming institution, steward not just to a school, but to a concept: Bais Yaakov — Boro Park, 1955.
There is a cloud hovering over the school, though. This mechanech has to educate young, sincere girls and fill their hearts with pure, undiluted emunah against the backdrop of some of the most horrific events in our history. He has to teach them to believe, even as many of their own parents carry the scars and wounds; teach them to sing even as the sounds of muffled sobs fill their long nights.
So he taught them, and they believed. They grew older, moved on, had daughters of their own. And he taught the daughters too. He had a “shprach” with the newer generation, just as he’d had for the first one. The little school blossomed, becoming a big school, meeting the demands of the community that was burgeoning in every direction. And then a third generation came in, the children of the rebirth, children who’d never known — and couldn’t even conceive of — the suffering of their grandparents. The children of today, to whom the term survivor means something so different from what it once did.
Today, Bais Yaakov of Boro Park is the largest Bais Yaakov elementary school in North America, with over 2,000 students and hundreds of staff members. And until his passing last week, Rabbi Osher Lemel (Oscar) Ehrenreich remained at the helm, adapting age-old wisdom to changing times, knowing when to push and when to hold back, guiding with faith, humility, gentle humor, and always, with a firm, unyielding belief in the greatness of a Yiddishe tochter.
Saying It Straight
Rabbi Ehrenreich was born in 1928 in the Slovakian town of Brezna. By 1934, the family had immigrated to America, and he was enrolled in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. And like so many of the great lights of the American chinuch world of the last century, Rabbi Ehrenreich was touched by the spirit of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz.
In pedagogy, Rabbi Ehrenreich was profoundly influenced by his Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Reuven Grozovsky, one of the first mechanchim in America to guide his talmidim in the reality of daas Torah, showing them how the timeless wisdom of Torah addresses contemporary issues.
After learning in Beis Medrash Elyon (an offshoot of Torah Vodaath in Monsey, New York), Rabbi Ehrenreich — committed to a career in chinuch — accepted his first administrative position as assistant principal of Yeshivah and Mesivtah of Brighton.
But after just one year, a call came from an old teacher.
“Rabbi Moshe Sherer had taught me homiletics at Torah Vodaath, and he suggested that I assume the vacant position of principal at Bais Yaakov of Boro Park. It was a small, relatively new school with about 100 students, and he felt that I could make a difference here,” Rabbi Ehrenreich told me in an interview for Mishpacha back in 2011, when he’d “only” been running the school for 56 years.
“I wasn’t thrilled, because as a Beis Medrash Elyon graduate, I was hoping for a career in boy’s chinuch so I could teach Torah. I didn’t want to teach girls, so I viewed it as a stopgap measure, a temporary job until I could go back to teaching Torah.”
“Are you still planning that?” I asked him as we sat across from each other.
He peered at me over the top of his glasses. “No,” he responded finally, “I’m not.”
In June 1955, Rabbi Ehrenreich got married, presiding over his first graduation while in sheva brachos, with his young wife on hand to watch him.
And that’s where the story of Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, and the man who would stand at its helm for 67 years, began.
Rabbi Ehrenreich was all of 28 years old when he was charged with realizing the community’s vision: a school that would have the resources, breadth, and philosophy to ensure the steady stream of Yidden arriving from all over feel welcome.
Rabbi Ehrenreich had a unique voice for that first generation, the children of survivors, stepping in with a message their own parents weren’t always equipped to deliver.
“Listen, they say that history is written by the last man standing. Everyone tells stories according to their viewpoint, so I can only tell you what I recall,” he told me. “There was a conspiracy of silence amongst that first generation, this unspoken agreement that they would shield their children from the reality of what they had endured. But in too many cases, the parents were emotionally stifled, unable to give their children the requisite warmth and simchas hachayim. So we, at the school, tried to supplement that.
“You have to realize that we couldn’t deal with the hashkafah of it. We have elementary school children here, who see the world in very limited terms, where everything is black-and-white. We introduced a Holocaust studies class for our eighth-graders, because they were old enough to deal with it, and I taught the class.
“The one question that seemed to consume them was, ‘Why didn’t they resist?’ That was an unexpressed confusion that they all had.”
And the young principal, ever-attuned, dealt with it.
One day, he entered the classroom and picked out ten girls at random, instructing them to stand up with their backs to the wall and remain there. Then he started to teach, leaving the girls standing miserably as he spoke to the rest of the students.
After a significant amount of time passed, he turned to the girls standing at the back of the room. “What are you doing there?” he asked.
“You told us to stand here,” they replied in confusion.
“Why did I say that?” he asked sternly.
“We don’t really know,” one of them stammered.
“So why did you listen?”
“Because we’re afraid of you.”
Then he turned back to his class, addressing all the girls at once, and thundered, “But why didn’t you resist?”
And at once, they understood how fear and respect for authority can render someone helpless, literally unable to speak up in his own defense.
And with the self-assurance that came from many years in the business, Rabbi Ehrenreich gave a shrug. “Today,” he said, “chinuch is an industry, with ideas and books and seminars. We didn’t work that way. We taught real people. It wasn’t about concepts, it was about connecting with the people sitting across the desk and speaking straight. We spoke straight, so they understood.”
The next generation had its own nisyonos: The Jews were getting comfortable in America, and the school was bursting at the seams, with a diverse student body. As the financial situation of the parent body improved, competition among the girls became a factor. “In a girls’ school, where fashion is paramount, there was this inevitable competition in regard to clothing,” Rabbi Ehrenreich said, proud of what he considered one of his most important pioneering accomplishments: uniforms for Bais Yaakov girls.
“It was a controversial decision at the time,” he remembered. “People felt it undermined the creativity of the girls. Others thought that it was too reminiscent of the Catholic schools who were the only ones with uniforms at the time. But I’d seen that the schools in Eretz Yisrael had uniforms, and one of our board members helped me push it through. And look, today there are so many girls’ schools, bli ayin hara, that the uniforms are the only way to identify which school the students are from.”
With over more than six decades in chinuch, Rabbi Ehrenreich not only saw, but lived through many changes — in approaches to education and in the girls themselves. “The girls of today have mailehs, there’s no question,” he assured me. “They have a certain sense of themselves, a self-awareness. But they are much less equipped to carry responsibility. They don’t respond as well to pressure as the girls did back then. Another significant change is the way today’s children relate to adults — there’s this informality, a comfort they have with their parents and even some teachers. I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It just changes the mandate of the mechanech.”
For all the tens of thousands of students that had passed under his charge, Rabbi Ehrenreich said that his greatest inspiration always came from the struggle of the less-capable girls, those not as intellectually gifted as their peers.
“There was one student here who was blind lo aleinu, but with hard work and the caring and concern of the girls around her, she persevered,” he remembered. “When I stood there at her graduation and handed her a diploma, I broke down and cried. Everyone has their nisayon in life, and she had overcome hers.”
Another memory he treasured went back half a century.
“It was an intensely private moment, but it underscores the tremendous personal warmth I was shown by my board of directors — a most important component in the development of the school. At the time, I had a tumor, and I needed to have it surgically removed. I informed the board that I needed to take a leave of absence for six weeks, and I scheduled the operation. As they wheeled me toward the operating theater, I saw our president, Mr. Feigenbaum, standing alongside the stretcher, being mechazek me.” That was a moment he said he’d never forget.
As we chatted, his eyes rested on a picture hanging on the wall — two men sitting together at some sort of celebration.
“That’s me with a dear friend of mine, the bus driver here at the school,” he told me. “We’d been classmates in cheder, and I remembered that our birthdays are the same week, so I suggested that the girls make him a surprise birthday party. They did make a surprise — for me as well, making us a joint birthday party. It was a nice moment, I ended up in this job, he in that one, and we were both doing our part. And that’s what we celebrated, the opportunity each of us was given.”
Yehi zichro baruch.
The Smartest Man in Chinuch
By Rabbi Nosson Scherman
In Moshe Rabbeinu’s final blessings to Klal Yisrael, he says “ucheyamecha davecha,” which means, as Rashi explains, that you should be as fresh in your old age as in your youth. The last time I spoke to my long-time friend and mentor, Reb Lemel, was only a few weeks ago. He was in physical distress, having begun to recover from hip surgery before his sudden final illness — yet he was as fresh, incisive, and good-humored as the first time I spoke to him 60 years ago.
He was able to get to the heart of problem without being distracted by seemingly important, but actually extraneous fluff. That’s why principals, administrators, and even senior roshei yeshivah regularly consulted him not only on chinuch matters but on a variety of problems. Busy though he was as the head of a school with 2,000 talmidos, he made time for others. One administrator of another girls’ school was not personally close to Rabbi Ehrenreich, but over the years he told me, “I’d often call him about a problem, and he always made himself available — and his advice was always on target.”
Torah Vodaath had a chinuch issue several years ago and asked the Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Belsky, how to deal with it. He told the hanhalah to call Rabbi Ehrenreich. Two yeshivos had a disagreement about a staff member whom both of them wanted. They went to a prominent beis din for a decision. The av beis din heard them out and told them to come back in three days. When they met again, he told them the reason for the delay was that he wanted to consult Rabbi Ehrenreich.
I once asked him, “Lemel, what’s the secret of your success in Bais Yaakov?” He said, “I know what I can do well, and I know my limitations. I hire people who can do what I can’t, and I give them full backing.”
He never sought the spotlight and told his children that there should be no hespedim. Their rav told them that there must be hespedim for an adam gadol of his stature, but there should be no exaggerations. There were several glowing eulogies — not as many as he deserved — and I can testify that there was indeed no exaggeration.
Rabbi Nosson Scherman is general editor of ArtScroll/Mesorah publications.
Time for Everyone
Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark
The first time I met Rabbi Ehrenreich was sometime after Pesach in 1967, 54 years ago, before I took on the role of principal at Bais Yaakov of Montreal. At the time, I was ending my three-year tenure as principal in Yeshivah De Mexico. I was relatively inexperienced and only in my late twenties, heading up north to a completely new chinuch setting in an institution with 250 girls in preschool, elementary school, and a complete high school. At the time, I would be solely in charge of limudei kodesh and limudei chol, including a French-language curriculum. Inexperienced in handling a school of that size with a staff of about 50 educators, I was quite apprehensive that I’d be able to succeed in such a setting.
And so, I tried to visit as many existing Bais Yaakov schools as possible to get an idea of what I was facing. The principal of the largest and most successful Bais Yaakov was Rabbi Oscar (Osher Lemel) Ehrenreich, dean and mentor of all Torah schools, revered by all mechanchim as the master mechanech and the go-to person for solving chinuch problems and dilemmas. Obviously, he was to be my number-one stop in my quest for help.
When I entered the building at the appointed time, the receptionist told me that I would have to wait as he was going through the school, but that I could try to locate him. I found him walking through the lunch room. He welcomed me, and, to save time, we talked at a lunchroom table.
Even by then, Boro Park Bais Yaakov had more than a thousand students, and Rabbi Ehrenreich knew them all. Yet he somehow had time for a complete stranger and a novice who needed help. He was always generous with his expertise in order to help Klal Yisrael grow. I’m not sure I would have taken the Montreal position if it weren’t for the advice I received from Rabbi Ehrenreich, the uncontested dean of Yiddishe chinuch in the 20th century.
Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark is the dean of Beth Jacob Seminary of Montreal
The Ehrenreich family would be grateful to hear your personal memories of Rabbi Ehrenreich. To share your stories and memories, please email email@example.com
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 873)
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