"I was trying to run a school, but I knew nothing about it”
Took over: Bais Yaakov D’Rav Meir, a girls elementary school now located in the Kensington section of Brooklyn, New York
Succeeded: Father, Rabbi Meir Levi
Before I took over
I was a newlywed — we were married under 11 months — and learning in Telshe yeshivah kollel in Cleveland when we got the news that my father was in a terrible car accident. It was December 1967, and my father, who had been the principal of Bais Yaakov of Crown Heights, was seriously injured; he was in a coma. A few months later, the school directors drafted me to take on my father’s role while he recovered. We all believed this would be a stop-gap measure, but after 11 months in a coma, my father succumbed to his injuries. I was just 24 years old, a very “green” yeshivah boy, younger than most of the school’s staff, but they asked me to remain. I guess they really couldn’t find anyone else.
The biggest challenge I faced right away
I was trying to run a school, but I knew nothing about it — the teachers knew far more about chinuch than I did. I also had to fundraise, and I wasn’t much of a fundraiser.
My first big decision
To move the school from Crown Heights to Flatbush. My father, an educational pioneer, had started the school in Brownsville 24 years earlier and then moved it to Crown Heights. But people were moving away, and primarily only the Lubavitch community remained. Our numbers were dwindling — we lost about 600 students in a little over a year when Bobov moved to Boro Park. We moved and, baruch Hashem, we rebuilt — and in 1991, we started a high school division. Another big decision was what to do with a teacher who had been there for many years and had been granted certain privileges by my father, such as not working on Fridays. As a new head, I felt I needed everyone following the same set of rules. I actually had to let her go — it was a sticky situation, but baruch Hashem, she remained a good friend of t he school.
What I wish I’d known from the start
In the beginning, I often wondered if I would have agreed to leave kollel had I known the job would become permanent. I’m at this position now for 53 years.
When I miss my father most
From the beginning, I needed advice, and I had very few people to speak to — I wished I could ask my father. Three people, however, were quite helpful in the beginning: Rabbi Osher Ehrenreich a”h of Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, Rabbi Manis Mandel a”h of Yeshiva of Brooklyn, and Rabbi Shea Fishman of Torah Umesorah. Otherwise, I learned on the job.
Something my father did that inspires me
I’m in awe of my father’s ability to teach girls of all backgrounds: Chassidish, litvish, Yekkish, American. My father was a Yekke, but he went to yeshivah in Telshe, Lithuania, and became a Telsher, so I guess he learned to adapt. When we celebrated the school’s 50th anniversary in 1994, I asked the son of the Bobover Rebbe — Rav Naftuli Halberstam, later to become the Rebbe — to write something about my father for the dinner journal. I knew he was extremely grateful that my father had educated his daughters and sisters, who are now principals of the Bobover schools. The very next morning, he sent me a letter in which he wrote about my father’s brilliance in educating girls from varied backgrounds so that none of them rejected their own mesorah, growing up as their parents wished.
Something my father did that I could never do
When my father started the school in the 1940s, he went around knocking on doors to ask parents if they’d be interested in sending their girls to a Bais Yaakov school. The parents were often European immigrants, and they were quite hesitant — they didn’t want their daughters to be “greeners.” My father hired top English principals so he could offer a wonderful secular education, and he promised the parents that their daughters would speak English well. I don’t have the personality to go around knocking on doors for students.
Something I do today that my father wouldn’t have done
I give more days off. My father insisted that long Fridays were full school days, Isru Chag was a school day, Erev Shavuos was a school day, but I don’t think people would tolerate that now — kids today need more time off. That change took time, I didn’t implement it right away. It also affected us personally, because in my early days as principal, we would travel to my mother-in-law in Boston for Yom Tov and hurry back Motzaei Yom Tov, arriving in Crown Heights to be ready for the next school day while the Lubavitcher Chassidim were still at the Yom Tov farbrengen.
How I’m similar to my father
He was a pioneer, and I try to stick to his mesorah. My father was particular about teaching Chumash in Yiddish, and we still do that — although we have a hard time finding teachers. We also speak Hebrew in our classrooms, because my father believed that’s how children learn the language and will be capable of looking in a sefer on their own. When I came to the school, there were some teachers who didn’t speak English at all, only Hebrew. My mother was also a dedicated teacher here who insisted that talmidos speak to her in Hebrew. In fact, I meet alumnae today who tell me they understand the Chumash and tefillos and speak Hebrew well because of her.
and how I’m different
I’m more American.
If I could ask my parents one question, it would be
My father stuck to his guns. Once he made up his mind, he didn’t waiver. I’m more prone to second-guessing my decisions. I would ask him how he was able to be so decisive.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)
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