“Don’t you think the people here will resent a group of noisy teenagers in the shul every night?"
Back when he lived in Boro Park, Leib Panger had been a regular mispallel at Shomrei Shabbos, enjoying the sense of randomness surrounding the exactitude. Knowing that there would be a minyan when he wanted it, he could pretend to be relaxed, never really sure who would daven with him and if he would end up upstairs or downstairs.
Leib loved forming minyanim — motioning, nodding and waving ten men together. He could happily spend the entirety of a Chol Hamoed trip to Liberty Science Center planning a Minchah outside the planetarium. Once the chazzan was well into chazaras hashatz, the Panger children knew that their father would be beaming with pride at his accomplishment.
While dropping off his son at the airport for a flight to Eretz Yisrael, Leib had arranged a particularly random assortment of people for Minchah and someone had snapped a picture. Leib made the picture the screensaver on his phone.
In Alameda Gardens, he worked hard to give the shul that spontaneous element, but the crowd wasn’t into it. They liked the eight o’clock Maariv, the same people standing in the same places every single night, and they looked on with polite disinterest at his efforts to have a nine-thirty Maariv in the back room of the shul.
But now, as Leib Panger sat across from Reuven Stagler, he explained the real opportunity for change and why they had to seize the moment.
Last week, Heshy Brucker had started to learn with a group of boys at the front right table, and Leib Panger saw the seeds of his minyan sprouting before his eyes.
“Listen,” he told Reuven, “when I asked him, he told me that he hadn’t yet gotten formal permission from you to have his chaburah in our shul, so he can’t commit. What’s the story?”
Reuven was quiet, making calculations.
When Heshy had asked him about the program — “just a few boys he had met at the Shabbos minyan coming to learn at night” — Reuven had been skeptical. The Alameda Gardens shul ran a certain way. The people wanted the chairs put back, they appreciated the moderate noise level, no one ate pretzels inside the shul and left a trail of crumbs on the freshly vacuumed carpet.
There was no practical gain in allowing these elements into the shul.
But now he heard something else.
The Lauers very much wanted him to make the neighborhood relevant, a place people would be instantly familiar with, so that when they launched Alameda Phase 2, people would already know exactly what that meant.
Leib Panger was someone Reuven wanted on his team. He was the owner of a string of diagnostic laboratories with enough money to get things done and enough energy to care about the future of Alameda, not like the others who looked at Reuven patronizingly and said, “I respect what you’re trying to do, but I’m retired, you know?”
So the fact that this meant something to Leib Panger made it attractive to Reuven too.
“How do you envision it? Tell me more,” he asked Leib. “Don’t you think the people here will resent a group of noisy teenagers in the shul every night? You know, one of those boys parked in two spots, and another dropped an electric scooter directly onto the flower bed. Someone sent me a picture, so I came over and dealt with it right away, but that’s not okay.”
A note of pride crept into Reuven’s voice as he described dealing with it.
Leib Panger weighed the question as if this was the decision of his life.
“Look,” he finally said, “I hear both tzdadim, but I think if we called Rabbi Brucker to a meeting and explained to him what this involves on his end, he would make it work and we could add a whole other dimension to night seder. We could add a whole other dimension to this community!”
Nachalas Elchanan was a new school, and its founders had clearly planned to run with that designation, celebrating the newness of it all.
The huge banner behind the stage read, “Innovation within Tradition,” purple and gold, like the event producer suggested. The school’s founder, who was all of 37 years old, spoke about the years he had dreamed of maintaining the mesorah while still meeting contemporary challenges. Just 18 months after he had sold off a group of nursing homes and retired, he had found the way forward, and as soon as he announced its opening, there was a waiting list.
This was a welcome evening for parents, men and women, celebrating the successful first three months of the school’s first year. The event planner had suggested warm apple cider for the women, but the men just had purple-and-gold-wrapped water bottles. The school choir sang two songs as mothers lined the aisles and videoed every note, and then the menahel, whom the founder unabashedly called “our franchise player,” got up to speak. He had been given six minutes, but he rebelled and went for nine, sharing his vision, paying tribute to his all-star team of rebbeim and then nodding to the founder, “our inspiration and leader.” The crowd rose for a standing ovation, and then came the highlight of the program, a speech by Rabbi Akiva Putterman on “The School/Parent/Child Triangle — Making It Work.”
The women in the audience listened eagerly because they were interested in the topic, while the men leaned in to hear because they knew that Rabbi Putterman was Shea Helberg’s father-in-law. More than one of them thought that it might be an excuse to text Shea and who knew, maybe that would lead to a tip, a deal, or even a contract.
“It’s almost Chanukah, and I’m sure you’re going to give the rebbeim and teachers really nice Chanukah presents,” Rabbi Putterman said, starting his speech as if he were conversing with one person. “But guess what? Guess what?”
He lowered his voice. “It’s nice, and hakaras hatov is important, but it’s not a relationship. It’s like a husband who buys his wife flowers on their anniversary. As fancy an arrangement as it may be, if he never makes time to talk to her, the flowers won’t mean very much.”
He had them now, and he knew it. Ignoring the event planner, who didn’t want him to move around because of reasons related to the lighting, Akiva lifted the mic off the stand and walked a few steps to the right.
“You do know that, right?” he said to the men’s side of the room, getting a burst of laughter.
He walked back again. “Anyhow let’s talk not about the flowers, but about the relationship, and how the most important person — that little yingele in the middle — can get the greatest support.
“I remember when I was first starting out as a rebbi, I was teaching third grade, and a boy pipes up in the middle of class that his parents had lobbied hard for him to have the other rebbi, who was more experienced. His father, he told me, didn’t think I had what it takes.”
Rabbi Putterman made a face, getting another laugh.
“And I made the first major decision of my chinuch career. I stopped and said, ‘Wow, you’re a lucky young man. Your parents really care about your chinuch.’ ”
Later that night, Shea Helberg turned to his wife.
“Hindy,” he said, looking up from his phone, “the oilam went crazy from your father tonight. It seems like half of Lakewood is in that new school and they’re all texting me.”
A month earlier, he had surprised her with the keys to a new black Escalade and her face hadn’t lit up the way it did now.
She smiled. “You get the credit Shea, you pushed him in this direction and baruch Hashem, he’s becoming the superstar we always knew he was.”
He didn’t want to lose the moment. “Hindy, do you think we should make him the rav there? I know they’re looking…”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 896)
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