“There were very wealthy laymen and seasoned businessmen there and they rose to the occasion,” he says. “The only challenges they raised have been how to do it, not whether to do it.”
Rabbi David Ozeri, leader of Brooklyn’s Syrian Orthodox community — is still haunted by a childhood encounter in the principal’s office, when a melamed had to beg his boss for five dollars for a Yom Tov expense. Nearly a half-century later, he’s galvanized his own community and the larger Orthodox world to join him in giving rebbeim back the stature and backing they deserve.
It was the fall of 1967, and a young Syrian boy named David Ozeri was a seventh-grader in Boro Park’s Yeshiva Toras Emes, having transferred in from the Magen David yeshivah. He was in the school office working the mimeograph machine, the ancient forerunner of the copy machine, when in walked a rebbi on his recess break. The yeshivah’s administrator was on his way out, but the rebbi stopped him. “Excuse me,” he said meekly, “I know I’m not getting paid for Yom Tov. But can I at least have five dollars to buy the arba minim?”
David — now Rabbi David Ozeri, who, as a rav and mechanech, has been a pillar of Brooklyn’s Syrian Orthodox community for decades — never forgot the 30-second encounter that unfolded before his eyes. “And,” he says, “it continues to haunt me every time I see a rebbi suffering financially.” Now, nearly a half-century later, he is determined to do something about it, and is galvanizing his own community and the larger Orthodox world beyond to join him in the effort.
As he relates the story for what must be the umpteenth round, he shakes his head as if telling it for the very first time. “Five dollars. These are the tzaddikim that we’re talking about. For years, I’ve watched rebbeim suffer in silence, not really complaining about their situation. But any time an extra expense comes up, a baby is born, a bar mitzvah, a chasunah, that’s when you see the extent of it, the pain and the anguish. It’s reaching a breaking point.”
“We’ve got to begin focusing in on the plight of our melamdim, the tzaddikim who work totally l’sheim Shamayim. Your wife has a job, you don’t have domestic help, you’re not driving a late-model car, and your combined salaries are sixty or seventy thousand — but you just can’t cut it anymore when you have seven, eight, nine, ten children.”
Cash in Hand
This past November, when Agudath Israel of America invited Rabbi Ozeri to address the keynote Motzaei Shabbos session at its annual convention, he saw his opening. “I told them the issue of rebbeim’s salaries is what I want to speak about. They weren’t really sure that’s what they wanted, but Reb Chaim Dovid Zwiebel gave the go-ahead.”
Rabbi Ozeri delivered a powerful, impassioned plea for the frum community to relieve the financial stress of yeshivah teachers, quoting the words of the Peleh Yoetz that a Jewish community is obligated “to give those who teach their children Torah dei machsoram b’mezumanim — all that they lack, in cash, straight into their hands, on a weekly basis. The community must spare no expense because this mitzvah is greater than the building of the Beis Hamikdash.”
And much as the Shuvu educational network for Russian children in Israel got its start decades ago in spontaneous reaction to a session at an Agudah convention, Reb David’s emotional call to action, too, was taken up on the spot by a group of activists who formed an ad hoc committee determined to achieve a breakthrough in this area. One of its most diligent members is a young man who rang the doorbell of the Ozeri home two days after the convention. Rabbi Ozeri invited him in and he said, “I was so moved and I’m so bothered that I went into my son’s yeshivah and wrote out a $500 check to be given to my son’s rebbi, and I don’t have the money for that. I have children in yeshivah for whom I pay a lot of tuition, but something has to be done.”
The speech at the Agudah convention was followed by an invitation to address the same theme at the Torah Umesorah Presidents’ Conference in Florida, which attracts much of the yeshivah world’s top lay leadership.
“There were very wealthy laymen and seasoned businessmen there and they rose to the occasion,” he says. “The only challenges they raised have been how to do it, not whether to do it.”
Paid from a Pushke?
These words have clearly struck a chord within a broad cross-section of the Orthodox world. Schools around the country have taken the initiative to find the money to give raises to their rebbeim, in some cases as much as ten thousand dollars. Other schools have begun contributing toward the cost of simchah events in a rebbi’s family. Rabbi Ozeri observes that “there are people walking into their local schools and writing large checks to be used directly to give rebbeim a bonus or a raise. So, baruch Hashem, things are really happening.”
In the months since Reb David’s opening salvo, both Torah Umesorah, the umbrella organization for American yeshivos and day schools, and Agudath Israel, a long-time advocate of yeshivah interests in the halls of government, joined the effort, with many of their respective lay leaders pledging financial support. And this past week, at Torah Umesorah’s annual dinner, months of concerted research and planning culminated in the unveiling of an unprecedented initiative to address the full panoply of financial issues facing mechanchim: Significant salary raises, phased in over several years; establishment of pension plans; provision of health and life insurance; and the creation of a fund to assist rebbeim in celebrating family milestones.
Initially, the committee had focused mainly on that last item — the creation of a “simchah fund” to defray the costs of the happy occasions, such as the birth of a child, a bar mitzvah, and a wedding, in the often large families of rebbeim. The group calculated that the average rebbi spends $155,000 on such costs over a 35-year teaching career, or $4,428 annually. By raising thirty to forty million dollars, the committee hoped to yield annual income of $6.6 million, which would cover half the simchah-related expenditures of the approximately 3,000 rebbeim in the Tristate area, with their schools to raise the rest.
The committee was excited about the idea, until one member, a very prominent long-time askan in the yeshivah world, voiced his adamant opposition. As Rabbi Ozeri tells it, “he turned to us and said, ‘A rebbi deserves to be paid from his boss, not from a simchah fund and not from a pushke. All you people, you have employees, right? You pay them, or you tell them to wait to get their money from a fund, from a pushke?’”
Raising the Bar
Then, to show that it can be done, the askan pulled out a graph illustrating what has been accomplished in the major yeshivah in which he is involved. Over seven years, it gave raises that have brought the salaries up to the seventy thousand range for elementary school staff, eighty thousand for high school and ninety thousand for beis medrash, plus benefits — all being paid on time.
His message carried the day and, as a result, the centerpiece of the initiative introduced at the Torah Umesorah dinner is a fund of $66 million, comprised of pledges of $1.325 million or more by individual benefactors. The fund will contribute toward graduated raises for rebbeim over the next six years, with their schools committing to fundraising the balance of those salary raises. At the end of the six years, each rebbi’s salary will be $15,000 higher than it is currently, and he will have received $75, 000 in raises over six years, with $22,000 coming from the fund and $53,000 from his school (see accompanying chart for more details). But equally crucial to this effort — to be spearheaded by veteran communal leader Rabbi Shmuel Bloom — will be the willingness of people who are not capable of donating to the above-mentioned fund, to donate sums both large and small directly to their community’s schools for the express purpose of salary raises, above and beyond their tuition commitments. A major marketing firm will conduct a campaign to educate and inspire the Orthodox public about the overriding importance of this issue, and will also work with individual schools to help them maximize their efforts to fundraise for the salary increases they will be giving their rebbeim.
But raises aren’t of much help when a school can’t make its payroll on time. And so, Rabbi Ozeri explains, the plan also calls for businessmen to go into schools that are struggling to meet their obligations and help them revamp their operations. He says there are already volunteers willing to adopt schools. Will schools be open to this?
“We don’t know yet,” he says. “We’ll find out once this is launched. But I would imagine that if a school has been struggling for years and people come and tell them, ‘We can help you so you won’t struggle anymore,’ why wouldn’t they welcome this?”
Salaries for women teachers are on the agenda too. Rabbi Ozeri notes that while girls’ schools seem to be more solvent, it’s actually because they pay much less, and as a result, Bais Yaakovs today are having a very difficult time in attracting teachers and retaining the teachers they already have.
“Many of these teachers are supporting their husbands in kollel and the choice of a teaching career has become a financial impossibility. A woman who can get a degree and make fifty, sixty thousand dollars a year — why should she stay in a school and make twenty thousand dollars a year when she’s taken on much of her family’s financial responsibility?” Rabbi Ozeri questions.
Today, a visit to a Bais Yaakov seminary finds that much fewer girls are going for a teacher’s certificate than are going for degrees. “And you can’t blame them,” he continues. “So the schools end up hiring inferior teachers, and that means inferior education. The committee realizes the extent of this problem, and has decided that once the initiative is off the ground, they will tackle the issues relating to the girls’ schools.”
If in the wider Orthodox world Rabbi David Ozeri is the man of the hour, in the tight-knit Syrian community concentrated in just a few miles around Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, he has been man of the decade, or decades. The one-time Toras Emes grade-schooler went on to Ashkenazi yeshivos like Mir and Ner Israel, but when Rabbis Chaim Benoliel and Dovid Lopian opened the Syrian community’s first beis medrash program — Yeshivat Mikdash Melech — David joined. He still keeps a photo of that first group of Mikdash boys, ticking off their names and each of their accomplishments in the intervening years.
Reb David married the sister-in-law of Rav Yosef Harari-Raful, founder of the Ateret Torah network of Torah institutions, and when he emerged from ten years in kollel, the natural next step was to take a leadership role at Ateret.
Fifteen years ago, Rabbi Ozeri scaled back his involvement at Ateret to become the rav at the Yad Yosef Torah Center, which has enabled him to play a major role in the spiritual revitalization of the broader Syrian community. His home in the heart of the community is a central address for people seeking advice and assistance on a wide array of problems, from shalom bayis to shidduchim to parnassah to chinuch. He distributes upward of a million dollars in tzedakah funds to his community’s needy each year, including over $350,000 on Purim day alone.
“In regard to Torah observance, the community is growing by leaps and bounds,” he explains, noting that this is a very large community, between 70,000 and 75,000 people.
“There are many levels of observance, but everyone considers himself Orthodox,” he continues. “On the other hand, every family has some children or grandchildren that have taken the leap to become more frum. Today there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of women who cover their hair. There are thousands of men learning Gemara every day. It’s a different world than it was 25 years ago.
“True, the community has historically been a very affluent one and also a clannish one, and that affluence brings challenges,” Rabbi Ozeri admits. “But hopefully, by instilling in people a greater appreciation for Torah and mitzvot, we’ll overcome those challenges.”
Can he identify one factor above all others that sparked this transformation? Rabbi Ozeri’s answer is quick and sure: “Torah shebe’al peh.” Thirty years ago, there were many shuls in the community, but they opened for davening twice a day and that was it. There was no real learning taking place, except perhaps for a weekly shiur by the rav in Ben Ish Chai or Rambam.
But, Rabbi Ozeri says, “when Rabbi Harari-Raful began, he said his goal ‘is to burn the ignorance.’ He drilled it into these people that without Torah shebe’al peh, nothing will ever come of you. Today, I don’t know if there’s a shul in the community that doesn’t have at least a night kollel, if not a full-day kollel. There’s also great zechut avot at play here. Many of these people come from Halab, Aram Zovah [Aleppo], an ir shel talmidei chachamim v’sofrim for 2,000 years.
And throughout, Rabbi Harari-Raful has remained where he’s always been, within the dalet amos of the beis medrash. He believes in creating a nucleus of Torah which will then influence everything around it, directly or indirectly. “He believes in working from within, not from without,” says brother-in-law Rabbi Ozeri. “He built a mosad and that’s where you’ll find him, 24/7. If you need him for other things, you go to him over there.”
The exponential growth of bnei Torah in the community has also caused a change in the demographic. “When we started Ateret, all the rebbeim were Ashkenazim, either Litvish or chassidish. Today, 35 years later, the vast majority of rebbeim are our own students. In Lakewood today, there are 500 Syrian couples, the vast majority of them in kollel or are rebbeim. The town has eleven Syrian minyanim, two shuls already built with a third on the way, two boys’ schools, a girls’ school and a boys’ high school.”
But the main reason for the growth in Lakewood is the impossible housing situation in Brooklyn. “The boundaries of the community now extend from Avenue Z to Avenue H, and from beyond McDonald Avenue to Bedford Avenue. Kollel couples simply cannot afford housing here, which is a major challenge for our community going forward. And because people can’t afford to buy, they rent, and the rents have skyrocketed in the last few years. There has been talk of building projects but there are many obstacles. The cost of land is insane — it can cost three million dollars just to buy an address, before one even begins building a house — and there are all sorts of zoning issues.”
Community askanim hope another nearby venue for expansion will be found. The first two yungeleit just bought in Marine Park, which might start a trend.
A Billion Dollars
The Agudah convention speech was not Rabbi Ozeri’s initial foray into the issue of underpaid rebbeim. It was his own community that heard it first. In the summertime, he serves as a rav in the Syrian satellite community in Deal, New Jersey, and it was there, at a Seudah Shlishis attended by some 700 men, that he first broached the topic.
“I told them that in the Syrian community, when it comes to the concept of dei machsoro, meeting the needs of our Jewish brethren, we fulfill it completely for anyone in need, whether it’s bikur cholim or hachnassat orchim or taking care of the medical, emotional, and physical needs of our fellow Jews — except when it comes to taking care of our melamdim.
“We have over 200 rebbeim in our community, and I talked about what they’re living on and how it’s impossible to live that way. I said we must do something immediately, but we can’t leave it to the schools, whose burden is already unbearable, and we can’t cast it upon the parents, whose tuition burden is crushing them. We have to go to the wealthy.”
Rabbi Ozeri got visibly emotional and many were moved by the derashah, but would anything practical come of it?
“Well, the next day a fellow came over to me and said he really had a hard time sleeping that night,” Rabbi Ozeri remembers. “He couldn’t believe this was really going on in our community, one of the richest in the world, and he wanted to do something about it. He said, ‘I want to give you $120,000 on three conditions: One, I stay anonymous; two, every rebbi gets a bonus before Yom Tov; and three, you have to match the funds.’ ”
Rabbi Ozeri says that one and two were easy; number three was the hard one. “But I went with it and over the next year we raised a half million dollars, which we distributed to our rebbeim. Now, when you divide that by 200 rebbeim, it’s not that much money. But when we saw the reaction of the rebbeim to getting $1,000 before one Yom Tov and again before the next one, we saw the reality out there.”
The gratitude was beyond belief, wives of rebbeim calling up crying because they didn’t know where they were going to get money to make Yom Tov. So we realized that something had to be done on a bigger scale.”
And that’s where he’s headed now. “After my derashah at the Agudah convention, a renowned communal askan came over to me,” Rabbi Ozeri shares. “We know each other a long time, and this is how the conversation went: ‘David, we have to think big. We’ve gotta get a billion dollars in the fund.’ ‘Are you crazy? What are you talking about?’ ‘David, there are 12 billionaires in the Torah world, besides all the multimillionaires and millionaires. If we get a billion dollars in the fund, and if we do it right, that can yield $100 million a year for the rebbeim.’
“I thought he was crazy. The next day, I was talking with someone who told me he went to a UJA meeting and that they have a billion dollar endowment fund for teachers, and last year it yielded $80 million. Who do they give it to? The Reform, Conservative, and very modern Orthodox teachers. Why can’t we have something like that? Don’t for a minute think the money’s not there. It’s there.”
Rabbi Ozeri explains how one of the committee members came up with a brainstorm: “He called up every Pesach caterer and learned that the average family spends $60,000 on a Pesach hotel vacation. Five percent of that is $3,000, and if a family can pay $60,000, it can pay $63,000. At the end of the Pesach season, he said, if we levy a 5 percent tax on every family in the heimishe world that goes away for Pesach, you’ll have $10 million for rebbeim. Obviously, this idea is a complete nonstarter, but it gives you an idea of how much money there is in Klal Yisrael. Just do the math to figure out how much is being spent on Pesach hotels in total.”
Rabbi Ozeri knows that doing right by the community’s rebbeim will require more than just salary increases. There is, for example, the need for some form of pension plan, not only so that rebbeim can retire in dignity, but also to make it possible for a school to suggest retirement for a teacher whose effectiveness in the classroom has declined without having to worry about the financial ramifications for the school or the rebbi.
“There is something called chodesh l’shanah, whereby if a rebbi is discharged, the school must pay him severance equaling one month’s pay for each year he has taught there. It’s based on a psak from Rav Moshe Feinstein and Torah Umesorah enforces it. Rebbeim have sued for it and won.”
But that takes a huge toll on the yeshivos. “After 25 years on the job, a rebbi could be making fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year, which means he’s owed five thousand dollars, multiplied by 25. And sometimes there could be two or three such rebbeim in a school. It is draining the system, so they’re discussing a pension plan whereby the school pays in a little, the rebbi pays in a little, and maybe an outside source will pay in a little,” Rabbi Ozeri explains.
Rabbi Ozeri is well aware of the counter-argument one sometimes hears on the topic of rebbeim’s salaries, which goes something like this: “Joe Balabos says, ‘Listen, I think what you’re doing for rebbeim is a wonderful thing. You’re right, they’re tzaddikim who are being moser nefesh. But let me tell you about myself. I’m caught in the classic middle-class squeeze, and it’s killing me. I’m an accountant working for somebody else and when I come to the end of the month, it’s not there. Hard as I might try, I can’t make those ends meet. I’m working for and with non-Jews, I don’t get a couple weeks off for Succos and Pesach. I work my head off through the hot summer, coming up to the bungalow Thursday and leaving Sunday. I don’t get any breaks on tuition, only humiliation before the committee, nor do I get a discount when I make a simchah or on anything else. I compare my situation with that of my neighbor, who truly is a wonderful ben Torah, and I ask: Is this really the cause that should be igniting the passion of Klal Yisrael?”
Although he feels for the situation of the middle-class balabos, he says that in the Syrian community at least, “we heard nothing of the sort, even though we have many balabatim like that. The response has been 99 percent positive across the board, from rich and from poor, that yes, we have to help our rebbeim. I’ve heard complaints like this on blogs and elsewhere, and here’s what many rebbeim have answered: ‘I don’t have two months off in the summer; my wife and I both have to work in day camps. My Pesach vacation is no vacation, we don’t have help and we don’t go away and I have to roll up my sleeves and work. And I don’t own a home, and as a matter of fact, my living room ceiling is leaking and I’ve been trying to get my landlord to fix it for the longest time, but I really can’t open my mouth because then he’ll raise my rent. And so on and so forth.’
“So, you can describe the life of a rebbi as rosy as you want, but that’s not the reality. True, there are some rebbeim who were zocheh to shtei shulchanos, they come from wealthy homes and can teach b’shalvah. But that is the minority. The vast majority is not living that kind of life. And again, they’re not complaining — but certainly let’s not complain about them.”
Ultimately, for Rabbi Ozeri, the cause he’s championing isn’t only, or perhaps even primarily, about dollars and cents. It is about restoring the standing and stature of a rebbi in frum society. “I’ve received many letters and e-mails from rebbeim singing the same tune: ‘Thank you, thank you, not so much for what’s going to happen for us financially, but for helping to raise the image of what a rebbi is in the public’s mind.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 603)
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