There are people we are privileged to meet or work with who impact our lives in ways that are unforgettable. I first met Rabbi Moshe Neuman when I made the decision to send our oldest daughter, Elisheva, to the Bais Yaakov Academy of Queens. This was a momentous, wonderful decision for our family. Elisheva was going into first grade, and I brought her to the interview with a little book she had written. Rabbi Neuman was so kind, and it felt like it would be the right school for her.
At one point during the first few weeks of school, Elisheva refused to go to school. I didn’t know what to do. My husband and I kept asking her why she didn’t want to go. Finally, she blurted out that she didn’t want to go because the teacher banged a ruler on the desk and the sound scared her. I told her we would go speak to Rabbi Neuman together. The idea of speaking with Rabbi Neuman immediately calmed her.
He listened to her problem with a full sympathetic ear, and then he said he would take care of this and the teacher would not bang anything anymore. He looked little Elisheva in the eye and told her that if she ever had any problem, she should come to him. She nodded that she would. She skipped back into the first grade classroom and the teacher never banged on the desk again.
A year later, when Elisheva was in the second grade and our second daughter, Rivka, was in pre-1A at BYQ, I began teaching third grade, and it was clear that Rabbi Neuman was a wonderful principal for our daughters and also for the teachers. I looked forward to the beginning of the year meeting each year when Rabbi Neuman shared chinuch ideas.
I wish I had recordings of all those meetings. A few stand out for me. I recall one year he told a story about how his father gave him the gift of a watch and told him how time is such a valuable gift. Another time, I remember he told the teachers that everyone has troubles and worries, but when you come to school, leave your pekele of troubles outside the door of your classroom and pick it up on your way out. He was teaching us how important it is to focus on the students and that they need to be the center of the teacher’s attention. You can’t be an effective educator if you bring your own problems into the classroom.
He also spoke about how we should be so grateful to live in the United States, and he wanted the English teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance every day before class. I remember once there was a big thunder and lightning storm. I went straight to Rabbi Neuman’s office to ask if he would come into the class and teach the girls the correct brachos, which of course he did. I was always learning from Rabbi Neuman. In a way, with my daughters attending and me teaching there, it felt like my first Bais Yaakov, since I had not had the privilege of attending a yeshivah as a child.
I remember I taught an interview unit of study, and Rabbi Neuman graciously agreed to come into class and to be interviewed. It was fascinating to hear how Bais Yaakov got started and how he was the gym teacher and did everything else in the beginning.
One year, I had a very challenging class with students with different learning and behavioral issues and I was feeling very discouraged. I went to Rabbi Neuman and asked him for help with one particularly troubled student. He sighed and said he didn’t know what to do for her either. Somehow, hearing it wasn’t me, and someone as experienced as Rabbi Neuman didn’t know what to do, gave me the encouragement I needed to plow through and make it through that difficult year. I also learned a valuable lesson that even a principal is human and doesn’t know all the answers but that’s okay. You just try your best and daven. He had that quality of humility and not being afraid to let the students and teacher know he wasn’t perfect and didn’t know everything.
Many years passed and Rabbi Neuman retired. I began working in other schools as a writing consultant and still working part-time at BYQ. I was teaching creative writing at Nefesh Academy, a kiruv school in Brooklyn, and I asked Rabbi Neuman to come as a guest speaker to speak about his experience growing up in Germany during the late 1930s. He happily agreed to come. It was really exciting to introduce Rabbi Neuman to my students. The girls, who were mostly daughters of Russian immigrants, were mesmerized by his stories.
I am really grateful to Hashem for having the privilege to work at Bais Yaakov of Queens for so many years under the guidance of such a master educator, and that my five daughters were educated in such a positive, warm, loving school that fosters students’ love of Yiddishkeit and their creativity. That positivity and warmth was an atmosphere set by Rabbi Neuman, and it continues as his legacy with all the wonderful principals and administrators and moros at the Bais Yaakov of Queens.
May his family and the Queens community be comforted with the mourners of Tzion.
By Susie Garber