This year’s Jewish Education Program (JEP) Queens testimonial breakfast, held in Kew Gardens Hills at Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim – Rabbinical Seminary of America, was filled with appreciation to an organization that has dedicated a yovel to bringing Jewish children closer to their heritage. Sitting beside longtime advocates of JEP, Reb Nachum Shmuel Hartman and Ronnie Schlanger, I came full circle with the mammoth impact JEP has had. Their outreach and love for Jewish youth was amplified by the tremendous outpouring of support as I flipped the pages of their breakfast journal.
“The importance of one life is so vital that we do not even realize it,” said Reb Yaakov Feldstein, a long-time friend to JEP, in his opening remarks at the annual fundraiser held on Sunday, June 19. Sefer BaMidbar is translated as The Book of Numbers, the literal translation of the Torah’s fourth book. In part, klal Yisrael was counted not once, but twice, as they sojourned in the wilderness. The Ramban expounds that the repetition is due to the remarkable fact that not one Jewish life perished during a 21-day span.
Rabbi Yaakov Finestone, JEP Queens’ dedicated director, has been at the forefront of kiruv, changing the lives of thousands of Jewish children enrolled in public schools and kiruv schools, bringing many toward a shomer Torah u’mitzvos lifestyle. To this end, his children prepared a special gift of art to hang in the family home, symbolizing this profound devotion.
“We have the power!” was the overall message from Rabbi Dovid Vinitsky, who was presented the Ahavas Yisrael Award for his involvement with JEP Queens since its inauguration. Rabbi Vinitsky’s kiruv efforts began eight years prior to the formation of JEP. Often, Rabbi Vinitsky would work to assist those who are not yet in yeshivah to become enrolled, beginning by initially working with public school students in Torah educational programs hosted at the Queens Jewish Center in Forest Hills. These kiruv efforts were solidified by the devotion of Rabbi Vinitsky’s eishes chayil, Rochelle a”h, who was nifterah on October 13, 2015.
“Their neshamos woke them up and motivated them,” explained Rabbi Dovid as he took attendees back to the era of the Holocaust, when extreme lengths were taken to save the Yiddishe children that remained alive. “When I taught years ago, I would have suspected that some children and grandchildren I worked with were those of survivors.” Rabbi Dovid used the self-sacrifices of Rav Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog zt”l, who traveled with tremendous risk to America and back to Europe, poised to help his fellow Jews, even obtaining a meeting with President Roosevelt. Rav Herzog, father to Israeli president Chaim Herzog and grandfather of Israeli president Isaac Herzog, was the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland, and later assumed the position of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine and of Israel after its independence in 1948. Post-war, Rav Herzog dedicated himself to saving Jewish children – especially babies – and bringing them back from their places of hiding throughout all of Europe, to their families, or to Jewish orphanages, many of whom were found hidden in Christian monasteries, or by Christian families hesitant to return the Jewish youth. The rabbi would organize passports and visas for survivors, and celebrate with them on arrival in Tel Aviv, but would always remind others of the orphanage children. “To recognize the Jewish children at an orphanage, Rabbi Herzog would scream out the words of Sh’ma Yisrael and watch as the children ran to him exclaiming calls of “Abba! Ima!” as a spark ignited in their tender neshamos,” explained Rabbi Dovid.
From early on in JEP programming, Rabbi Hayim Schwartz, Executive Vice President, RSA, took an inherent interest in bringing back the Jewish children to their roots. In his remarks, Rabbi Schwartz reminisced on the valiant strides during the 1980s of Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt zt”l, then mara d’asra of the Queens Jewish Center. “Forest Hills was filling up with Russian Jews, and in spite of Rav Grunblatt’s best efforts to have these children attend yeshivos, most landed in the public school system.” Rabbi Schwartz spoke of JEP’s high point with roughly 170 children attending their Jewish educational programs, including the successful session held in Kew Gardens Hills at Congregation Degel Israel Ohel Rachel, now under the devoted leadership of Rav David Z. Sheinfeld.
“Kids experienced tremendous love from their teachers and leaders, developing a love for Hashem,” expressed Rabbi Schwartz in his introduction for Rabbi Dovid and Shuli Rockove, Keser Shem Tov awardees. “The children were filled with a desire to learn, understand, and had a profound appreciation for the leadership of Rabbi Dovid Rockove, whose model for education was later replicated in other JEP sites throughout Queens.”
“We learned, played, and developed,” began Rabbi Rockove, as he displayed a T-shirt memento sporting the slogan “Jepper on board.” The educator expressed how JEP was built into the framework of what the Jewish community of Queens has become today, and credits much of the formative efforts to Rabbi Shaul Shenker, their foundational Executive Director, and today Rabbi Rockove’s brother-in-law. “We do not always know the effect that our work will have on the children we encounter,” pointed out Rabbi Rockove as he pondered how a particular blond-haired, blue-eyed child that he worked with for three years fairs today.
Rabbi Finestone shared that he has recently been stopped on the street by parents who proclaim, “We send our children to yeshivah because of JEP.” Such is the impact of the organization that arranges the distribution of weekly parshah sheets to over 50 local batei midrash and to over 7,000 recipients via email.
The Rabbi Joseph and Esther Grunblatt Memorial Tribute was accepted by their son Rav Akiva Grunblatt shlita, co-Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yisrael Meir HaKohen (Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim). Rav Grunblatt himself was a JEP leader during its second year of operations in Queens and was inspired by his father who jumped at any opportunity to become involved where there was a need.
Rav Grunblatt set the tone of the era, taking the crowd back to 1971 when the Forest Hills Jewish community was threatened by a scattered-housing low-income project set to be built at 108th Street and 62nd Drive. The incident, which scared many of the middle-class white Jewish families from the neighborhood, was also the launching pedestal for Mario Cuomo’s rise to fame. Cuomo was appointed mediator by then-Mayor John V. Lindsay, who allowed protestors to follow him as far out as Florida on his presidential campaign trail, all the while unwilling to allow public figures the authority to impose redevelopment schemes on a reluctant citizenry. Lindsay allowed himself to be outvoted, and caved to Cuomo’s plan of developing at a reduced size and as COOPs allowed a wide array of kollel families to buy into the project at low pricing. Ultimately, the apartments were taken over by Soviet Union immigrants and helped save the Jewish community of Forest Hills and Rego Park.
“The common denominator was achieving a sense of responsibility,” recalled Rav Grunblatt. “Stepping up to the plate and doing something exemplified leadership.” The Rav left the gathering with a brachah that we should see everyone return to Yiddishkeit.
Rav Grunblatt’s father’s own words from 1999 perpetuate the everlasting work of the kiruv organization: “JEP is a Hatzalah for children. The power of caring and loving of JEP has brought hundreds and maybe even more into yeshivos and day schools.”
“Once I came to JEP, I started learning brachos,” commented one child in a film presentation. The students are educated in the basics of Judaism from the various brachos, to the Yamim Tovim, and giving tz’dakah. Another child reacted, “My family learns about being Jewish because I go to JEP.”
A JEP graduate, 34, who is now married and sending his children to the Yeshiva of Central Queens where Rabbi Finestone happens to be a rebbe, stated, “JEP lit the candle inside of me and led me onto the path of reciting Modeh Ani and the Sh’ma. Today, I am shomer Torah u’mitzvos.”
The staggering success of JEP can be linked to the love and connection exuded by the devoted teachers. When teaching Torah, the neshamah is ignited.
The Kiruv Rechokim Award was bestowed upon Yoni and Devorah Ghalili, whose sincerity and love helped him run a JEP branch. His signature smile continues to brighten every room he enters. Yoni credits his grandmother for giving him a foundation in Judaism, and thanks his parents for making the informed decision of sending him to yeshivah instead of public school. “Now I have the privilege of giving them nachas instead of being on the other end of the fence,” noted Mr. Ghalili. “As teachers, most of whom are volunteers giving up a lunch break, we often enter a JEP session and wonder if the children are grasping the material, or just enjoying the treats. It is the success stories that give us the needed encouragement.” Yoni recollected the time he assisted a young Jewish Russian girl and worked through the language barrier to make the most of the afternoon. Yoni also spoke of a boy of elementary school age who began to attend JEP after leaving the yeshivah system. “Baruch Hashem, from spending time with us, this boy returned to the appropriate yeshivah to help him continue his Torah learning – Be’er Hagolah Institutes.”
“I am the one who is receiving,” said Avraham and Devora Rafailov, Kesser Shem Tov awardees. In the presence of his family, Avraham related his own history, typical of many local Bukharian families. In January of 1993, the Rafailovs immigrated to Queens from the Soviet Union along with many of their extended relatives. Avraham began kindergarten in a Kew Gardens-based public school, joining JEP when he was in first grade. “My brother and I were the only Jewish children in our school. I would like to publicly thank my teachers for taking a taxi each week to come out to the opposite end of Kew Gardens from their program to give us a Jewish education.” Avraham recalled the brachos bees and Shabbatonim as most memorable. After his bar mitzvah, Avraham began to wear a yarmulke and bring kosher food from home to school. Suddenly, he was an entirely different child. At this point, Avraham asked his parents to send him to a yeshivah. His parents insisted that the only option was Yeshiva Tiferes Moshe, despite Avraham explaining that YTM was only for those who were frum from birth. Ultimately, Rabbi May, the menahel at the time, accepted Avraham, allowing him to graduate from yeshivah. Again, fighting off worries that he would not fit in, Rav Shlomo Yonasan Harris happily accepted Avraham into the Chofetz Chaim Mesivta, where he continues in kollel. “People think I was always religious,” added Avraham with thanks to his parents for believing in him. “We need to believe in JEP, because many of their students don’t believe in themselves.”
When one sets out to make a positive impact on children and help them return to Yiddishkeit, it is said like the concept of tz’dakah that the z’chuyos of these children and their children’s merits return to the ones who helped formulate the reconnection for Hashem. Our actions today may have a profound impact on the Jewish community of tomorrow. The most stellar example rests in a story, now 35 years old, of a deep love for klal Yisrael and her Torah in the co-founders of TorahAnytime, esteemed brothers Reb Shimon and Reb Rubin Kolyakov. Alongside their wives, Golda and Miriam, respectively, the Kolyakovs, as the voice for world Jewry, appropriately accepted the Amud HaTorah Award for giving something to all walks of Jewish life to enjoy from the comfort of their home or vehicle. Rabbi Finestone spoke of Thanksgiving 1989 when one of the brothers attended a local Shabbaton with then Queens resident Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier, now a noted author and orator. Through JEP, the Kolyakovs, who both attended public school, joined innumerable Shabbatonim.
“About 35 years ago, I was in third grade at P.S. 201, The Discovery School for Inquiry and Research on 155th Street in Pomonok, Kew Gardens Hills,” said Reb Shimon, adding, “I have hakaras ha’tov to Hashem for saving my family by sending JEP into that public school. You mamash saved our lives!” Like the sincerity exhibited by the children in the video shown, the Kolyakovs could not wait for Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. when their one-hour sessions with JEP would resume. Reb Shimon then bestowed individual acknowledgement on Rabbi Zalmen Deutscher, Founder and Dean of Yeshiva Institute, now Yeshiva Primary: “Thanks for getting in touch with a kiruv yeshivah that was right for me,” adding, “It all started with JEP. The merits of all the ten million hours of learning each year on TorahAnytime return to the JEP donors.”
“My only yeshivah education was JEP!” exclaimed Reb Rubin, who was never afforded the opportunity to attend yeshivah. “I was Shimon’s first official human project.” Rubin then shed new light on the formation of TorahAnytime, “My parents were the ones who gave us our first cameras to record.” Rubin’s concluding thoughts are true for all of JEP’s efforts: “Our goal at TorahAnytime each day is to give Hashem as much nachas as possible.”
By Shabsie Saphirstein