I began my talk at the Young Israel of Teaneck last Friday night with a story of a visit I once made to Briarcrest Christian Academy when I was Head of School of the Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis, TN. After the talk was over, several people lined up to ask questions or share a thought spurred by the lecture. One of them, after asking his own question, pointed out a man at the very back of the line, who he was sure would have something interesting to add. The lecture, after all, was on Orthodox Responses to New Atheism, and this man was an accomplished aerospace engineer who had worked for NASA and now Boeing. Undoubtedly, he'd have a valuable take on whether we should or shouldn't seek evidence of God in contemporary cosmology and what it feels like to be a theist in an evangelically atheist field.
When I finally made my way to him, he introduced himself with a warm smile as Jesse Schwartzman and caught me totally off guard by what he said next. He wasn't waiting around late on this cold Friday night to give me his take on Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, or Francis Collins. He didn't object to my readings of Rav Soloveitchik or Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He was completely transfixed on the fact that I began with a story about the Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.
He explained to me that he was a graduate of the same school I had led, back when it was called the Memphis Hebrew Academy. He started as a fifth grader in 1972 and though his older siblings went on to the high school (known then as Yeshiva of the South), he never did so because three years after he started his father accepted a position in Chicago and - I cut him off mid-sentence.
“Your father is Rabbi Schwartzman from Chicago?!”
The look on his face immediately changed and he seemed close to tears.
“He was - he passed away a year and a half ago... Did you know him?”
“Well,” I said, “Not really... I never met him and I never even spoke to him. But every year, without fail, we’d get a check from him. And not a small one. When I asked some lay leaders about this mysterious annual contribution, I was told that he was a rabbi in Chicago who went to Houston every year to raise money for our school. And then, in my last year or two there, I heard he had gotten sick, and for the first time in decades, the Rabbi Schwartzman check didn't arrive.”
To be honest, I never could quite wrap my head around the Rabbi Schwartzman check. How could a man who had not stepped foot in our school for decades, whom I had never met and never even spoke to, be representing our school to others and asking for financial support? What was he telling them? He couldn't possibly be talking about our one-to-one laptop program, our 21st Century Learning Initiative, or our Community Nights of Learning. He couldn't be telling them about the Project Approach in our early childhood program or the success of our high school kids getting into yeshivot, seminaries, and colleges. He didn't know anything about any of that. He never even asked for a brochure, a video - something that would reflect the hard work we were doing and how far we, as a school had come.
Clearly, whatever he was doing was working, because the check he sent us every year was always five digits long. But it didn't feel right. He was selling some other school from some other era and we were reaping the rewards. And why was he doing it in Houston, if he lived in Chicago? Who were these unsuspecting souls he had convinced to give hundreds or even thousands of dollars to a school hundreds of miles away to which they had absolutely no personal connection?
Completely unwittingly and in the kindest of ways, Jesse Schwartzman changed my perspective completely and taught me quite a lesson in the process.
Jesse Schwartzman’s father, Rabbi Raphael Solomon Schwartzman, ztz”l, spent his early career as the pulpit rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues in Houston, TX. Houston, at the time, had only a fledgling Orthodox community and lacked the critical mass for a Jewish Day School. Jesse’s older siblings were educated locally for elementary school and then his father sent them off to dorm at the Yeshiva of the South in Memphis for high school. After a few years, Rabbi Schwartzman was so taken by the warmth of the Memphis community and by the experience of his older children, that he decided to send Jesse - as a ten year-old 5th grader - to board in Memphis and attend the Memphis Hebrew Academy. Jesse told me that to this day, he looks back on those years as some of the best in his life.
It was back then that Rabbi Schwartzman first decided to approach some of the Holocaust survivors in his community and share with them the experience that his children were having. He explained that in the heart of the American South, a new generation of Jewish children were being raised to love their Judaism and to make it the centerpiece of their lives. He explained that in this little school boys and girls were enveloped in a sense of warmth, imbued with a sense of excitement, and instilled with a sense of pride in identifying as a Jew and in living as a Jew.
That was the only pitch they needed, and this was the only pitch they got. Year after year, decade after decade, Rabbi Schwartzman returned to this group out of an unyielding sense of הכרת הטוב for the school and community that had taken his children in, and the group continued to give our of an unyielding belief in the cause. Not because of new labs, blended learning, a STEM initiative or a basketball tournament. Not because of APs, SATs, or ACTs. But because a Jewish Day School was raising Jewish children to love their Judaism. What could be more worthwhile than that?
יהי זכרו ברוך
May the memory of Rabbi Raphael Schwartzman, ztz”l, be a blessing to us all.