By Meira Oved – Modiin, Israel
Here’s a good one. How many Rabbis does it take to put on a Hebrew Academy Alumni Reunion for former students living in Israel? One. That is, if the Rabbi is Rabbi Moshe Engel of Long Beach, California and the Hebrew Academy Orange County.
It seems that being retired doesn’t sit well with Rabbi Engel. If Rabbi Engel only taught for a period of over 40 years, literally 1000s of 1st graders how to read Hebrew and instill in them a love of Yiddishkeit, it would have been enough, Dayeinu. But now, Rabbi Engel works as Alumni Coordinator with Nechama Eilfort organizing alumni events and reunions for the Hebrew Academy Orange County. His latest adventure brought him to Israel the week of Purim, to the Holy City of Jerusalem where some 25, now Israeli, former students, most of whom are now in their 40s, gathered in a Jerusalem shul to reminisce and show their gratitude to the Hebrew Academy.
I’m not a former student of the Academy, but rather a mom of former students and a former staff member of the Academy, better known in the mid 80’s and early 90’s as Morah Music to nursery through 1st graders. Some at the reunion may have remembered me as the lady behind the keyboard accompanying their beloved Rabbi Kurtzman z”l as he schlepped the Hebrew Academy Boys’ Choir from place to place, bringing joy to their audiences while the Rabbi danced with glee to the Chassidic tunes.
As the participants entered, one by one, there were hugs and cries of joy, sometimes confused expressions on the faces of those present, trying to place who is who. Now bearded, 6 ft. tall or fully grown with a sheitel or scarf head covering, looking nothing like the lanky kids in the grade school class pictures, it would have been too difficult to figure out who was who without going around the room to introduce themselves. So each stood to say his/her name (or former name) and specify when they were at the Hebrew Academy. We each added a special memory of our years at the Academy, mentioning names of friends and Rabbis and Rebbizens who made an impact on our lives.
First up, Aryeh Seiff, now with beard and black hat, stood to say that he fell in love with Israel after a stint in a Yeshiva and is now married plus a few kids, and living in Jerusalem. He had to run off early for obligations regarding his job teaching yeshiva students in a night seder. There was Yehuda Fried, who made Aliyah with his family less than a year ago. He now resides in the heart of Jerusalem and loves biking the pathways of the hills around the country. There were three of the four Lev-Ran siblings; Neomi, Amos, Danny and Shaul, who came to the U.S. from Israel back in the 70’s when their Dad’s professional responsibilities steered the family to S. California. They studied at the Hebrew Academy for a mere 3 yrs. out of their 9 yr. visit. They all remarked how significant those three yrs. were to their lives and how grateful they still are, to the Rabbis and members of both the Long Beach and Huntington Beach communities for having embraced them with warmth and open homes on Shabbatot and holidays. They particularly mentioned being moved by Rabbis Greenwald, Berkowitz, Kurtzman and Morah Newman. Amos reminisced about the Tzivos HaShem program and how he became a sergeant and proudly mentioned being the leader of Rabbi Grossman/Rabbi Rodman’s Bnei Chabad Youth group.
Aliza Abrams and her brother attended the reunion and she, now clad in scarf headcovering, hiding the wild curls we all remember, explained how she, her brother and her twin sisters still have such warm memories of the Hebrew Academy and Long Beach community. Dion Berzansky referred to the Abrams house and attic in particular, where he hung out many a days when he simply needed a break from home and the warmth he found in that family’s open house.
Berzansky, who teaches in Jerusalem, had wonderful memories of Rabbi Kurtzman’s choir days. Nachum Zucker animatedly recreated a Purim spiel by one of his Rabbis who tripped during acting out the spiel, only to show up after Purim with crutches. Zadok Oved (parent) remembered the bus driver, Joe, taking a group of parents on a Sukkah Hopping Tour led by Rabbi Engel, throughout Orange County, going from Sukkah to Sukkah and tasting along the way. I recounted how our family grew in our Yiddishkeit over the 12 year Hebrew Academy connection, to the point where we felt the next step up, was Aliyah with our 4 kids ranging between 2-14 yrs. old. Iris Elmalem, who attended the Academy for a few, short years said she will always remember the community’s warm acceptance, no matter what level of observance one was at.
The evening wouldn’t have been complete without a story, by Rabbi Engel, in his dramatic, animated fashion, which all there warmly remember, just as he taught them the Aleph, Bet, contorting his body in the shapes of the letters, my son, Ammiel reminds me. Ammiel Oved, wasn’t able to attend the evening, but managed to find time to meet Rabbi Engel during his visit in Israel. Now a Rebbe himself in Talmud Torah, he received valuable advice from Rabbi Engel.
The Hebrew Academy was clearly a tremendous, positive influence on the lives of all present, and no doubt affected their decisions to make Aliyah. All of the participants, even those not fervently connected anymore to Chabad, mentioned the warm spot they have in their hearts, even now, 30 odd years later.
One story in particular summed up the contribution the Hebrew Academy had and no doubt still has, on their students. Sandy Ross Loboda was a 4th grader when her parents decided to put her in the Hebrew Academy with no prior Jewish education. She wasn’t versed in Hebrew and the Academy felt she wouldn’t be able to acclimate into the class which was already reading Hebrew fluently and on to Torah study. Rabbi Engel heard that a child was going to be turned away and went into action. He volunteered to come to the home and teach Sheindel (Sandy) Hebrew until she could join the group. She not only fit right into the class, but eventually she became religious. She attended through High School and later in life made Aliya as a religious woman, married with children. Sandy now lives in Jerusalem and remembers Rabbi Engel every time she opens her sidur to daven. If it wasn’t for the dedication of the Chabad movement and Rabbi Engel in particular, who knows where she would be today? Instead she has raised a beautiful family, and has religious grandchildren, all living in Israel.
There are many more Hebrew Academy alumni living in Israel than those who were able to attend the reunion. Most are spread all over the country and have acclimated to their Hebrew speaking environments. Many of them are Talmidei Chachamim (Torah scholars) who have followed the example of their Rabbis from the Academy and have chosen to become teachers themselves. It is in the great merit of the Chabad communities of Orange and Long Beach counties and the Hebrew Academy in particular, who contributed enormously to raising generations of Torah loving Jews, that so many of them have come to make their home in our ancestral homeland; Israel. We, here in Israel anxiously await your joining us and in so doing, may we hasten the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu B’ Meheira u’ B’Yameinu. Amen.