Maccabee's Wars

A venting rage against the ills of our society with some hopeful observations.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Memories of My Mentor

Rebbetzin Leah German, Leah bas Asher, ZT”L left us this past week on Sunday the 22nd Sivan, 5766.

I do not use the title ZT”L lightly. Though it is usually reserved in usage after the Petirah of a Rav, I have no doubt, it is even more appropriate as a reminder of how she lived her life; more so than anyone I have ever known.

I first met Rebbetzin German in the early ‘90s. By that time, she had already retired from the public school system as a master teacher and principal working under the most arduous of conditions in the city. As difficult as that may have been, she took on the responsibilities of what may have been an even more formidable task; principal of Be’er Hagolah.

Be’er Hagolah, established in 1979, became the first major yeshiva, for children of émigrés from the former Soviet Union. The culture of these children was based on a time warp of totalitarianism. American culture, on the other hand whetted their appetites for a type of freedom that was disingenuous to a Jewish way of life.

Though Rebbetzin’s German’s husband, Rabbi Avner German, the Menahel and Dean of Hebrew Studies, of Be’er Hagolah articulated Be’er Hagolah’s first goal as the Americanization of the students, it was indeed a formidable task. The ardent fervor needed to balance the newfound freedom of American culture with Yahadus, with Judaism, could only be provided by Rebbetzin Leah German.

Rebbetzin German, a brilliant woman, understood many things, most of all, the conflict between American culture and Jewish life in America. Growing up in America, attending public school, she saw first hand the trials and tribulations in maintaining one’s Judaism.

Yet she never wavered.

If she believed in the truth of a matter, there was nothing that could sway her from that truth. For example, after marrying her husband Rabbi German, may he merit long and happy years, with Nachas and pride from his children and extended family, she insisted in dressing in a fashion most befitting a G-d fearing woman, a wife of a Rabbi.

I never saw any woman of such culture, education and eminence who dressed and acted with such modesty; a woman who projected the firmness of granite, yet also the warmth and compassion of a mother to every human being.

Whomever she came in contact with, whether it was from the dregs of society to princely dignitaries, she reached each and every one of them on a lofty level with sometimes one word, one phrase, or one sentence.

The children, whom she came into contact with, all of whom she knew by face, name and class, whether from the public school or the Yeshiva, all loved and admired her. They knew she loved them and only were admonished by her so they could grow up to be better.

Her teacher’s were her own as well.

As a mother asks for help for their children, she would contact anyone, including her own children for help regarding Shidduchim, to potentiate possibilities for marriage.

And it would never be, ‘can you help so and so’ or ‘do you know anybody for so and so.’ It would always be “What can you do for my Yehuda?” or for anyone else who needed a Shidduch.

I heard it first hand. I heard it for myself.

But she never asked anything for herself. Any requests were always for the school, her children, her pupils, her teachers.

Even when parents would argue with her, parents who many times didn’t even pay a dime of tuition, parents who were totally in the wrong, she never lost her patience and would deal with them for hours on end.

Though many times in her working environments, she was exposed to foul language, she never accepted it. She abhorred it. As Rabbi German said, she became physically sick from its use as one can from a foul odor. Her soul refused to become tainted by it.

And she never complained.

Diagnosed with her illness eight years ago, she never let on that she was sick. She continued to work 24 hours a day until the last year of her life. Nothing was ever too much or too hard.

Her son, sitting Shiva in Starrett City, stated that she continued to cook for shabbos for countless guests, making chicken as he described it, with the ta’am of Gan Eden, the taste of the Garden of Eden, which no one in the family could duplicate, even though they had the recipe and they saw exactly how she made it.

Her husband said that in addition to her work in the school and at home, she would cook for hundreds of people in the shul, the synagogue. Her extracurricular life went from cleaning for Pesach to cooking for Pesach, to baking for Shavuos ad infinitum, all for hundreds of people, at the same time running a school for a thousand students.

She even cleaned for the cleaning lady for Pesach so that the cleaning lady shouldn’t have to work too hard; and that was the only time she ever had a cleaning lady to help out.

Lying in a hospital bed, with barely any strength, she insisted that her children first give some food first to the caretaker who had come to take care of the Rebbetzin.

And she never complained.

Her son mentioned that when she first received treatment for her illness, chemicals leaked through the intravenous, which were so harsh and acidic that it caused a wound large enough to fit one’s hand through it. Though the pain was horrendous, her description of it was so mild, no one came to help her until major damage had been inflicted.

Her husband had said that her personal physician never arrived on time for the birth of her seven children, because she never called out in pain for a nurse or a doctor. As a result, it was always thought that she was not ready to deliver.

What did I learn over the years from Rebbetzin German? How was she my mentor? She always offered constructive criticism whether I wanted it or not and I always tried to listen because I knew that she was right. But more so I learned from her grit and determination to stand up for what’s right; to be consistent, to find the truth, to hold on to it and never let it go, no matter what anybody says.

To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, Rebbetzin German was the epitome of ‘speak softly and carry a big stick.’ Yet her big stick was not a weapon of mass destruction. Her call to arms was her integrity, her fortitude, her strength and her brilliance.

She was a woman of Chesed, Gevirah and Tov; a woman of spunk and spirit. As Rabbi German mentioned how others described her – zaltz and feffer -- the spice of life.

She was woman of valor like no other.

I will miss her greatly.