Across America, Torah-observant Jews asked themselves the same question last week upon hearing that Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky had died: Where would I be today if not for the Torah day school he initiated and nurtured in my community?
Dr. Kaminetsky headed Torah Umesorah, the Torah day school movement, almost from its inception in 1945 until 1980. Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the founder of Torah Umesorah, envisioned a day school in every Jewish community. Dr. Joe, as he was known throughout America, made that vision a reality.
The day school movement began amidst a mood of prevailing gloom. Half of the world's Jews had been exterminated over a period of six years, and the great Torah centers of Europe were no more. In America, it was almost universally assumed that Torah observance and learning were relics of the past.
The times were hardly propitious for a movement of Jewish revival. First- and second-generation Americans, just beginning to enter the mainstream of American life, derided the idea of a Jewish day school as 'undemocratic and un-American,' an affront to the ethos of the American melting pot.
Even many Orthodox rabbis, who realized a day school would destroy the congregational Hebrew schools, at which children learned to read Hebrew well enough to recite Kaddish for their parents and little more, were opposed.
Outside of the New York City metropolitan area, there were few cities in which a critical mass of observant Jews capable of supporting a day school existed. For schools to be viable, it was necessary to attract students and support from outside the Orthodox community. In the first decades of the day school movement, the vast majority of students came from homes in which kashrut and Shabbat were not fully observed.
Yet somehow the day schools came into being - more than 10 a year in the first 30 years of Torah Umesorah. In each community where a day school was built, one enthusiast or a small group of enthusiasts devoted themselves completely to the cause.
Pure idealism sparked the revolution. In every city, the day school began with groups of yeshiva students canvassing door to door to sign up students.
When a new school floundered in Minneapolis, a group of students from Telshe Yeshiva came to teach there for two years without pay.
Each new school was its own miracle. But somehow one man was present at each of these miracles: Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky. His doctorate from Columbia Teachers College gave credibility to the entire day school movement. But far more important was his personality. He loved people and could talk to anyone. He bridged all the worlds within the then small American Orthodox world. He was a national president of Hapoel Mizrachi, but as a young man had also wanted to go to Europe to learn in one of the great Lithuanian yeshivot.
The enduring image of him is with his travel bag draped over his shoulder as he set off on another journey by bus or train across America. He was a fiery speaker capable of infusing others with his enthusiasm. Yet he did not make himself a salesman for Torah; he had supreme confidence in the power of Torah unembellished and unadorned to sell itself if children were only exposed.
In community after community, he sold the idea of a day school, cajoled reluctant parents into sending their children, brought together rival factions in places far too small for any disunity if a school was to flourish, and convinced educators fearful of leaving the security of large Jewish centers that there was a more important mission for them in the Orthodox hinterlands.
Together with the great yeshiva heads who set policy for Torah Umesorah, he negotiated the treacherous path between the highest Torah ideals and the realities in the field. 'That's Honolulu,' became a slogan for the compromises that had to be made to bring a school into existence in farflung communities. And yet the compromises did not become engraved in stone, as if they were the preferred path, so that schools and communities continued to grow spiritually.
The self-sacrifice was unbelievable. When he returned to New York from another one of his long trips away from family, he was more likely to receive brickbats than accolades from those who sat comfortably on the sidelines, while he built the future of American Judaism. They criticized him for the concessions to reality that had to be made.
I ONLY knew Dr. Kaminetsky as an old man. It is hard for me to make the connection between the dynamic speaker on the old tapes and the elderly gentleman, with a perpetual half-smile permanently etched on his lips, despite the pain that was his constant companion. Yet even in those years of physical decline, I witnessed a greatness that serves as proof that his love of Torah far exceeded that of his critics.
Every morning, his neighbors watched him laboriously make his way from his ground floor apartment to the shul next door to be among the first to arrive for the 6:30 a.m. minyan. No one who saw him struggling to and fro - a half an hour to shul and a half an hour back - will ever be able to easily justify his own tardiness or absence from minyan again.
By 8:30, he was already on his way back to the kollel in which he learned with men a half a century or more younger than he. Even when his face was black and blue from another nocturnal fall, or on one of those days when his mind was not so clear, his constant refrain was, 'I want to go to learn." In the last week of his life, he was still being carried down the stairs in a wheelchair into the kollel.
When Dr. Joe undertook his life mission, there were five or six day schools outside of New York city. Today there are day schools in 200 communities.
The more than 160,000 children learning in American day schools and yeshivot today constitute Dr. Kaminetsky's enduring legacy - one that will not be forgotten as long as there is an American Jewry.