May 25, 2024
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May 25, 2024
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A Special Shomrei Torah Dinner Honoree: 33 Years in the Making

Straightening the Torahs.

Although Janusz Legutko’s name may not sound Jewish, those who know this year’s shul dinner honoree will agree that the choice couldn’t have been more fitting. As Shomrei Torah’s Rabbi Emeritus Benjamin Yudin put it when asked by The Jewish Link if he and Rebbetzin Shevi had 20 minutes to share their thoughts he said, “It shouldn’t take 20 minutes for me to tell you that he’s an exceptional human being. If it does, I’m doing something wrong.” On May 19 the shul will host what promises to be a truly special event as it bids farewell to Janusz, who will be retiring after 33 years of service.

The narrative of Janusz and Shomrei Torah over the years has been one of mutual respect and admiration. After helping on weekends for about a year, Janusz, a Polish Catholic from Krakow who had been living in Garfield, New Jersey was officially hired in 1991 as a full-time custodian. It didn’t take long for him to step up in a major way, as he readily volunteered for any and all tasks. Before long he became the shul’s unofficial shamash. As past shul president Michael Glass, who has worked closely with Janusz, noted, “There is not one aspect of the shul’s running that Janusz doesn’t have a hand in,” adding “He treats the shul as his own home.”

In the simcha hall.

Over the years, besides his prepping for virtually every type of kiddush, simcha and special event the shul has had to offer, making sure both the shul and mikvah areas are spotless, and being available for all sorts of emergencies and special requests, he has helped with kiddush and Havdala, made the rounds with the shul’s tzedakah box at morning minyan, gathered sheimos to accompany burials, and even regularly rolled and tagged Torahs for Shabbos and Yom Tov. And woe to the person who brought chametz into shul after Janusz cleaned for Pesach! On occasions when extra help was called for, his response would invariably be, “No, we need to save money.”

Janusz candidly shared his background with The Jewish Link. When asked if he minded having his personal life divulged in print, his response was “Why not, it’s the truth.” He had been a math teacher in Poland for 10 years after receiving his master’s degree. A shaky economy and a separation from his wife were the impetus for his moving to the United States. He left behind a daughter with special needs whom he loves very much, but felt she was in good hands with his wife. He has provided financial support to them and returns to Poland each year for a three-week visit so that his daughter has some semblance of family. Eventually, she married a young man who also has special needs.

Making the rounds with the tzedakah box.

Janusz explained that in the early days of his employment at the shul, at times there could be a lull. In those moments he would go upstairs, grab a chumash, and read the English translation. This led to his “confronting what I learned as a Catholic.” Some of the intricacies of Judaism were a learning experience for him. He recalled the time he found money in shul on Shabbos and couldn’t understand why everyone he approached to turn it over to ran away from him. Other times he would be asked to adjust the shul’s air conditioning on Shabbos and wondered, “Why are they asking me to do it?” However, little by little he began to understand “and I liked it. I believed in Hashem all along. I just didn’t know Him from this perspective.”

Several years passed and in 1994 he approached Rabbi Yudin, stating he wanted to become a Jew. For a full year he was rebuffed. As he explained, “Rabbi Yudin would say ‘you’re a good guy. You keep your seven commandments and you do OK with it. Why take on so many more?’” Little by little he said he thought to himself “Why not?” Finally, in 1995, his persistence paid off. Rabbi Yudin agreed to have him converted. Three rabbis were in attendance, with the brit taking place across the street from shul at the Yudin home.

Following his conversion, Janusz’ relationship with shul members, which had always been warm, in part due to his blunt sense of humor, truly blossomed. The rabbi’s son Andi would study with him, and every Wednesday Dr. Zvi Fischer would share chumash and Rashi, and later mishnayot, a practice that has continued for decades. A year after Janusz converted, the Yudins welcomed him to live downstairs in their home, which has been his residence ever since. A steady flow of meal invitations has led to some very special relationships. He shared his feeling that “All people in Shomrei Torah are my family. Everybody.”

Reflecting further, he said, “Becoming a Jew has made me a better person. By living with the rabbi and Shevi I witnessed how they had a heart to help everybody. I wanted to do the same. I think of the pasuk ‘Love your fellow Jew as yourself’ and understand that that was the pasuk that defined their lives. I love my fellow Jew more than myself. I didn’t love myself before I became a Jew. Now I do.” He also noted the impact weekly Shabbos meals had on his outlook, explaining, “As a Catholic there was a special meal only twice a year.”

Janusz Legutko with
Rabbi Benjamin Yudin.

His relationship with the Yudins has been particularly poignant. He explained that he has shared in their simchas as well as their sad moments throughout the years, attending each of their children’s weddings and celebrating the births of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He developed a particularly close and caring relationship with both of Shevi’s parents when they moved to the Yudin home, treating them as his own. As Shevi remarked, “He was so caring and showed so much respect for them.”

His interactions with children and those in need has been particularly noteworthy as well, which made his job as a night counselor at Sinai’s SHELI House in Teaneck a perfect fit. He has been there since 2000, finishing his work at Shomrei Torah mid-afternoon and then spending the remainder of the day and overnight in Teaneck before returning to Shomrei Torah early the next morning. He was responsible for monitoring the overnight safety of the young men under his care. In short order he bonded with each of them, developing very close relationships. As Shevi shared, “He has a love for people who didn’t have the easiest of lives.”

Since COVID, Janusz extended his yearly visits to Poland from several weeks to several months due to the serious illness of his wife. Sadly, she passed away about a year ago. This prompted his decision to retire and move back to Poland so he can help take care of his daughter, who he said means everything to him, as well as her husband. He plans to make their apartment kosher and stay with them, noting that Krakow has a Chabad as well as a small beit midrash and kosher store. His official retirement date will be Nov. 30.

Janusz and his refrigerator.

When asked a final question as to why he never continued as a math teacher when he first moved to the U.S., Janusz explained that besides the language barrier it’s not an easy job. “If you want to be good, you have to put in the effort and do a lot of preparation.” More than anything, that’s a statement that defines Janusz.

Shomrei Torah’s annual dinner will take place on May 19 at 5 p.m. at 19-10 Morlot Ave. in Fair Lawn. For questions, contact Barbara Topial at (201) 873-5746 or Carol Weissmann at (201) 390-6600.

Robert Isler is a marketing research analyst and freelance writer who specializes in Jewish issues. He can be reached at [email protected].

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