Having transitioned smoothly to a new position, I find myself compelled to cast a backward glance and spend a few moments in reflection.
After 40 years of administration in Modern Orthodox elementary schools (22 years at the Hebrew Academy of Five Towns and Rockaway, and 18 years at Manhattan Day School/Yeshiva Ohr Torah), I decided it was time to leave full-time principalship and try to contribute to the broader educational community on a part-time basis. I gave MDS 15 months notice so that there could be a smooth search for a new principal and transition process. It turned out positively, and I am so appreciative of the students, teachers, administrators and parents of MDS for making my last year so meaningful.
For over 26 years, I had been an active member of Torah Umesorah. I was on the executive board of the National Conference of Yeshiva Principals, and lectured at various principal conferences throughout the years. I was also a consistent member of the convention committee and my opinions were valued. More importantly, I encouraged my teachers to take advantage of the many services that Torah Umesorah has to offer yeshivot and day schools. So, in that sense, I do not consider myself a newcomer by any means. The organization was founded over 70 years ago by Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, in conjunction with other roshei yeshivot, with the purpose of providing services to all Jewish schools and communities and, more crucially, to open schools in places where they did not exist. On the educational side, Torah Umesorah’s sole goal and purpose is to raise the quality of chinuch in both Judaic and general studies. I have personally witnessed this goal being actuated in many schools and in all segments of the spectrum of Orthodox Jewish schools.
As we approach the Yamim Noraim, I derived a positive lesson from the reaction of the Jewish community to the hurricanes in Houston and Florida, a lesson that I feel applies to my new position. Many organizations and individuals traveled to Houston to help the community in its recovery efforts. Over the last Shabbos, in preparation for Hurricane Irma, the Orthodox shul in Atlanta and its members hosted over 1,500 people who had fled southern Florida. The efforts of Jews to come to the aid of other Jews, in an atmosphere of brilliant self-sacrifice, signify the uniqueness of this wonderful people. This sense is precisely what fuels my enthusiasm as I move forward. I will be participating in a most colossal endeavor to help fellow Jews in a most meaningful way. Even as I pen these words, there is a team of Hatzalah ambulances on the road to Miami to help the community, whose members include individuals of all stripes and walks of life—trying to help Yidden in need. We can proudly say once again, “Mi ke’amcha Yisrael?” and “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh.” But why does it take a crisis for our community to display true achdut?
Fortunately, we do see much achdut among our member schools. I am excited and energized by my role at Torah Umesorah. I am reaching out to schools who have not yet taken advantage of the help and services that the organization can provide for them, their teachers and students. I also serve on a committee that is finalizing the process of Torah Umesorah becoming an accreditation agency that can provide evaluation and accreditation credentials to our member schools. This process will continue to raise the standard of the education we are providing for our children and grandchildren. It will continue to pave the way for the original mission of the organization—to help and service all Jewish schools.
While standards and expectations are areas that may vary from school to school, community to community, there is so much more that unites us all.
All Orthodox yeshivot and day schools have enough in common to be able to produce a standard of what we expect from our graduates on an elementary and high-school level. While we can each stress our individuality in a positive light, we can work together on the common denominators, for we all want “l’hagdil Torah ul’ha’adira.” This can even include a bid to improve the general studies of the next generation so that students can choose to be gainfully employed in a variety of ways and streams. Somehow, I think that if we can pull these goals together, and display even greater achdut, that we would merit approval from Above.
I also serve as a member of the placement committee that provides advice and guidance to schools that are seeking administrators and teachers. Of course, the corollary to this is the need to assist the educators who are in search of new positions. Torah Umesorah is also involved in dealing with the plethora of challenges to the Jewish community, challenges that are fundamentally not unlike those that affect society as a whole.
To say that I am filled with excitement would be an understatement. Perhaps more than excitement, though, is the sense of optimism—laced with humility—that I might be given the grace of Hashem to possibly make a difference to this most worthy organization as it pursues its lofty goals.
By Rabbi Mordechai Besser
Rabbi Mordechai Besser received his B.A. from Yeshiva College, his M.A. from Yeshiva University, his semicha from RIETS, and his M.S. from Hofstra University. He was the principal of HAFTR for over 20 years, after which he was principal at Manhattan Day School until June of 2017.