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Jewish Journal

End of an Era at Harkham Hillel

Rabbi Menachem Gottesman retires after 42 years at the helm.

by Julie G Fax

November 21, 2002 | 7:00 pm

The news was not good. Abraham Anidjar would have to stay in Los Angeles for a prolonged period to receive treatment for his liver condition. His wife and four children would accompany him from Israel. But where would they stay? What about the children's schooling? How would they pay for the treatment?

The answers to the questions, it turned out, all rested with Rabbi Menachem Gottesman, dean of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills. Not only did Gottesman make sure all the children were settled at Hillel, but he opened his own home to the family for an extended period. In addition, the rabbi spoke with hospital administrators to lower the fees and with community members to donate funds.

"We were four children who where scared and saddened by all these events," wrote Camila Anidjar, the oldest daughter, now in high school. "Rabbi Gottesman welcomed us at the school with a lot of happiness and love."

"Slowly we became once again happy children full of confidence," she said in her letter. "We go to school every day, happy because we know that our angel is always with us, Rabbi Gottesman -- our ray of light."

Camila Anidjar wrote the tribute on the occasion of Gottesman's retirement from Hillel after 42 years at its helm. While her story represents an extreme example of Gottesman's beneficence, there are untold others who agree that Gottesman's contribution to each student, and to the community as a whole, has been enormous.

"I love my job, and I have loved every minute that I was here," said Gottesman, 72. "The school has so much potential, and there are a lot of challenges that can be met if we can find somebody who is full of energy and full of knowledge and feeling of how to run a Jewish day school."

Founded in 1949 by Rabbi Simon A. Dolgin, Hillel is the oldest and largest Jewish day school in the Western United States, with 750 students in preschool through eighth grade, up from 160 when Gottesman joined the operation in 1960. Over the decades, the school has developed a reputation for academic excellence and has remained true to its vision of giving students a modern Orthodox education infused with a love for Israel and a commitment to developing strong values and character traits.

Gottesman shaped the school with his attention to every aspect of the operation. His commitment to provide every child in the school with a Jewish education, no matter from what background, has transformed the lives of many who might otherwise have left traditional Judaism.

"Rabbi Dolgin believed that a Jewish education should be available to every Jewish child, regardless of financial ability or religious observance, as long as they were willing to commit themselves to becoming more religious," said Benny Adler, Hillel board chairman and a 1965 graduate, whose wife and four children also graduated from the school. "Over the years, that investment has paid tremendous dividends, as we have thousands of graduates all over the world who are Jewishly active because the rabbi [Gottesman] and [his wife] Leiba took them in and gave them the opportunity to get a Jewish education."

It is that commitment to tolerance that hangs in the balance as Gottesman leaves. As competition among area day schools has increased over the last five years, some families have opted to go to schools with more exclusionary policies, preferring an all-Orthodox student body, where non-kosher birthday parties or conflicting values are not a threat to a Torah-observant environment. That, in addition to other factors, has led to a drop in enrollment at Hillel to 750 from its peak of about 850 just a few years ago.

Hillel leaders said that the board and search committee are committed to adhering to the longstanding philosophy of tolerance, but there will be an effort to increase the ratio of Orthodox to non-Orthodox students. They also pointed out that changes in the wider community have provided more options.

When Gottesman came to Hillel, there were 1,000 students in seven day schools -- all Orthodox. Today there are 10,000 student in 35 schools, 14 of them non-Orthodox.

"Hillel still stands by its philosophy," Adler said. "The fact that there are alternatives means we do not have to accept every single student, we can be somewhat more selective. But it is still our basic philosophy, and we've attempted to live by that since it is something we believe in."

Leiba Gottesman, the rabbi's partner in building the school, is proud of the many students who became more religious under Hillel's guidance. However, she worries that the community is moving away from the chance to bring more families to an Orthodox lifestyle.

"I see students who went to Hillel and benefited by the school taking them in when their parents were not shomer Shabbos [Sabbath observant], and now our school isn't good enough for them," Leiba Gottesman said. "And it hurts. Where is the appreciation for something done for you? There was a time to receive, and now it's time to give."

By all accounts, both Gottesmans, who have five children and many grandchildren, gave selflessly to the school. In the early years, the rabbi fixed broken furniture, operated the mimeograph machine, even drove to school children who lived far away. Leiba Gottesman has been a teacher for several grades, adviser to the oldest girls, a bookkeeper, host and chef for countless parties and Shabbatons and is still active on the PTA and dinner committee.

The Gottesmans have also taken many students into their own home -- children from broken families, others who just wanted a warm home for Shabbat or children from the neighborhood who came to study and nosh on Shabbat afternoons.

The rabbi is considered by many to be a master fundraiser, having perfected the personal pitch to the many community members with whom he has longstanding relationships.

One of the many educators Gottesman has mentored is his own son, Shlomo, who founded the Mesivta of Greater Los Angeles in Calabasas, an Orthodox boys boarding school now in its sixth year.

"My parents taught me that the first step in working in education is appreciating the good that is done around you," Shlomo Gottesman said.

Now that he is retiring, the elder Gottesman said he will spend some time helping his son expand the Calabasas school. In addition, he and his wife plan to spend a portion of the year in Israel. Gottesman said he will always be on standby to help out at Hillel.

Meanwhile, the search committee is collecting resumés.

"I think it's going to take two people to do what he used to," said Hillel alumnus Alan Schoenfeld, the school's president. "We need someone to work with the administrators, teachers and students, and someone else to work PR and fundraising."

The board, Schoenfeld added, will also have to play a more active role in fundraising and school policies.

Gottesman's departure, while leaving a major gap, also provides an opportunity for Hillel to define itself for a community that has changed greatly since he started started there 42 years ago.

"Our schools have grown in number and grown in assets, but they are all a necessary part of the tapestry," said Gil Graff, director of the Bureau of Jewish Education. "Each one has its own unique culture, and I suppose the challenge [for the Hillel leadership] will be defining what the unique vision for Hillel is to be marching forward."

Rabbi Menachem and Leiba Gottesman will be honored at the Hillel Scholarship Banquet on Sunday, Dec. 22 at the Century Plaza Hotel. For more information, call (310) 276-6135.

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