When Anna Motsenyat graduated Be’er Hagolah Institute in 1994, her last day of classes did not mean goodbye. “I kept in touch,” said Motsenyat, a 22-year-old who came here from St. Petersburg in 1987.
Many of Be’er Hagolah’s students maintain ties with the yeshiva which, located in Starrett City, currently has an enrollment of 1,000 students from the former Soviet Union. But Motsenyat took her connection with the school a step further last year when she returned to her alma mater as a Judaic Studies teacher and program coordinator.
“The school is very warm, and more like a family,” says Motsenyat, speaking in unaccented English. “My road took me [back] here.”
That sense of warmth was evident at last week’s reception honoring Be’er Hagolah’s 20th anniversary, hosted by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at Gracie Mansion.While supporters and staff of the school reveled in the institute’s success, the event was also tinged with sadness over the death two weeks ago of Shoshanna Reznitsky, who would have been a junior this year. Reznitsky and another student were struck by a car while at summer jobs in Rockland County. The second student, Lizzie Spector, remains hospitalized in serious but stable condition. She is expected to remain hospitalized for several months at Westchester Medical Center while undergoing rehabilitation for head and leg injuries.
“This celebration of your 20th anniversary should be a joyous time,” said Mayor Giuliani in his remarks. “But because of the terrible tragedy involving two of your students, it’s been a very difficult time for your community.” The mayor noted, however, that the outpouring of concern for the girls’ families “proves how much everyone at Be’er Hagolah, students, faculty and parents care about each other. So I know even from this tragedy you will all grow to have more strength.”
A UJA-Federation beneficiary, Be’er Hagolah, whose name means wellspring of the diaspora, has educated an estimated 18,000 children from kindergarten through high school.Giuliani hailed the institute as “one of the great success stories of the city of New York. It makes a real difference in thousands and thousands of lives, carrying on a process that I believe is the most important single reason why New York is the premier city of the world … You are helping, aiding assisting and carrying on the process of immigration and making it work correctly.”
But aside from praising Be’er Hagolah’s role among the many groups who contribute to the public good, Giuliani — who proclaimed July 29 Be’er Hagolah Day in New York City — made specific reference to the institute’s role in the struggle to reclaim Soviet Jewry.
“The journey of Soviet and Russian Jews to this country has been a very, very unique experience and one for which all of us can be very, very proud,” said the mayor. “The founders of BHI understood and still understand that as trying as the emigration process itself can be, accessing the promise of America can take even more work. Crucial to it is good education, and you have provided that … good education in the Jewish religion and in all academic subjects, so that you produce good citizens of the United States.”
Giuliani was presented with a Hero of Freedom award for his longtime support of the emigration and absorption of Soviet Jewry . Other honorees included Canadian businessman and philanthropist Albert Reichmann; celebrity speakers bureau entrepreneur Harry Walker; UJA-Federation Russian division chairwoman Ludmilla Kislin; philanthropists Milton and Shirley Gralla; and Be’er Hagolah Young Leadership Division board member Matthew Drillman. Richard Hirsch, vice president of Be’er Hagolah and president of The Jewish Week, introduced the mayor and presided over the event.
A posthumous award was presented in the name of Joseph S. Gruss, whose Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Life Monument Funds enabled the building of Be’er Hagolah’s facility, and continues to fund projects at the yeshiva and numerous other Jewish educational institutions.
Accepting the award in Gruss’s name, Jason Cury, president of the Life Monument Funds recalled Gruss’s first encounter with Be’er Hagolah 10 years ago, when a group of students celebrated their bar mitzvahs at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue. “Although Mr. Gruss was sent an invitation, no one expected him to come,” recalled Cury. “He was very impressed and asked how he could help the yeshiva.”
The response from the yeshiva’s executive director, Pearl Kaufman, was “we need a building,” said Cury.Gruss further surprised Be’er Hagolah by instructing Cury to see to construction of the modern, 32-classroom facility in Starrett City, which opened in 1992. The building includes an extensive Hebrew/English library, six resource rooms, two science labs, an auditorium, two-story gymnasium and dance/music studio. Gruss died in 1991, before construction was completed.
“Just as Moses never saw the promised land, Joseph Gruss never walked into the building he had envisioned,” Cury lamented.
Although Be’er Hagolah has some wealthy friends, it operates with virtually no tuition base, placing the school in constant need. “Every child has to be supported,” says Kaufman, the executive director. “They pay anywhere from $10 to $100. There is a hand-to-mouth situation.”
Although he has no statistics, Be’er Hagolah’s dean, Rabbi Avner German, says the vast majority of graduates go on to college education, and many continue their religious studies as well at yeshiva or seminary.
The yeshiva’s involvement with its pupils ends neither at graduation, nor at summer break for continuing students. Many graduates maintain their connection by attending a combination learning/gymnastic program.
And since the religious instruction often inculcates in children a greater level of observance than that of their parents, the yeshiva places students in Orthodox camps and other settings during the summer.
“Often there is a conflict,” said the rabbi. “The parents want the cultural aspects but balk at some of the religious [aspects.] Placing children around the city and in the Catskills as mother’s helpers and campers and counselors is a very important part of the educational procedure.”
Anna Motsenyat is one of five former students who have returned to Be’er Hagolah as teachers. “I feel that I’m both a friend and mentor, and that makes for a better positive relationship on both ends,” she said. “I feel like I can relate to them … I am able to give more because I understand where they’re coming from, I understand their challenges and their difficulties.”
One of those challenges will be dealing with the death of Shoshanna Reznitsky when students return in September. The students have already planned a memorial service on the 30th day of mourning, Aug. 16, and plan to raise $100,000 to dedicate a classroom in Reznitsky’s honor. The proceeds will fund scholarships for other Be’er Hagolah students. “It’s going to be very difficult,” said Motsenyat. “It’s easier because we are going through it like a family, but in a sense that also makes it more difficult.” Contributions to the memorial fund for Shoshana Reznitsky should be sent to Be’er Hagolah, 671 Louisiana Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11239.