Through Dint Of Will, A 50-Year Reunion For A Shuttered Yeshiva

Through Dint Of Will, A 50-Year Reunion For A Shuttered Yeshiva

Closed in the early 80’s, and lacking an alumni association, the grit of one alumnus is giving graduates a chance to reminisce.

At a fundraising dinner for the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway, the guest speaker was Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. He is shown holding the arm of Barry Lichtenberg, then in the school’s sixth grade. Courtesy ofBarry Lichtenberg
At a fundraising dinner for the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway, the guest speaker was Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. He is shown holding the arm of Barry Lichtenberg, then in the school’s sixth grade. Courtesy ofBarry Lichtenberg

Like many of the young men at his day school in Brooklyn six decades ago, Yechiel Kaufman went on to become a rabbi. He is the long-serving spiritual leader of the Anshei Sfard congregation in Borough Park.

Like probably some of his classmates, Rabbi Kaufman continues a practice he first learned at the school — making his own tzitzit. Instead of buying a complete tallit at a Judaica store, he buys just the beged cloth and adds the long strings, with the complicated twists and knots, himself.

And like a few dozen of his onetime fellow students and teachers and children of former teachers, Rabbi Kaufman will spend a few hours this Sunday reminiscing with them about the years he spent at the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway.

The men will gather at the Flatbush home and shtiebel of Rabbi Grainom Lazewnik, now 101, who taught at the day school for several years, for a Golden Anniversary reunion of the 1966 and 1967 graduating classes.

The first-ever reunion of the school that opened as a branch of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in 1946, moved three times to different Brooklyn neighborhoods, survived a major fire in 1968, then closed in the early 1980s as Jewish families settled in other neighborhoods and competing day schools opened, is the brainchild of Herbert Schonhaut, a Forest Hills resident who grew up in Canarsie and graduated from the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway in 1967.

He enrolled in the school because his European-born father liked the fact that such religious topics as Torah and Talmud were taught in Yiddish – which Schonhaut still understands.

Rabbi Yechiel Kaufman. Courtesy of Barry Lichtenberg

The defunct school has no alumni association, so Schonhaut, a retired MTA manager of station signage and planning, tracked down the people with whom he had studied. He located about 75. To find them — Schonhaut had lost contact with most since the late 1960s — he used the Internet and his growing circle of contacts.

Several thousand students attended the boys-only school over the years and students who studied there at any time are welcome at the reunion, he said.

“We are sure there are still fond memories of our days in Yeshiva under the guidance of our devoted Menahel [director], Rabbi Meilech Silber z”l, our Rebbeim, teachers and classmates all those years ago,” Schonhaut wrote to the alumni in a letter that introduced the reunion.

He received many enthusiastic responses, he said. “It would be great,” they told him, “to get together again and to see each other again.”

Schonhaut, a self-described lover of history, displays his Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway diploma on the wall of his apartment, and keeps a scrapbook packed with items like old report cards and lunch schedules. “I’m a collector,” he said.

The reunion will include some speeches and divrei Torah, certificates and words of thanks to the former teachers who attend, ID tags with 1960s-era photographs of each attendee, a dairy buffet and a donation to a Jewish charity.

But the most popular part will no doubt be the schmoozing. “People mostly want to talk,” Schonhaut said.

Rabbi Kaufman, who gives his age as “old enough to have been in elementary school in 1956,” said he plans to attend the reunion in order to see old friends and give thanks — especially to the school’s teachers, who had a “major impact” on his decision to enter the rabbinate.

The school, said Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University, admitted students from a wider range of observance and self-identification than is common now in the Orthodox community. Some of the students came from what is now called the Modern Orthodox community; others, from more right-wing, “Litvish” backgrounds.

In the years after the Holocaust, when many yeshiva students came from survivor families and the choice of day schools — even in New York City — was limited, few people made distinctions about students’ affiliations, Gurock said.

With the subsequent growth of the Orthodox community, and the increasing strength of its charedi component, which has established a growing number of its own day schools and yeshivas, most students, especially in New York City, tend to attend schools with students from similar backgrounds, Gurock said, be it Modern Orthodox or chasidic or “yeshivish.”

That level of limited contact with people from divergent religious backgrounds is reflective of the trend in the wider Orthodox community, where such institutions as synagogues and publishing houses also are increasingly catering to like-minded individuals, he said.

In Rabbi Kaufman’s days at the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway, he said, “everyone was mainstream” — observant of such basics as Shabbat and kashrut. Most students’ homes then had televisions, and most students went onto college, practices now forbidden in many right-wing schools.

“It was very heimishe,” Schonhaut said. The dress code was “casual,” and hats were not required. Later, he said, the school “became more charedi.”

The classroom atmosphere was also very different from today.

Teachers smoked in class, Schonhaut said, and many teachers’ instructional style was a throwback to an earlier pedagogic style, said Barry Lichtenberg, a New Yorkattorney from Teaneck, N.J., who graduated from the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway in 1970.

“They called you by your last name — you were ‘Lichtenberg,’” he said, adding that “some” of the teachers “were not hesitant to use corporal punishment.”

In the late ’60s, the school’s building at 991 Eastern Parkway was unadorned, with no gym and holes in the walls.

Some things haven’t changed, though. Like today, at many yeshivot, the school day at the Yeshiva was divided into religious subjects in the morning, and secular, “English” subjects in the afternoon.

When a class completed studying a section of Mishna, a festive siyum meal took place.

“It was a hands-on yeshiva,” Rabbi Kaufman said.

Some teachers would offer students a prize of a dime for correctly answering a difficult question about Talmud or Torah, the rabbi said. Ten cents in 1960 would have the purchasing power of nearly a dollar today.

The award encouraged “a healthy competition,” Rabbi Kaufman said.

How many dimes did he earn at the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway?

“Not too many,” he answers modestly. “I wasn’t the best in my class.” 

The Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway reunion will be held on Sunday, Dec. 24, 1:30-4 p.m., at 1500 E. Ninth St., in Brooklyn. For information:

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