It was at a chance meeting at a vort that Harav Chaim Yisroel Belsky, zt”l, spoke with, ybl”c, Rabbi Saul Shenker, who had served as the executive director of the Jewish Education Program (JEP), a kiruv organization begun by yeshivah students in 1972. Harav Belsky and Harav Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, zt”l, were appointed the rabbinic supervisors of JEP by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. Over the years the organization achieved fabulous success in bringing thousands of Jewish children closer to authentic Yiddishkeit.
“We really should write a book about everything that JEP accomplished over the years,” Rav Belsky remarked.
“Truthfully, we should have written one to tell the world what a handful of dedicated people can do to draw near our unaffiliated brethren,” Rabbi Shenker tells Hamodia. “With sheer determination and devotion, JEP reached out to these children and helped bring us all together…”
In the second-floor hallway of Mesivta Torah Vodaas, a young (Rabbi) Mutty Katz approached his friend, fellow talmid (Rabbi) Yosef Chaim Golding, with an unusual idea: “You and I are going to start a kiruv organization.” “Great,” Yosef Chaim answered. “Just one small question. What’s kiruv?”
Mutty’s father, Reb Moshe Katz, had been haranguing his children for a while, asking them, “What are you doing about your brothers and sisters who are disconnected from Yiddishkeit?” Mutty took this to heart and decided to do something about it.
In the ensuing months, Mutty Katz and his legion of volunteers began work on programs designed to reach out to Jewish students in the New York City public school system, children enrolled in after-school Talmud Torah and those already in day schools.
Outreach, as it is commonly known today, was in its infancy in the early 1970s. Chabad had their organization, as did NCSY, but the yeshivah world and Bais Yaakov movement were not yet involved. At an Agudas Yisrael convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Mutty Katz challenged Rabbi Moshe Sherer on the subject. Rabbi Sherer’s reply was, “If Agudas Yisrael seeds a program, will you do the work?”
By the end of 1972, the group of young, ambitious volunteers met with Rabbi Sherer in his office at 5 Beekman Street. Rabbi Sherer quickly recognized the seriousness of this group, and he accepted the young, fledgling JEP as an official division of Zeirei Agudath Israel, with an initial grant of $25,000 per year.
Thus JEP, the Jewish Education Program, was born.
The goal was to raise each group a notch: the public school children were taught the absolute basics of Judaism, Talmud Torah children were urged to enroll in day schools, and the objective for the day school students was to convince eighth-graders to continue on to yeshivah high schools. Rabbi Mutty Katz, who was the linchpin of JEP, concentrated on the Talmud Torahs and day schools, and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding focused on the public school release hour program.
“We began by bringing in children from day schools to Boro Park and letting them see what it means to live a Torah life,” Rabbi Mutty Katz explains. “Before long, these children grew close to their hosts and leaders and were clamoring for us to come to their communities to spread Yiddishkeit. We went to some 25 schools and arranged various in-school programs. Rabbi Ira Budow, the director of Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, Pennsylvania, is still close with us decades after we began visiting his school.
“When I was sitting shivah, I told a story about a fellow who became frum through JEP and went on to learn in various yeshivos. I said that today he runs an entire kiruv program of his own in New Jersey. Lo and behold, in walks Rabbi Chaim Veshnefsky of Yesodei Hadas and announces, ‘That’s me!’ He proudly told everyone that his life was changed because of JEP.”
“I was an 11-year-old boy going to a school associated with a Conservative temple in Philadelphia,” Rabbi Veshnefsky tells Hamodia. “I really did not know what an Orthodox Jew was. I had a frum teacher, Mollie Moskowitz, who arranged for me to attend a Shabbaton in Boro Park, where I stayed with the Goldstein family. They had a well-known printing shop known as Goldstein Press. I loved it and came back several times, and became close with their son Ari Goldstein, who was very involved in JEP.
“I eventually went to Camp Torah Vodaas for the summer, and Rabbi Daniel Soloff arranged for me to learn in the yeshivah in Philadelphia for four hours every Sunday morning. I had four different chavrusos, and each one learned with me for an hour. Eventually, I switched to Yeshiva Ner Yisrael, where I learned for a year, then to the Yeshiva of Staten Island for four years, and then by Harav Dovid Soloveitchik, zt”l, and finally in Beis Medrash Govoha. I began a program in Manalapan through which 150 people became frum. We eventually built a shul, and some 60 people daven there.
“Today, b’ezras Hashem, I run a program which teaches yesodos of Yiddishkeit to talmidim in mainstream yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, which generally deals with topics that are not covered in the regular curriculum. It all began with JEP, and they really helped introduce me, and so many others through my programs, to authentic Yiddishkeit.”
“JEP ended up bringing so many people back to Yiddishkeit. More than we ever expected,” Rabbi Katz says with pride and excitement. “We recently received a check in the mail from a doctor in Miami who wrote that he is frum today because of JEP and wanted to say that although we did it without much publicity, we really made a difference in so many lives.”
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding explains how the release hour program for the public school students took root. “The New York City public school system enforced strict separation of church and state, and no religious instruction was allowed. They did, however, have a program called Release Hour on Wednesday afternoons between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., where religious groups would be allowed to take students off grounds and teach them about religion. Chabad operated some release hour programs, but they could not service all public schools. JEP stepped in and divided the targeted schools with Chabad, thereby expanding release hour instruction to additional Jewish children.
“I would stand on the sidewalk in front of local public schools at dismissal time and hand out flyers about Jewish release hour to parents and children in the hope that they would sign the paper requesting to join the program and submit it to the school,” Rabbi Golding says. “We made arrangements with shuls located in the vicinity of these public schools, and they graciously provided us with accommodations. Before long, we had programs for Jewish public school children running in many neighborhoods, and these were staffed by yeshivah bachurim and Bais Yaakov students in their free time.
Rabbi Golding pulls out a little note on a raffle stub that he has carried with him for over 30 years: “Thank you for sending two Bais Yaakov girls to my public school … in 1975; my husband and three yeshivah children thank you as well.”
“Understandably, the policies of a kiruv organization needed to be decided by Gedolei Torah, and Harav Belsky presented the she’eilos that JEP encountered to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisrael,” Rabbi Shenker recalls. “The psak we received from the Moetzes, under the leadership of Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, allowed us to have mixed classes for the release hour children up until a certain age, but nevertheless required strict separation of the staff. We had separate cars to bring the bachurim and the Bais Yaakov students, and of course the rooms were separate.
This separation between boys and girls was not always met with approval. “There was a time when JEP advertised a Shabbaton in Boro Park as a ‘Chassidic Shabbos,’ and many children from some Talmud Torahs in the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, area signed up. These schools were under the auspices of Conservative and Reform temples, and we received a call from a principal of one of these schools. He asked us, ‘Will this Shabbaton be separate for boys and girls?’ When we answered that it would be, he grew irate and told us, ‘We are in the 1970s and we live in the United States of America. I will cancel the event if it is separate.’
“We approached Harav Belsky to ask how we should handle it, and he called the principal. ‘How was the Shabbaton advertised?’ Harav Belsky asked. ‘As a Chassidic Shabbos,’ the principal answered. ‘Well, a Chassidic Shabbos is definitely separate, isn’t it?’ Harav Belsky intoned. The principal had to admit that this was the case, and he agreed to let the event proceed. It was a smashing success, and we never had this issue come up again.”
On the flipside, there were times when objections were raised by the frum people involved. Once, JEP scheduled a concert for several Philadelphia Talmud Torahs and the only venue available that could hold so many people was located in a Conservative center. While the rabbinic advisors permitted its use, the father of a star soloist, a respected Rav, would not allow his son to participate.
“At that time, I learned each day with Harav Moshe Wolfson, shlita, the venerated Mashgiach of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas,” Rabbi Golding recalls. “When I brought up the subject with the Mashgiach, he told me to tell the father in his name, ‘If that building was on fire and there was a Jewish boy trapped in that building, would you allow your son to enter in order to save the life of that Jewish boy? Well, this situation is much worse!’ Sure enough, the Rav allowed his son to perform at that concert, which ultimately was a smashing success.”
In general, the Roshei Yeshivah approved of the release hour programs, and Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, which had two public schools that JEP was servicing within walking distance, supplied many bachurim to help with release hour programs at those schools.
When Harav Shmuel Berenbaum, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Mirrer Yeshivah, was approached, he came up with a novel idea. “Why not bring the boys into the Mirrer Yeshivah and have them learn with the bachurim? They will get a real taste of Torah and of a yeshivah, which will surely have a good hashpaah,” he told the JEP administration. “I will tell all my talmidim to learn b’chavrusa with these boys.”
True to his word, when JEP brought boys to the Mirrer Yeshivah, Rav Shmuel instructed his talmidim to learn with them, and before long the idea of “chavrusa-time” spread to other yeshivos as well.
At the Centennial Dinner of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, Rabbi Reuven Cohen, a son-in-law of Harav Chaim Yisroel Belsky and a Rosh Kollel in Eretz Yisrael, spoke movingly about how the trajectory of his life was redirected by the yeshivah.
“I was in Solomon Schechter High School, located at the time on Ocean Parkway, corner of Church Avenue in Brooklyn. The school was run by the Conservative movement, but through JEP we went each week to the beis medrash of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas where I learned with a chavrusa. I felt as if there was a huge hug extending to my school from East 9th Street and Cortelyou Road, where the yeshivah was located, which drew me in. I eventually went to Camp Agudah and then learned in Yeshiva Ner Yisroel, where I became very close to Harav Yaakov Ruderman, zt”l. Little could I have dreamed that I would marry the daughter of Harav Belsky, who was the rabbinic advisor and driving force behind JEP.”
Indeed, one of the most successful strategies to get students to attend day school and yeshivah high schools was to immerse them in the Torah atmosphere of a frum summer camp. Experiencing the ruach and atmosphere of summer camp with yeshivah students and Bais Yaakov girls was often the catalyst to implant a desire to become one of them.
“Paul lived in Pompton Lakes, NJ, and attended Shabbatons in Brooklyn, where he grew close to his JEP leader,” Rabbi Golding remembers. “One day, this leader received a letter from Paul in which he wrote, ‘I am carrying on a one-man battle for frum in Pompton Lakes.’ His yearning to become fully observant came through in his words, and we knew we had to do something to further ignite his desire. The obvious answer was to bring him to a frum summer camp, but we knew his mother would not be easily convinced.
“Paul was an expert in karate and was a champion of his school’s wrestling team. Mr. Sukenik, the owner of Camp Torah Vodaas in Highland, NY, agreed to offer a scholarship for this boy, and we set about convincing his mother to send him for the summer. In the pre-video world, the camp had prepared a slide show as a night activity, but the machine and the slide tray were already upstate. We arranged a relay in which someone brought it to a rest stop in New Jersey, and we met him and took the slide show to Pompton Lakes.
“Under the guise of Camp Torah Vodaas needing someone to teach martial arts, we spoke with Paul’s mother and explained that it would not cost her anything to send him for the summer. ‘I already registered Paul in wrestling camp for the second half of the summer, and the fee is non-refundable, but I will allow him to go for the first half,’ she told us.
“All went well as Moshe (the name Paul wanted us to call him in camp) thrived in camp. On visiting day, his mother arrived, and the staff brought her into the office to discuss the possibility of him staying for the second half as well. ‘Absolutely not!’ she told us. ‘I already paid for wrestling camp, and I will not agree to waste that money.’ Suddenly, Moshe spoke up. ‘Ma, all you care about is the money? What about me?’ he said courageously.
“She thought it over and agreed for Moshe to remain in Camp Torah Vodaas through the end of the season. Next year, he went to the Frisch School in Paramus, and then he entered Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, where he became a true ben Torah. When he decided to live in Eretz Yisrael after he got married, his chaveirim, many who knew him from camp, sponsored his wedding. Today, Rabbi Moshe is a Rosh Kollel in Eretz Yisrael, having raised a large Torahdig family.”
In 1975, JEP arranged a rally in the Philadelphia area that many children from the Talmud Torahs and day schools were planning to attend. The choir that sang on the second JEP record prepared and practiced to present a musical performance, and JEP purchased numerous prizes to distribute at the rally.
“There was one boy in particular who we felt would gain a tremendous amount if we could get him to attend a summer camp, but once again, we had to convince his parents. The families in that area were a wealthy group, and they would not accept a ‘scholarship’ for a summer camp experience. Someone in the office came up with a brilliant idea for how to get the parents of this boy to agree,” Rabbi Shenker relates. “At this rally, we raffled off many prizes to induce the children to come and participate. We decided that besides the grand prize of a new bicycle, we would raffle off a free summer in Camp Agudah. The plan was to hand each child a ticket when they entered, with the corresponding part of the ticket to be placed in the box for the raffle. However, the corresponding part of this boy’s ticket was held by me, and I was to ‘pull it out’ when the camp raffle took place.
“I practiced slipping it down from my sleeve, and we felt confident it would work. Yet, when the time came, it fell into the box and we couldn’t pull off our plan. I had to pick a random ticket, and that boy ended up going to Camp Agudah and he is frum today. The other boy, as well, ended up in camp, and he is frum these days as well.” (How JEP raised the money for the JEP Scholarship Fund will be discussed in Part II.)
Independent but affiliated JEP branches were soon opened in Queens, Long Island, Westchester, Monsey, and Toronto, and through their REACHING OUT, thousands of Yidden came back TOGETHER with their brethren, learning Torah, doing mitzvos and serving Hashem.
The JEP records and publications, how JEP raised the money for the JEP Scholarship Fund, and JEP today, will, im yirtzeh Hashem, be discussed in Part II.