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A rite of August
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A rite of August

Stephen Flatow and his daughter, Alisa. When she was 4 Alisa demanded that she attend a Jewish day school. Alisa was killed by Islamic Jihadi terrorists in 1995.
Stephen Flatow and his daughter, Alisa. When she was 4 Alisa demanded that she attend a Jewish day school. Alisa was killed by Islamic Jihadi terrorists in 1995.

As I entered the store and saw the six-foot-high pyramid of loose-leaf paper, I knew a rite of August, getting the children ready for school, was here. That stack and the surrounding school supplies made me think back to the August of 1979 when my wife and I prepared to send our oldest child, Alisa, to kindergarten.

It was a hot summer and we belonged to the Cabana Club in West Orange. It was a great place for young parents with young children because it provided a children’s day camp from Tuesday through Sunday. While the cabanas were named after faded hotels in Miami Beach and were themselves faded, everything got a fresh coat of paint before the summer began. There was a screened-in cafeteria snack bar where it seemed that grilled cheese sandwiches with French fries were the house specialty.

Day camp began with the children standing in a big square. The national anthem was sung followed by the Cabana Club song, and then they went off to their groups and the parents went on their own way.

For the women, Mah-Jongg games were set up in long established clusters and shouts of three bam, two crack, and flower soon could be heard. Cabana boys scurried from table to table bringing iced whipped coffee from the snack bar to the women. On the weekends, some of the men played cards, others tennis, and still others napped in lounge chairs in the shade. To young parents, nothing in suburbia could have felt more luxurious.

It was one late August afternoon that my wife, Rosalyn, called me at the law firm where I worked in New York City and asked when I was coming home. She knew I took the 6:20 train from Hoboken so I told her I should be home about 7. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“Your daughter,” she said, “is driving me crazy.” We had two daughters, Alisa was 4, and Gail 2, but when I heard the “your daughter,” I knew she meant Alisa.

I asked what was going on, but all Rosalyn would say was “Wait until you get home.”

Following dinner, we sat in the den and I said to Alisa, “What are you driving Mommy crazy about?”

She asked, “Where am I going to kindergarten?”

I reminded Alisa that I had taken her to the Pleasantdale School around the corner from our home on Dale Drive when we had registered for kindergarten. 

She looked at me and her mother and said, “No I’m not, I’m going to a Jewish school with my friend Becky and Mommy has to call Becky’s mommy tonight to find out about because I’m not going to the Pleasantdale School.” And she walked out of the room.

We were young parents and we knew that we could not take marching orders from a 4-year-old. So instead of calling Becky’s mom that night…Rosalyn waited until the next day to call her to find out about this “Jewish school.” 

It turned out to be a yeshiva in West Caldwell,  the Hebrew Youth Academy, now known as the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy. And two days later, Rosalyn and I found ourselves taking a tour of the facility with the yeshiva’s principal, Rabbi Wallace Greene.

Rabbi Greene was extolling the virtues of a day school education as we walked around the building and, when we returned to his office, he asked if we had any questions. A thought had run through my mind as Rabbi Greene talked about giving Alisa an Orthodox Jewish education. Sure, Rosalyn lit candles every Friday night and I said Kiddush, though sometimes it was already dark when I got home. On Saturday mornings, I liked to bond with my daughters, even if it wasn’t called bonding then; it was “Who wants to go to the hardware store with Daddy?”

So, I asked Rabbi Greene if sending Alisa to yeshiva would change my lifestyle. He leaned back in his big chair, then leaned toward us and said, “No.” I like to say he lied, but truly cannot because I asked the wrong question. Over the years Wally has told me that had I asked if the education that Alisa would bring home would one day change our lifestyle, he would have answered in the affirmative.

Yes, we did change our lifestyle. But not because a kindergarten student told us to. We did it because we were fortunate to realize that if you are going to send your daughter to a yeshiva where she is going to learn about yom tov, the chagim, Shabbat, and kashrut, and educate her in the myriad of thought we find in Torah, you should be willing to learn, too. It was the education that Alisa brought home and shared with her parents that became the blueprint for Gail and their two younger siblings that would soon join our family.

Yes, Alisa’s education was a paradigm shift for her mother and father and not everything was easy. Many times over the years I thought, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” But the rewards are many.

Today, Alisa’s family of 10 adults and 16 nephews and nieces will be at the Kotel to watch the two oldest boys, not twins but born a week apart, put on their tefillin for the first time. I will recall with a big smile that summer evening conversation with Alisa, and accept the fact that our children can be teachers, too. And I’m sure that Alisa’s smile will be just as big.

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