Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein’s children were in the earliest classes of the Solomon Schechter Day School in West Orange that is now the Golda Och Academy, and their entire grade-school education was at Schechter schools.
Throughout the years, Orenstein made sure other parents would be able to give their children a Schechter education.
“Quietly and without fanfare while I was growing up, my dad was always using his own private funds and his rabbi’s discretionary account to support one or two kids through Solomon Schechter of Essex and Union,” said his daughter, Rabbi Debra Orenstein.
So when it came to celebrating his 77th birthday, the rabbi’s family knew what it would take for him to agree to a big community celebration.
“He agreed to having a party if it could be for a cause — and we suggested it be a fund-raiser to provide school scholarships,” Debra Orenstein said.
He chose as the beneficiary the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, which her two children — the youngest of his seven grandchildren — attend.
Orenstein, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).
He breathes with the aid of a ventilator, so socializing is difficult.
During a visit at the South Orange home where he and his wife, Sylvia, have lived for 35 years, a reporter asked why he chose the scholarship fund. Orenstein asked that his air pipe be removed for a moment and said, “Whatever you do to help give a child get an education is a mitzva.”
Jewish education is particularly close to his heart. “No child should be turned away because of money,” he said.
Conversation doesn’t come easily for the rabbi. “He has learned to be very pithy and concise,” said his daughter.
His mental acuity is, however, unchanged; a chess grand master who once infuriated Bobby Fischer by taking him to a draw, he still plays regularly with a friend from his congregation. He can’t move the pieces himself, but he tells his opponent what his moves are.
The party is on Sunday afternoon, March 4, a week after his actual birthday. It will be held at the school in New Milford. The event is free and open to the community.
In lieu of gifts, guests are asked to consider making a donation to his new scholarship fund.
“That will truly make him happy,” said Debra, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson.
The program for the party will feature an array of people who have worked closely with Orenstein through his 35 years leading Beth El and teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker will be the main speaker. He is former dean of the JTS rabbinical school and a colleague whom Orenstein has called “a great teacher — one of the clearest and most profound.”
A past student of Orenstein’s, David Javerbaum, will appear via video. Javerbaum is the former chief writer for The Daily Show and author of The Last Testament: A Memoir, a humor book. “Anyone can be religious, but few are spiritual and powerful and wise,” Javerbaum wrote in a copy of the book he gave to Orenstein. “Thanks for being all three.”
Music will be provided by some of the rabbi’s favorite singers and musicians, including Cantors Perry Fine, Eliot Vogel, and Lenny Mandel. True to form, the rabbi has made sure children will also have fun: A parallel program for children in kindergarten through seventh grade will feature a magician.
As part of the birthday celebration and fund-raising effort, a website has been established, www.jehielorensteininspires.com. People can upload photos, text, or video to convey what Orenstein has meant to them, or share with him whatever “Jewish learning (Torah), prayer practice (avodah), or mitzva project (gemilut hasadim) they choose to take on in his honor.”
Nikki Pusin of Maplewood, a teacher in the Beth El religious school, wrote on the site: “A few years ago, the Beth El bulletin published a photograph of Jehiel lighting Hanukkah candles with a class from the Beth El Preschool. A child with whom I am acquainted was in the class, so I asked the child to identify various people in the photo. The child correctly identified classmates and teachers. Then I pointed to Jehiel. ‘And who’s this?’ I asked. Without hesitation, the child replied, ‘That’s God.’”