Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky, as the National Director of Torah Umesorah for 35 years and another six years as the active Director Emeritus, was a key figure in the explosive growth of Orthodox day schools in the United States and Canada since the Second World War.
Dr. Kaminetsky was a Jew who was replete with love of Torah, love for gedolei haTorah, and love for all people. One of his most remarkable traits was his uncanny ability to translate his fervor and inspiration into deeds. The missions which were imposed on him, and the ideas which his fruitful mind devised, never remained in drawers. He would translate them into practical projects, and transform plans into reality, while grappling in a battlefield which was never easy. He was a man with a big mission in life, and he undertook this mission with mesiras nefesh, the same mesiras which typified all of his activities.
He spent many years traveling throughout the United States, going from city to city, talking with people and persuading them that founding day schools in their communities was not a pipe dream. Throughout all those years, his fervor never waned, and his belief in the vision he bore with him everywhere, never dimmed. And this was the secret of his remarkable success.
When he began his tenure at Torah Umesorah in 1946, he set as his goal that every town and city with a Jewish population of at least 5,000 have a Jewish day school. At the time, it seemed an impossible, quixotic dream. In all of the United States in those days, there was only a handful of yeshivos and day schools. More than one Jewish leader in city after city proclaimed to Dr. Joe Kaminetsky, “When hair grows in the palms of my hand, there will be a day school here.” It is not known whether the hair grew — but the day schools exist by the hundreds. According to Rabbi Joshua Fishman, Dr. Kaminetsky’s successor at Torah Umesorah, there are now 600 such schools with 170,000 students all over the United States.
Joseph Kaminetsky was born in Brooklyn in 1911. After a year in public school, his father saw the need to enroll him in a yeshiva so, at a great sacrifice, he sold his home in East New York and moved to a small apartment in Brownsville. The young Joe Kaminetsky attended Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, and later Talmudical Academy High School on East Broadway.
After high school, he became a member of the very first class of Yeshiva College, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1932. From the start, his career was Jewish education. He became the founding principal of the afternoon school of Manhattan’s prestigious Jewish Center synagogue and later its assistant rabbi under Rabbi Leo Jung. Meanwhile, he was earning his doctorate in education from Teachers College at Columbia University. The new “Dr.” Kaminetsky became executive director of Manhattan Day School, and from there he was drafted by the newly founded Torah Umesorah, first as educational director and two years later as director, which he served for almost four decades.
Torah Umesorah was founded by R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, to be, as Dr. Kaminetsky put it in his book of memoirs, Memorable Encounters, “a national bureau of `doers’ who could help communities establish all-day Jewish schools of their own.” Dr. Joe Kaminetsky was the man sent from Shomayim to fulfill the aspirations of R’ Shraga Feivel.
The rich background of Rabbi Kaminetsky in Jewish education, his ability to draw people closer to Torah, his rhetorical talent and sweeping fervor, made him the best candidate for educational director of Torah Umesorah. He shared the dream of R’ Shraga Feivel, and when the great leader was niftar, Dr. Kaminetsky replaced him.
Throughout his career, Dr. Kaminetsky merited a special relationship with the gedolei Torah. Every single one of his meetings with them was deeply etched on his mind and memory. He would repeatedly say that his conversations with them and visits to them inspired him in his efforts to cope with the seemingly impossible task of building Torah institutions in the heart of the materialistic United States. Just as he respected all of the gedolei Torah, who were very fond of him so too did he respect all of the laymen who collaborated with him in the illustrious endeavor he spearheaded.
The esteem in which he was held by the gedolim is typified by the following story that HaRav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, now rosh yeshiva of Ateres Yisroel, told his talmidim when Dr. Joe came to Israel to visit and speak at his Bnei Torah Camp in Eretz Yisroel in the 1970’s.
HaRav Ezrachi was on his first fundraising visit to America in 1973 (5733). He was visiting the posek hador, HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt’l, when Dr. Kaminetsky walked in. HaRav Ezrachi did not know who he was, but he was very surprised to see that R’ Moshe stood up when he walked in. Noting his surprise, R’ Moshe later told R’ Ezrachi, “This man has established Torah in America (heikim ulo shel Torah).”
For 35 years, Dr. Joe Kaminetsky loyally fulfilled the mission placed on his shoulders by gedolei Yisroel. He traveled throughout the United States, spoke with the public, and with people from all walks of life, built, encouraged, and recruited funds. He was a mechanech with his every fiber of his soul. He planned study sessions, taught teachers and trained principals, mediated and solved the problems of every school which had difficulties. He became a well-known figure in the United States, and his life and name became fully associated with Torah Umesorah.
The warmth he radiated, his desire to spread Torah and his love of Jewish children, knew no bounds, and enabled him to overcome all of the obstacles which lay in his path. Thousands of Jewish souls lay in the balance, and Rabbi Kaminetsky maneuvered all with caution and diplomacy. Circumventing the obstacles which could have created long- term dissension in communities, he charted the golden path between dedication to the Torah way and the demands of the parents, some of whom wanted compromise and modern enlightenment, and didn’t know how to appreciate the world which Rabbi Kaminetsky was building for them.
For decades, Rabbi Kaminetsky traversed the entire United States, from coast to coast, on behalf of Torah education. He traveled to the Savannahs and Bangors of America and persuaded the most recalcitrant parents and parents to contribute their children and resources to the cause of Orthodox Jewish education. At the same time, he was the loyal servant of the great roshei yeshiva of the time.
The founder of Torah Umesorah, HaRav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, and such colleagues as HaRav Aaron Kotler, HaRav Moshe Feinstein, HaRav Reuven Grozowsky, HaRav Yitzchok Hutner, HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky and HaRav Yaakov Y. Ruderman were his guiding lights in the organization. As a student and young educator, he basked in the glow of HaRav Isaac Sher, the rosh hayeshiva of Slobodke in Lithuania and later the founder and rosh hayeshiva of the Slobodke Yeshiva in Israel, who visited America in the pre-World War II years. The American born, university trained Dr. Kaminetsky, served these European Torah personalities loyally, and he proudly adopted their philosophies and made them his own.
Dr. Kaminetsky was an ardent lover of the land of Israel and upon his retirement moved to Jerusalem where he devoted all of his prodigious energy to the performance of mitzvos. He translated into English many of the mussar talks of HaRav Isaac Sher. He attended the beis hamedrash every day and participated in vibrant study sessions. With all the strength he could muster he struggled to perform yet another mitzvah, learn yet another blat gemora.
Dr. Kaminetsky passed away at age 88 in Yerushalayim on erev Rosh Chodesh Nisan, March 17, 1999.
The levaya was held in the Har Nof neighborhood of Yerushalayim, next to the Chanichei Yeshivos shul that he attended and learned in, even when it was very hard for him, in his last years.
HaRav Nachman Bulman called him a “bridge figure” in whose presence all differences between Jews melted away, since he could as easily talk to a Jew from Boro Park as to a Jew from Texas. “Tens of thousands owe their neshomoh lives to him,” he cried, noting that Dr. Kaminetsky was dedicated to seeing that not one Jew was lost, no matter where he is.
HaRav Moshe Chait, rosh yeshiva of Chofetz Chaim yeshiva in Jerusalem, were Dr. Kaminetsky learned for many years in retirement before he moved to Har Nof, spoke of the niftar’s wonderful power to generate love that continued to grow as long as you knew him. HaRav Chait recalled the parshiyos of the Mishkan, which called upon people based on nedivus lev, the heart. Dr. Kaminetsky “had a heart full of chesed and ahava and he built a Mishkan that stretched from the East Coast to the West Coast of America. . . . We may think `Yosef einenu’ but he is really still here and will remain until the coming of Moshiach.” Just as Moshe Rabbenu did not know in advance how he would build the Mishkan until he obligated himself and undertook it, so we must obligate ourselves and then we will be able to get things done.
Rabbi Yisroel Nulman, a colleague of the niftar for many years at Torah Umesorah, said that his 20 years of working with Dr. Kaminetsky were 20 years of challenge and opportunities. Rabbi Kaminetsky was selected for the task of implementing the dream of R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz to, “Dot the American continent with Hebrew day schools.” The American roshei yeshiva were the guiding force behind the movement, and Rabbi Kaminetsky worked with all of them. The commentators ask how it was that a people that just came out of slavery in which they were engaged only in menial and crude labor, had the skills and the abilities to build something exalted and refined like the Mishkan. They answer that it was their nesi’us lev, their elevated hearts that carried them through to success. A prominent Jewish activist said that today there is a problem with developing leadership for major Jewish institutions, since those with talent and ability in the younger generation are going into fields like finance and medicine. Dr. Kaminetsky used his considerable talents for chinuch.
Rabbi Dovid Kaminetsky, a son of the niftar, spoke about his father’s tremendous love for Torah and learning, as reflected in his final years. He said that those who carried him so devotedly to shul to learn, prolonged his life. In his last years he used to tell people, “I’m preparing for the final exam.” He recalled his father’s outstanding love for people, and that when a policeman would walk onto the subway, he would greet him: “How’re ya doing buddy?”
He said that there was an insight from R’ Elchonon who asked why it was that Eisov’s angel fought only with Yaakov, and not with Avrohom or Yitzchok. Avrohom built chesed institutions, hospitals, but the angel did not fight him. Yitzchok built houses of worship, but the angel did not attack him for that. Yaakov built Torah and study houses, and the angel attacked him. “My father fought with the angel — and he prevailed,” he said.
Rabbi Eli Liff, son-in-law of the niftar, said that he knew how to fight but that he was really soft like butter and sweet as honey. It says in Shmuel I that the women used to sing, “Shaul smote in his thousands, and Dovid in his tens of thousands.” Rabbi Liff said that his own father zt’l explained that “his thousands” refers to the mitzvos that he performed, as each mitzva creates a mal’ach that helps and is a zechus for the one who performs it. Shaul was upset that the people said that he had only thousands of mitzvos while Dovid has tens of thousands. Rabbi Liff said that his father-in-law certainly has countless mitzvos that accompany him on his final journey and speak to his credit. He was very close to HaRav Eizik Sher, zt’l, the Slobodke rosh yeshiva, and he once cried to him that he wanted to go to learn there in Europe but was not able to. HaRav Sher replied, “Make your shtender a Slobodke shtender!”
Dr. Moshe Steinhart, a grandson, was the last speaker. He spoke of the niftar as a loving zeide whose imprint was tangible all over America.
Dr. Kaminetsky was survived by his wife Selma, his son Rabbi David Kaminetsky and family of Teaneck, NJ, his daughter, Mrs. Nechama Steinhardt and her husband Meir, his son Judah and his daughter Mrs. Gedalya (Phyllis) Riess all of Brooklyn and his daughter Mrs. (Symie) Eliezer Liff of Jerusalem.
Yehi zichro boruch.