Helping families caught in the middle
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Helping families caught in the middle

Paula Gottesman talks about philanthropy, continuity, and Jewish education

Paula Gottesman’s path from a Depression childhood to philanthropy
Paula Gottesman’s path from a Depression childhood to philanthropy

There are physical characteristics that are passed down from parents to children. They’re often obvious — hair, eye, and skin color, the shape of eyes, noses, chins, and cheekbones. They can be invisible except in their symptoms — a tendency toward diabetes, nearsightedness, or colorblindness. Although they’re influenced by diet and environment, among many other factors, mainly they’re due to nature.

There are characteristics that probably are not physical but seem to be innate, and often passed down by parents — sunniness of disposition, say, or a tendency to worry, or to read, or to paint. Probably they’re a mixture of nature and nurture.

And then there are the character traits that seem most likely to be learned, the result of example, of teaching — of nurture — but sometimes seem so ingrained that an onlooker might wonder if there isn’t something innate to it.

Paula Gottesman has those traits, and has passed them on.

Giving — not only money but also time, and thought, and energy — seems to be so natural to her (and was to her late husband, Jerry, who died in 2017) that she passed it on to her four daughters entirely naturally.

Yes, that sounds too good to be anything other than well-spun PR, but it’s not.

To meet with Ms. Gottesman, in her sun-filled apartment in Morristown, on one of those mid-spring days that’s so bright that you’re convinced that the light is inevitable, that it somehow comes with the apartment, even though you know better, where she sits and stands and roams and other people, participants in her busy charitable life, newly mask-free, add bits of history and knowledge, is to meet someone whose philanthropy is entirely ingrained.

Ms. Gottesman — whom the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest will celebrate with its Bamberger award on May 26 (see box) — has been involved with philanthropy throughout her life, but it’s perhaps fair to say that the Day School Initiative is her most important gift to the community. The initiative gives all four of the local day schools a way to promise every family — including those firmly within the upper middle class, depending on their income and the number of children they have in the day school system — that once they qualify, based on their self-reported income, they can be sure that they will get tuition assistance. It also ensures that the day school will provide their children with an excellent education.

As she talks about her life, Ms. Gottesman is straightforward, even dispassionate. This is a much-told story, and she’s not at all self-referential; she just wants to help the causes she cares about, and if telling her story again will help, then she’ll do it.

It’s a good story.

Paula Rachlin was born in New Britain, Connecticut, in 1934, the daughter of Irving Rachlin, who came from Belarus, and Rose Saxe Rachlin, from Montreal. There were many Rachlins and Milkowitzes — their cousins — in New Britain. It’s a working-class town; Irving Rachlin, who went straight from high school to law school at NYU, as prospective lawyers did then, practiced general small-town law.

“Life was very different from today,” Ms. Gottesman said. “It was the Depression. We didn’t ask for anything, we didn’t turn the lights on when we didn’t need them, we didn’t turn the water on when we weren’t using it. I had only one pair of shoes, so when I was walking on the edge of the pond one day and I got them wet, I had to wear slippers for the rest of the day.”

But she didn’t feel deprived, she said. “We never felt poor. We never went hungry. We just were careful, and we didn’t waste anything.”

There was a good-sized Jewish community in New Britain — her synagogue, Temple B’nai Israel, which was Conservative, had about 600 families, Ms. Gottesman said, and there was an Orthodox one in town as well.

But times changed. “New Britain started going downhill after World War II,” Ms. Gottesman said. “It was a factory town, and it boomed during the war, but when the manufacturers discovered that they could get cheaper labor down South, they abandoned the North, and then ultimately they all went overseas.

Paula Gottesman

“Then the Jews moved out, the synagogues were closed, and the Orthodox shul became a historic landmark. And then the Lubavitchers established a big community in Waterbury,” not very far away, “and on some holidays and Shabbat they’ll send a crew in.”

Although they were not wealthy, Irving and Rose Rachlin were very involved in the community. “My mother was president of Hadassah for four years, and my father was a very strong Zionist, and very involved with B’nai Brith.”

An incident from high school stayed with Ms. Gottesman, and has influenced her charitable work ever since then, she said. “I became aware that the kids in the middle economically were the ones who felt the most pressure. Poor kids could get scholarships, and the rich kids didn’t have to worry about it. But I remember winning a $25 award in high school, and one of the teachers told me that there’d been a debate about whether I should get it, because they felt that some of the other kids needed it more.

“But the award had nothing to do with money, and I thought that not giving it to me would have been kind of nasty.

“Ever since then, I always had that idea in my head — why are we always making it hard for the people in the middle?”

Her family valued education highly; “My mother always wanted her children to go to fine colleges, even though she did not go to college herself,” Ms. Gottesman said. She had two brothers. One went to Princeton, the other to NYU. And Ms. Gottesman went to Vassar, where she majored in political science. “My mother had always heard about women’s colleges, which were so prestigious in those days,” she said. And despite its reputation as a haven for WASPS, “probably at least a quarter of my class was Jewish.”

Next, Ms. Gottesman went to law school — an unconventional choice for a woman then. “About five percent of my class at NYU were women,” she said. “But I had a childhood dream of following in my father’s footsteps and becoming a lawyer. It wasn’t until I got to be one that I said, ‘Why did I do this?’”

It was hard for her to find a job, Ms. Gottesman said. Law firms were not particularly welcoming to women, much less Jewish women. Still, she persisted. “My first job was in the legal department of Paramount Pictures,” she said. “And then I went back home for a summer to practice with my father, and that confirmed my suspicions that I was going to want to go back to New Britain. I never gave up my apartment, so I just went back. And then I spent the next three months — the worst three months — working for a negligence lawyer.” Then she got an uninspiring job doing real estate law — and then “I met my husband.” And that was the end of her law career — but it did not stop her thinking like a lawyer. She was trained in analytic thought, and she applied that training to whatever she did.

Jerry Gottesman, who was born in Ellenville, in the Catskills, grew up in Hillside. His office was in Newark, and he belonged to Temple B’nai Abraham, the Weequahic institution that later moved to Livingston, so the Newark suburbs were a logical place for them to settle.

In 1965, the young family — which eventually included four daughters — moved to Montclair. “It’s a great town,” Ms. Gottesman said. “There were a lot of interesting people, a lot of activities, and because it’s very close to New York, there were a lot of artists and newspaper people. It’s very heterogeneous, with a good-sized Black population, a very active Conservative synagogue, and a Reform one very close by in Bloomfield.” The Gottesmans joined the Conservative shul, Congregation Shomrei Emunah.

“I got very busy with volunteering,” Ms. Gottesman said. “I had four kids and a dog and a station wagon and carpools. That was before the time when each kid had to be strapped in, so I would take 11 kids at one time. I just poured them all into our great big station wagon.”

After 10 years, the family moved to Morristown. They’d loved Montclair, but they wanted a bigger house. “We’d been looking for the right house for five years,” Ms. Gottesman said; it was hard to leave Montclair, but it was worth it.

“I was so involved in so many organizations in Montclair that at that point I just wanted to pull out,” she said. “I was vice president of Hadassah and chair of this and leader of that and I was just so overwhelmed that I thought, ‘I am just going to give all this up. I am so very tired.’”

She stuck with that attempt not to entangle herself with her new community for about six months, “and then Sally,” her oldest daughter, “who always asks me the real questions, says to me, ‘How come you’re not doing anything?’ Whether or not the question was meant as a reproach, Ms. Gottesman took it to be one. “So I got involved in the Morris-Sussex Federation,” which merged into the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest in 1983. (Morris and Sussex are the “greater” part of the organization.)

Ms. Gottesman did many solicitations, and by all accounts was very good at it. She came to believe that the received wisdom — that people should only solicit down, as it is called, asking for money from people less wealthy than they are — was incorrect, at least for her. People who could not afford to give as much as she could “would say, ‘How can you ask me to give money?’” And she thought they were right.

A few years ago, Paula and Jerry Gottesman are surrounded by their four daughters, a son-in-law, and a few of their 17 grandchildren.

During that time, Ms. Gottesman learned a great deal about the federation system. “I liked it when it was still Morris-Sussex,” she said. “We didn’t have so many divisions. We did everything.” After the merger, she said, much of the work that she and her team of volunteers had done went to professionals. “If we had a luncheon after the merger, we’d get a caterer. Before the merger, if we had a luncheon, we’d cook it.”

As the family business — real estate, parking, and storage — continued to thrive, the Gottesmans found themselves more and more able to give. “I joined the board of the Jewish Community Foundation, and we were piling money into it,” Ms. Gottesman said. “And that’s where Sally comes in again. We were very involved in the day schools, and in projects in Israel, and this and that, and we were having a family meeting, and we realized that we had several million dollars in the foundation.

“So Sally says, ‘Okay. You have all this money in the foundation. What are you going to do with it?’ She’s very much of the why-are-you-putting-more-money-away school. So I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and she said ‘It’s time to come to a decisions. You are interested in day schools. You want to give money to day schools?’ And I said ‘Yes, that is a good cause.’”

It was then that Ms. Gottesman thought back to her high-school epiphany about how hard it can be to be in the middle. “I’d read an article in the New Jersey Jewish News about the middle-income squeeze in Jewish day schools,” she said.

“At that point, in the early 90s, tuition was about $7,000 a year,” she said. “Jerry had a very nice young Jewish man who worked for him, who was making what was a good salary in those days, about $60,000, and Jerry said to him, ‘Are you sending your kids to the Hebrew Academy?’ And he said, ‘I can’t afford it.’

“We thought about it, and we realized that he was right. He had three kids. That would be $21,000 a year. He couldn’t afford it.

“That was the germ of the idea to help middle-income families.”

“We started small, just at the Hebrew Academy. We went to to them and said that we’d like to give money for middle-income families.” The school said yes, and that is how the initiative began.

It went slowly at first. They had to figure out how much money to offer, how to publicize the program, and perhaps most crucially, how to destigmatize it. “We made it as simple as possible,” Ms. Gottesman said. “It’s done on the honor system. We don’t look at your tax returns. You just come and tell us that you need the money.”

Pretty soon, the program started to grow.

Steve Levy, who has held many major volunteer positions in the MetroWest federation, is the president of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest, and Kim Hirsch is its executive director.

“The program was being funded year to year, but it is a big thing,” Mr. Levy said. “How do we sustain it, year after year?” So in 2005, Ms. Gottesman, Mr. Gottesman, Mr. Levy, Ms. Hirsh, and a few other leaders “sat around the dining room table at our house in Morristown,” Ms. Gottesman said.

By then, the initiative funded three schools — the Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph (now called the Gottesman RTW Academy), the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange (now called the Golda Och Academy), and the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston (which began its life as the Hebrew Youth Academy). In 2012, when the MetroWest federation merged with the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, the Jewish Educational Center of Elizabeth’s three divisions joined the initiative.

Not only did the funders — 11 other families had joined the Gottesmans and the federation to form the foundation — want to help with tuition, they realized that economies of scale could help all the schools, which were far enough apart both in geography and in mission not to be in competition with each other, but close enough to be able to work together.

Jerry Gottesman speaks as Paula beams.

“Having grown up during the Depression, I’m basically kind of cheap,” Ms. Gottesman said. “I was on the board of the Hebrew Academy, and I was aware of the other schools. I was at a meeting where they were talking about hiring a consultant to come down from Canada for three days for $10,000, and I figured that they probably were doing the same thing at Kushner and at Schechter, so why don’t they all get together and cooperate? Somewhere along the line, we pushed that through.

“It was the first time they” — representatives from the three schools — “had ever met. They had no connection with each other. They had not talked to each other. They could have bumped into each other in the street and not recognized each other.”

That’s changed. A few years ago, the foundation created a video that featured car karaoke; Ms. Gottesman, at the wheel of a big SUV, stopped to pick up the heads of the four day schools, who scrunched in together, sang, smiled, mugged for the cameras, and seemed to be enjoying themselves. That’s entirely a result of the initiative’s work.

Next, the foundation decided that academic excellence should be a goal. Parents should know that when they send their children to one of the initiative’s day schools, those kids will get a genuinely good education. “My big thing was why do all these rich Jewish families send their kids to fancy private schools and ignore the Jewish ones?”

Ms. Hirsh has connections at top private secular schools; she hired the former head of Newark Academy, Penney Riegelman, as a consultant as the day schools began to implement the best practices that secular schools had known for some time but were new to the Jewish ones. The foundation funds professional development for teachers and educators. “We have gotten to the point where several families really were choosing between this private school or that Jewish day school, and many of them are opting for the Jewish days schools,” Ms. Gottesman said.

Once this vision — of Jewish day schools as part of a system where endowments and a genuine commitment to educational excellence; of a system, in other words, modeled in part on the private school system — became clear, “these big ideas have expanded, and we have raised tens of millions of dollars,” Ms. Hirsh said. “Different schools have different endowments, but the Gottesman fund matches them.

“That vision has funded this extraordinary community-wide philanthropy for day schools.”

Paula and Jerry Gottesman had four daughters — Sally, Archie, Jane, and Abbie — and 17 grandchildren. Each of the four daughters is involved in the Jewish community, each in a different way.

The two younger daughters have left the area. “Janie is in California, and she’s involved in urban Arava,” Jewish farming, her mother said. “She bought a house and lends it to visiting Israeli artists or other artists who do Jewish work.

“Abbie moved to Israel; she made aliyah with her seven kids,” she continued. “The oldest is in the army this year. I said to her, ‘Do you realize that for the next 17 years, you will have someone in the army?’”

Sally lives in Manhattan, and Archie is in Summit.

Sally Gottesman is the founder of Moving Traditions, which, according to its website, “emboldens youth by fostering self-discovery, challenging sexism, and inspiring a commitment to Jewish life and learning.” She was “involved in the creation of Ritualwell,” which explores new ways to connect with Jewish traditions, and with Encounter, which encourages genuine conversation and real understanding between Jews and Palestinians — and no, if it’s to be real, it can’t be easy. She knows that. She’s also on the board of Schechter Manhattan.

Ms. Gottesman agrees that her mother got her understanding of philanthropy from her parents. “The kiddush cup that I use came from my grandfather, for his Zionist work,” she said; he’d been given it as an award. “Our mother raised us with that. We came by it honestly.”

Why did her parents do it? Why does she? “We want to make the world a better place,” Ms. Gottesman said. “It’s that simple.” Her mother and her father combined their skills — her instinct for philanthropy and his understanding of entrepreneurship. “And I combine that part of my father and my mother,” she added.

She thinks that her parents were successful philanthropists because “both of them — and especially my mother — were not cynical about it. They weren’t interested in it for their kids, but because they wanted it themselves.” They wanted to learn Jewishly. They wanted the community to flourish, not because it would look good, but because it would be good. “They were led by the idea that if this matters to me, it will matter to other people.

“They were the opposite of the drop-your-kids-off-at-Hebrew-school parents.”

In 1975, Sally Gottesman became the first girl to become bat mitzvah on a Saturday morning at Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. “I had to ask for it, and my mother had to fight for it,” she said.

This still from the day school car karaoke video shows Paula Gottesman singing with the four heads of school.

“My mother is a lawyer, and she really believed in equal opportunity.” She wrote a letter to the shul’s rabbi, urging her daughter’s cause. “Why couldn’t girls do this, she asked in the letter. She said, if we are going to make this relevant, how can we tell our daughters that we can’t do it?

“She really does believe in supporting what you care about.”

Archie Gottesman is the founder of Jewbelong; its online tagline is “for when you feel you don’t.”

Her serious-beneath-the-breezy approach isn’t exactly her mother’s, but her flexibility is, Archie said. “My mother’s philanthropic goals are very flexible, in a way that I think is reflected in her children, and the way we’ve all owned our own Judaism,” she said. “My mother has never been dogmatic about her way being the only right way to do it, but she has been dogmatic in her belief that the Jewish people are important, and that they must carry on.

“I can’t tell you how many times I heard this growing up — and you know how, when your parents say something often enough, you take it as fact — that there is no one else supporting the Jewish people, so we have to do it for ourselves.”

Ms. Gottesman believes that another of her mother’s strengths is that “she dives deep. She doesn’t have airs. She is not snooty. My dad used to call her Paula from New Britain. She didn’t grow up with wealth; she lives in a lovely way, but she also thinks that she has enough, and that helping others is really important.”

Unlike her mother, Archie Gottesman and her sisters did grow up with wealth. That means “that our mother had to figure out how to do philanthropy. My sisters and I don’t have to figure it out. We have models. But she didn’t. She had to figure it out as she went along.” Luckily, then, “Paula’s super-smart,” her daughter said. “And she knows who she is. She has a really good moral compass.”

Archie Gottesman also wanted to make clear that her mother has an entirely other set of attributes that can get lost in a discussion of her philanthropy.

“She’s really practical; she’s also funny, sarcastic, and very alive,” she said. “She says what she thinks. But she’s also very loving. She has a gentle, warm way about her. She talks about her grandchildren all the time.”

Except, that is, when she talks about how to help other people’s children and grandchildren live happy, well-educated Jewish lives.


Who: The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest

What: Holds its annual meeting

When: On Wednesday, May 26, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Where: Online

What else: The meeting will honor Paula Gottesman by presenting her with the president’s Bamberger Award

For link: Go to www.jfedgmw.org/annual-meeting

For more information: Email Michelle Zeman at mzeman@jfedgmw.org

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