Remembering Rabbi Joseph Reifman z”l

Remembering Rabbi Joseph Reifman z”l

This past Asarah b’Teves we gathered to bury Rabbi Joseph Reifman at a graveside funeral attended by family and a few close friends. Because of covid and the need for a speedy burial there wasn’t sufficient time to properly offer kavod acharon. Rav Yeshaya Siff, the long-time mara d’asra of the Young Israel of Manhattan where Rabbi Reifman davened, officiated and offered some divrei hesped.

I would like to share my memories of Rabbi Reifman, with whom I shared a beautiful personal and professional relationship.

It started in the mid 1970s, when I assumed leadership of a small yeshiva that started in Newark and moved to South Orange after the riots. The Hebrew Academy of Essex County at that time had 97 students. I was charged by Yeshiva University, which sent me there, and by the school’s board, to revitalize this school.

Despite limited funding I was able to hire some truly exceptional teachers and rebbeim to grow the school into what became the Jewish educational powerhouse now known as the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy.

Each one of the superstars I was able to recruit for my dream team was truly exceptional. Rabbis Harvey Horn, Mark Bauman, Chaim Flom z”l, Shlomo Appel z”l, Mrs. Dorothy Cuono, Renee Reiser, Helene Tobin, and many others were key to the school’s success. Despite low wages and no benefits, they set the standard for a school of excellence.

Foremost among them was Rabbi Joseph Reifman.

A student of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, who left the kollel only to support his family, Rabbi Reifman was a master teacher who truly loved children, and they reflected this love back to him. He taught at various yeshivos and afternoon schools and was the principal at a Hebrew school in White Meadow Lake when I hired him as a fifth grade rebbe. He stayed for several decades, teaching and inspiring a generation of students.

His students loved him. He was like an uncle to them. Why else would they spend time schmoozing with him instead of playing during recess? He was strict, but in a loving way. Rabbi Larry Rothwachs of Teaneck was one of his many talmidim. Rabbi Rothwachs recalled that when his family moved to New Jersey from New York, his previous yeshiva had not prepared him adequately for grade level classes at HYA. But Rabbi Reifman took him under his wing and worked with him over a few years so that he would be on grade level. He also taught Rabbi Rothwachs to lein his bar mitzvah parsha as well as how to daven Shaharis and Musaf. It should be noted that Rabbi Reifman was an exceptional ba’al tefila.

One of the most painful conversations I ever had with him was when I had to tell him that given the world in which we now live, he could no longer hug his students or let them sit on his lap. Nevertheless, the affection he displayed was reciprocated, because it was so genuine.

He lived on the Lower East Side, so of all the staff he definitely had the longest commute, but he always was the first to show up in the morning. He was a professional.

Every so often I was able to bring noted roshei yeshiva and prominent rabbis to visit our school. (One of the reasons was to show the students what European gedolim looked like.) Many roshei yeshiva had no idea what goes on in a modern-day school. When Rav Dovid Lifchitz zt”l, the Suvalker rov, who was a long-time rosh yeshiva at YU, visited, he was suitably impressed. However, he was most captivated by Rabbi Reifman’s class. He raved about him. Upon leaving his class, which was taught in Hebrew, he commented “Er iz a ba’al melacha,” — in other words, he knows his craft. That was a high compliment from an acclaimed master pedagogue.

His funeral took place as we leave the stories about Joseph. This Joseph also nurtured generations.

Yehi zichro baruch.

May his wife, son, and extended family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene of Fair Lawn was the principal and executive director of the Hebrew Youth Academy of Essex County from 1975 to 1985.