Yaakov Guttman’s life has been about putting out fires, both metaphorically and literally.
We understand that the word literal often doesn’t mean literal any more, but here we are using it in its classic sense. Yaakov Guttman runs into burning buildings, rescues people, and even their pets, and fights the fire until it is out. Most of us run away from fires. He runs toward them.
You look at him now and you see a prototypical firefighter, not only strong but also handsome, a firefighter straight out of central casting. But the truth of his life is more complicated than that. Long before he was able to fight literal fires, Yaakov had to fight the metaphorical ones that burned inside him.
He was an angry child, battling both learning disabilities and personal tragedy.
Sinai Schools is featuring Yaakov in this year’s video; it will premier at the school’s annual dinner later this month.
This video is different from Sinai’s other documentaries. Usually those videos feature close-ups of faces, faces with emotions clear on them, delicate, intimate shots of despair and hope and transformation. Those videos are beautiful, profoundly moving, deeply true.
But what Sinai does is take children with a wide range of special needs and tailor the education each of them needs specifically to that child. There is no one model for education at Sinai; its range of art and music and speech and occupational therapists, its teachers and counselors and administrators, see each child as completely individual. Because it is based on and housed in day schools, it models both inclusion and specificity, both community and individuality.
The children Sinai serves come to the school with different needs. Some of them are visible — some students have physical disabilities, and some have the sort of developmental delays that make themselves obvious to most careful observers pretty quickly.
And then some come to Sinai as Yaakov did, with dyslexia and ADD, issues that are expressed through behavior but can be and often are misdiagnosed, misunderstood, and mistreated.
Few students come to Sinai with Yaakov’s history, and so far none have come to them who have made Yaakov’s career choices, but every student who comes to Sinai is different from every other student there. (In fact, of course, every student who comes to every other school in the world is different from every other student there, but it is easier to generalize an education when there are no special needs adding another layer of complication.)
Yaakov Guttman was born in Bergenfield in 1984, the second of four children. When he was 10, his father, Sruli, died suddenly, collapsing as his wife, Shelly, and their children looked on, wheeled out by medics as they watched. His mother’s brother, Jeffrey Sadks, helped his grief-stricken sister take care of her children, and then, eight months after his brother-in-law died, Mr. Sacks died too.
Yaakov had been in a mainstream day school, but his learning issues, now combined with a burning anger, made it hard for him to do the work. “I hated school,” he said. “I really just hated everything. I withdrew from everything. I just hated everything.”
So, he said, “My mom and the educators thought it would be best for me to go to Sinai.”
Sinai was a different place then too, he said; “there were maybe four or five of us who had learning disabilities, and we just needed a lot of extra education and then we’d be fine.” Now, Sinai educators know far more about how to educate children with dyslexia and ADD; then, they still were figuring it out. And Yaakov was very angry.
He went to school at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston. It was a long ride there from Bergenfield. “I was getting up at 5:30 to get there,” he said. And at first he just didn’t want to be there. “It was a tough go,” he said. “But luckily, I had the basketball team, and the coach, Lenny Friedman.” Even then, Yaakov’s path through anger to hope was a physical one. “Thank God I had basketball,” he repeated.
He was a hard kid to reach, he says; his anger kept boiling. But they kept at it. There was no one Helen Keller-Annie Sullivan moment, when he and a teacher had a moment of connection so profound that his downward trajectory suddenly began soaring upward, but things did begin to change for him.
He is particularly grateful to Judi Karp, now Sinai’s associate dean. “She taught me how to read,” he said. “Once I could read, I could pretty much do everything else.”
It wasn’t easy learning to read in middle school. “It was the Wilson program,” he said. “It was the most embarrassing thing I had ever gone through. It teaches you how to read syllables, and I had to sit there and read these cockamamie words, these nonsense words. It was teaching me about sounds. And it taught me to read.
“There was never a moment when I turned around and said ‘Holy cow, this is great!’” he said. “I just did it, and it was just, ‘Okay already, yalla, this is fine, let’s go on to the next thing now.”
As Sam Fishman, Sinai’s managing director, said, “Perhaps in hindsight, had we gotten Yaakov in first grade rather than in fifth, it would have been easier, but it is what it is.
“When we got him, he had completely shut down. He was not functioning in a regular environment any more. The way our educators describe it, we have a lot of kids who are in pain by the time they get to us, because they are dealing with the emotional issues that come from not fitting in. We are good at dealing with children who are hurting, and we thank God that we were able to break through to Yaakov.”
Mr. Fishman said that what Ms. Karp was able to teach Yaakov, along with how to read, was that “we were not going to give up on him. You should never give up on a child.”
Now, Yaakov relies on his body, as well as his brain; his physicality is one of his main assets as a firefighter. Then, though, “our educators who knew him said that he was like a lost and angry child in an enormous body,” Abigail Hepner Gross, Sinai’s director of communications, said. “He was very big for his age, and he had a tough, intimidating exterior, but they all say that underneath that surface was mush. He was such a loving, kind boy, protective of other students — a wonderful boy — but he put up a terrible show.
“And he was so big.”
His size helped him at Sinai in Kushner, Mr. Fishman said. “By the time that Yaakov was beginning to trust us, and to advance educationally, he was invited to join the mainstream basketball team at Kushner. Despite all the other issues, he was big, and he was well-coordinated. He was a natural. So he went on to become the star of the team, and that did so much for his self-esteem, to find something that he was really good at.
“He had other kids look up at him, both figuratively and literally.”
Mr. Fishman has good reason to know a great deal about Yaakov Guttman, and Ms. Hepner Gross has even more reason; the two of them made the video together, as they have made all the school’s videos for many years, and last summer Ms. Gross went to Israel to oversee the filming there. The firefighting footage was made under her supervision.
Yaakov was at Sinai from fifth through ninth grades (with a one-semester failed attempt at mainstreaming at the beginning of ninth grade). After that, he went on to MTA, and graduated from high school there.
After high school, he went on a gap year program in Israel, and there his life changed once again.
“Growing up, my plans were to join the Navy Seals,” Yaakov said. “A friend of mine — who just retired from the Seals after a 14-year stint there — and I were going to go together.”
But some of the rabbis who taught him in high school suggested that he go to Israel first, and his mother agreed. “And my girlfriend at the time also was pushing this religious card on me,” Yaakov said. “So I said maybe there is something there.” So he went to Israel.
When he was in Israel, Yaakov’s desire to join the American military morphed into the dream to join the Israel Defense Forces. “I always wanted to be in the military,” he said. “It is a passion of mine. There is a greater calling when you can serve your country, and serve the Jewish nation.
“My father was an ish chesed,” a man who did good works, an inherently good man. “He emanated chesed in the community.
“My dad never talked about what he did to help people. He was a food distributor, and he never talked about helping to run Tomchei Shabbat at Roemer.
“He never talked about any of what he did, but he just helped people. And after he died, and people didn’t get the chesed, then they realized. That’s the best way to do chesed — keep your mouth closed, and just do it. Don’t talk about it. Don’t do it for the glory. Just do it.
“I can never hit my dad’s level, but I figured that what I could do is use my strengths. I have very specific strengths — my physical ability, and my mental capacity to push through hardships. That’s something you need in the military.”
He also felt history and destiny calling to him. His connection to Israel wasn’t only metaphor. It was very personal.
Yaakov’s mother’s father, Abraham Sacks, was born in Palestine around 1912, Yaakov said, “and I believe that he was a third-generation Yerushalmi. I would have been a fifth-generation Israeli. He was born in Mea Shearim, he fought in the Haganah when he was 14 or 15, and then later he was drafted into the RAF.” That was still during the British Mandate.
Mr. Sacks’ father had gone to the United States at some point, his grandson recounted, and therefore the son had U.S. citizenship. “The RAF knew about his time in the Haganah, and they told him ‘You could go to America — or you could go to jail.’ So he went to America.”
Yaakov reversed that move.
After his year in a yeshiva, “I stayed in Israel, and I went into the army on August 24, 2004,” he said.
“I went through the Machal program,” he said. Machal — the Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Hutz LaAretz, volunteers from other countries — was the main program for what today are called lone soldiers. “There wasn’t a lot of help for lone soldiers then,” he said. But Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the head of Nefesh B’Nefesh, was a mentor, role model, and inspiration for him. “He helped me every step of the way,” Yaakov said. “I was a ben beit by him; his kids called me their older brother. He opened his home and his heart to me.”
When he entered the IDF, Yaakov was at a great disadvantage.
“I didn’t know a stitch of Hebrew then,” he said.
“Remember, I didn’t want to learn. I didn’t care — and that bit me in the tachat pretty badly. When I got to my unit, the guy said ‘What’s your name?’ in Hebrew, and I said ‘Shalom.’ For the first couple of days, he thought my name was Shalom.
“I got the junk kicked out of me again and again. I started out as one of the worst soldiers, and I graduated at the top of the unit. I was a sniper commander — I was a sergeant and I commanded a team of snipers. I didn’t know how to shoot before the army, but I adapted very quickly.”
“In the IDF, he was given the nickname Grizzly,” Mr. Fishman said. “People still call him that. Greezly,” he said, with an Israeli accent. “He’s a grizzly bear.”
Ms. Hepner Gross explained the story. “There’s part of the training where they do hand-to-hand combat,” she said. “You start, and then they send one guy, and if you throw him they send two, and then three, and then four. By the time it was up to five guys, and Yaakov threw them all, he was Grizzly.”
Yaakov has strong feelings about the IDF. “You don’t want heroism or any of that other junk,” he said. “You don’t fight because you like fighting. You don’t fight because it is glorious. You do it because you gotta do it. You do it because your brothers are standing next to you and your country is counting on you.
“It is not called the Israeli army. It is the Israeli Defense Forces. We protect our people. We don’t go out to kill. I did what I had to do.”
Yaakov’s IDF career ended with a rescue that other people, including Mr. Fishman and Ms. Hepner Gross, call heroic, but he will not. He will not talk about it, and he does not want details released. He does not want to be seen as a hero, he said, because he is not one. He just was doing his job. He saved someone’s life, and ended up in the hospital for a long time with serious injuries. (Whether the reader agrees with Yaakov that it is not heroic to act as he did is up to that reader.)
“I would do it again,” Yaakov said. “I wouldn’t change it. I would rather not have to do it — I got badly hurt — but at the same time…”
Once he was out of the hospital, Yaakov worked at a series of jobs as he tried to figure out what to do next. “They were all blue collar,” he said. “Office is not meant for me. An important thing was doing something meaningful for other people.
“Some people are okay with working 9 to 5, putting food on the table, and having great houses and great cars, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. I made aliyah for a reason. Not to make money, but to make a difference. And God gave me certain gifts. I know how to use my hands.”
Yaakov moved back to the United States for a short time, looking for his path, but his heart was in Israel, and soon he was back.
But he was back with a goal. He had realized that he really wanted to use his gifts, passion, and desire to help others as a fire fighter. Now he just had to figure out how to reach that goal.
“I moved back to Jerusalem, and I worked for a private security firm in the Arab quarter of the Old City, doing undercover security,” he said. “It was a very interesting dynamic. I was responsible for helping the police and taking care of the people we worked for. Most of the time it was Ateret Cohanim, a yeshiva based in the Arab shuk. We did security for them and the other Jewish residents in the Old City.
“I was doing that, and at the same time I was trying to get into the fire department.”
Israel’s fire department is centralized, and it has been since the Carmel fires in 2010, Yaakov said; you join that main body, and then you are assigned to a specific place. “It is a boys club,” he said. “Guys bring in guys they know and trust. It’s a very close-knit group.
“At the time, I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t have any connections. But I worked very hard, I broke down a lot of doors, I called people and went for interviews and asked and talked and talked and talked and went at it as best I could.
“I started volunteering in the Herzlia fire department in 2012, and that helped me break down the door. Those guys helped me.
“Five years after I started trying, I got accepted. In March 2014. Just by being a stubborn horse.
“When you have a dream, if you really believe in it, you have to go forward and get it,” Yaakov said. “My mom and my dad and my mentors, they gave me that example.
“Everyone told me to forget it, to give up, to try to do something else, and I did try other things. I worked at other places, I did every blue collar job you could imagine, but I was always working at it.”
Why does he love fighting fires? “In the police, you deal with some very bad people, and you have to arrest them, and God forbid you have to use your weapon. In the military you have to use your weapon. In fire fighting, you’re just saving people’s lives. There can be a downside, if you lose a victim, if you can’t get to someone in time, if you show up and the person is already dead, but you are just going to be doing good.
“It is about saving lives, helping people, not hurting them. I want to be able to turn around in 40 years and say that I made a difference,” Yaakov said.
He works in the fire department in Tel Aviv; most of his work is with urban fires, although he is deployed to fight wildfires too, when it is necessary.
The fire department actually is fire and rescue, he added. “We also do things like get cats out of trees. We rescue dogs that have fallen into holes, and people who are too drunk to find their keys. We rescue anything that has a soul.”
He is married, “and my wife is my biggest supporter, and she is always behind me, saying ‘Don’t worry. You can do it!”
His wife, Dalya, is a graphic designer; Yaakov and Dalya are the parents of a one-year-old, Jon Jon, “the cutest, smiley-est kid in the world,” Yaakov said. “He just smiles all the time. Nothing bothers him. My wife is an amazing mother.” The family lives in Raanana.
Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs is Sinai’s dean. He came to the school after Yaakov left, but he sees Yaakov Guttman’s life trajectory as impressive, at the same time specific and symbolic.
“Yaakov’s story is anomalous — and it isn’t,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “What he had to overcome, both the special needs and the biography, and then going into the IDF and then becoming a commander of a unit there and then becoming a firefighter — all that is unique and anomalous.
“On the other hand, we have many students who look different and have different profiles and biographical sketches, and who come to our school with so many challenges and with so much potential. With so much promise. It is hard for them to take those steps — to make friends, to become a leader.
“Life is about taking risks, but so many of our students have been burnt. Many of our students have had so many years of failure before they come to us.”
Few families face the dramatic challenges that the Guttmans had to deal with, but the strains of having special-needs children often harm families. There are many strains, among them “the financial and the social,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “It can be embarrassing for parents to go out, and often there are familial disagreements between spouses and between parents and grandparents about how to treat it.
“And often parents wonder if they are doing everything they can to help their child. That is a lot of pressure. They think ‘I take my kid to all of the therapies I possibly can — spend all that money, all that time — and I still am asking myself if I’m doing the right thing.’
“There is a lot of pressure. There is a lot at stake. Parents come to us with a lot of hopes and dreams.”
So Yaakov’s story is both unique and basic. “The underlying theme to the story is the power of community,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “Here you have a family unit that was terribly shocked, and the community came together in lots of different ways to make sure that Shelly and Yaakov and all the children had all the support they needed.”
One of the lessons of Yaakov’s story is that you can’t always look at a child and know that he has problems, or what those problems might be. You also can’t look at a child and know what his promise is, what his potential is, or where his path might take him. Sinai Schools knows that. But Sinai also knows that it is only if you understand that every child, no matter how angry or withdrawn or troubled, has potential, that you possibly can begin to unearth it.
Or, as Yaakov put it, when he was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD, “I could have said ‘I have dyslexia and ADD, and boo hoo, cry me a river,’ or I could have said ‘I have dyslexia and ADD, and I can use it to my advantage.’
“I was very skilled at social skills. And then later I decided to face my crap and start doing something with it.
“If I can give any message to people, it’s that we all have issues. We all have problems. But the people who will succeed are the people who can stand up and face them.
“All you need is a little bit of courage and drive. You don’t have to be the smartest. You don’t have to be the most talented. I wasn’t. I’m not the greatest at anything. But what I did is that I said, ‘All right. It is time to man up.’ And that is what it takes to succeed.
“At Sinai, I learned how to overcome, and that gave me a foundation for the rest of my life,” Yaakov Guttman said.
This article was originally published in The Jewish Standard.