What makes a community? Over my many years as a rabbi I’ve asked myself that question. You need three for a mezuman, 10 for a minyan. But a community — that’s something else.
To create a community, you need neshamos — souls — men and women who create, nurture, build. You need neshamos who step up, who don’t just talk the talk, but who walk the walk. You need neshamos who have vision and faith, and who sacrifice for the greater good.
Leo Brandstatter, z”l, was one of those neshamos.
The Jewish world was such a different place when I first met Leo and Dossy. It was the late 1970s, and they were a young couple, just starting a family. These were times when children with disabilities were hidden away. Passt nischt — you don’t talk about these things. So the pain they felt when they realized that one of their children was different, that he would not be able to learn in a regular classroom, that he would not receive a Jewish education — that pain was unbearable.
For Leo and Dossy, it was unacceptable.
Leo had a vision of a different reality: that even children with disabilities deserved dignity and their share of Jewish education. Today that is such an accepted norm, but it wasn’t always that way. But Leo took his pain and rallied the community around this vision.
Lo hamedrash ha Ikar, elah ha’maaseh.
Out of Leo’s vision — and his sweat and tears — was born Sinai Schools.
None of us could have imagined that 40 years later, Sinai would be what it is today. A prominent leader in special education, not only in the Jewish world, but in the secular world as well. That Sinai would change the lives of thousands of children and their families — my own precious grandson included! That it would change the way the community views people with disabilities.
In Koheles it says: Tov acharis davar mairaishiso. If you want to know if the end will be good, look to its beginning. Leo’s vision was the beginning of Sinai, but then he took it to the next level. It was Leo’s commitment, passion, and direction that guided Sinai into today’s reality. He took ownership of Sinai, nurturing it into what it is today.
Leo was able to look to the future and propel Sinai forward.
Sinai is blessed to have that same vision today. It is blessed with lay leaders and professionals who are moving Sinai into the future with the same kind of vision, passion, and faith that Leo taught them.
And now it is imperative for the community to step up and help move Sinai into the future. We are not just a group of people who happen to live in the same place at the same time. We are a community — a kehillah — a gathering of neshamos. Every one of us has the potential to make a difference in this world. And it is imperative on every one of us to support Sinai into the future.
I miss Leo, and I am proud that he was my friend. He was a man of faith — not only faith in HaKadosh Baruch Hu, but faith in man. Klal Yisroel, and the Bergen County community in particular, suffered a great loss when he passed, just over a year ago. We owe so much to this gadol, who, through his efforts in creating Sinai, opened Torah education to thousands of children who had been denied access. He brought about a huge change in Jewish education that is felt across the world today, and in doing so he helped alleviate the pain and suffering of so many families.
On February 26, Sinai Schools will present a memorial tribute to Leo Brandstatter, z”l at its annual benefit dinner. Your support of Sinai is a way to honor Leo, and to help continue the holy work that he began and every one of us has a chiyuv to continue: to make sure that Sinai is there for the next generation of children who need it.
Photo: Dossy and Leo Brandstatter are at a Sinai dinner a few years ago. (Sinai Schools)