Monday, Jun 24, 2024

Rav Nachum W. Dessler zt”l

There will be many words written and spoken about the greatness and incredible work of Rav Naachum W. Dessler zt”l, what he meant to Klal Yisroel, the national day school movement, and the Cleveland Jewish community. It is no exaggeration to say that the Cleveland Jewish community would not look the way it does today without the accomplishments of Rabbi Dessler and, tbl”c, his aishes chayil. It would still be a midbar. In my mind, in particular, his greatest accomplishment is what he did for every individual student of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland. Each child was truly an individual and was treated like the most important person in the world. I should know, because I was one of those children. As a child of Holocaust survivors, my parents came to this country with literally nothing. As part of Rabbi Dessler's greatness, the doors to the Hebrew Academy were opened to every Jewish child, no matter what their background was or their ability to pay. I was taken into the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland with open arms. Chinuch of a Jewish child was the primary vision of Rabbi Dessler. That is his legacy and that is still the essential mission of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland until today and has been duplicated by many day schools around the country. His vision never wavered. Can you imagine the mesirus nefesh involved in starting this school?

Rabbi Dessler had some incredible lay leaders to work with, especially in those first years. Mr. Phil Edlis z”l, one of the first presidents of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, and the legendary Irving I. Stone z”l, who was president with the longest tenure, used to tell me that they would call an emergency meeting every Sunday about the school. The emergency every week revolved around one of two things. The first problem was enrollment. When that was the main topic, Rabbi Dessler would literally knock on doors of Jewish families and recruit students. If the week was successful with regard to recruitment, they would call an emergency meeting to discuss how they were going to pay for the education of the new students. Rabbi Dessler would then spend the following week raising the necessary funds. Mr. Edlis and Mr. Stone could not believe what they were witnessing in those early years, and Rabbi Dessler certainly kept them very busy.


Once, Irving Stone related to me that, as a responsible lay leader, one time, he gently questioned Rabbi Dessler as to whether or not the policy of accepting any child, regardless of ability to pay, was sustainable over the long term. In response to this question, Rabbi Dessler was a lion. There was no debate and no question. Open the school to every Jewish child or close it down, he said. It was that simple. Any baal habayis who didn’t agree might wish to reconsider being involved with the school. That is how important a proper Torah chinuch for every child was to him. There were no barriers to entry. To my knowledge and based on my involvement over the last thirty years with the school, that was the last time the question ever came up at a board meeting.


The legacy that Rabbi Dessler leaves teaches us such an important lesson: Never lose sight of how important every single individual child is.


And there is one more incredibly important leadership lesson we can learn from Rabbi Dessler, who put the pieces in place to make sure that there is a continuation to his life’s mission And that he did through all of his children.


May the family have a nechama as they reflect on the inspiring life of an incredibly inspiring gadol to all of Klal Yisroel, Rav Nachum Zev Dessler zt”l. May his neshama have an aliyah.


Yehi zichro boruch.




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