My Alma Mater: a Rosh Hashana Address

By virtue of the fact that my father taught and was Hebrew Supervisor at the Ramaz School for around thirty years, I was enrolled as a student there for twelve years. Along with my home environment, Ramaz is where I was imprinted with Zionism and Judaism, and received an outstanding Jewish education.

I received Principal Rabbi Haskel Lookstein's Rosh Hashana address in my email a week or two ago. He was the assistant principal when I was a student there (his father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein a"h, who also officiated at my chatunah, was then principal).

I feel that this address is important enough to share with my readers. It very much epitomizes what Modern Orthodoxy strives to be today.

Add to that the idea of G-d being available to everyone learned or not, and also emphasizing mysticism, spirituality and holiness in one's daily life, joy and dance in observance as well as serious Jewish (and secular) scholarship; and knowing that I am descendant (on my mother's side) from Reb Levi Yitzchak mi-Berditzchev--all this is why I consider myself a MOC (Modern Orthodox Chassidic) Jew: we need a shiluv between the old and the new...

So I am doing what Rabbi Lookstein has asked: I am sharing his Rosh Hashana address with others.

May you all have a year of all the brachot that Hashem can bestow upon you.

To the Ramaz Family from Rabbi Haskel Lookstein

This is an email that should not be treated as an email.

Please print it out and read it with your family.

September 15, 2009

26 Elul 5769

Dear Members of the Ramaz Family,

The period of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time for cheshbon ha-nefesh - soul searching and introspection. All of us must do this on a personal level. It is, however, also important for us to do this on an institutional level, as a school family. We should ask ourselves: are we as parents, students, and an institution fulfilling our mission as we have set it forth for ourselves over the past seventy-two years?

What are the elements of that mission and how should we be searching our own souls both personally and institutionally concerning it?


The first principle of our mission is Derech eretz precedes Torah. This means exactly what it says. The first responsibility of the Ramaz family is adherence to an ethical and moral code of conduct. This means, among other things, respect for others, refinement in behavior, careful, clean speech, and civility in all of our relationships. Sadly, during the past year, the Jewish world has been embarrassed (in many ways so has God) by behavior on the part of Jews that runs completely counter to the principle of derech eretz preceding Torah. Both secular and so-called religious Jews have profaned God's name and Judaism's reputation by fraud, money laundering, cheating people and the government, and by other dreadful violations of our ethical and moral code of conduct. We all have to do some serious soul searching about how all of this happened.

But, we should also be asking ourselves whether we are personally living a life of derech eretz in our interactions. Are we being respectful in the way in which we speak and relate to each other? Do boys and girls in our own school, which is committed to coeducation in a religious environment, conduct themselves properly, practicing modesty, dignity and humanity? Do we uphold the highest standards of menschlichkeit in all of our relationships: parents to children, children to parents, teachers to students, students to teachers and students to each other?

This is our first area of cheshbon ha-nefesh. It is important that we ask ourselves these questions and if the answers are not fully satisfactory - and who can honestly answer those questions in a completely satisfactory manner - we have to be fully conscious of what comes first in our mission: derech eretz, i.e. menschlichkeit.


The second principle in our mission is a commitment to Torah, mitzvot, the People of Israel, and the State of Israel. In an address to the parents of the Maimonides School in 1971, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, discussed the nature of a commitment to Torah and mitzvot. He said as follows:

"Judaism is characterized by a Divine imperative. Freedom is central to Judaism, but not in order to cast off the moral imperative, to disintegrate into human slavery. We believe the purpose of freedom is to develop a will-power, a capability to renounce certain actions because they are immoral, no matter how pleasurable they may be. We thus believe the Jewish life is a disciplined life. It is a life which places a premium on the moment of recoil. I come close - very close - but at the last moment I realize the objective is demonic; it is Lilith, the demonic beauty which we may never attain."

The Rav goes on to say that in a Yeshiva Day School we teach observance of Torah and Halakha, but we do not preach or indoctrinate. We do not force upon a child a particular observance. We want him or her to do or not to do the right things of his or her free will. Religion, implanted under coercion, will never last.

It was a fascinating observation by the Rav. We have to have a commitment to Halakha, but it must be of our own free will. We have to teach our will to bend to God's will, whether this be in kashrut or Shabbat or sexual behavior or business practices or in any other area of life. We have to teach our children - and our parents - to accept and live by a divine imperative. This runs quite counter to the secular ethic that is the norm in our society where moral relativism is king and whatever I think is right is right, and whatever somebody else thinks is right is also right. That is not what we try to teach in Ramaz and it is not the ethic of Judaism. "Judaism is characterized by a Divine imperative." We live a life of Torah and mitzvot and love of the Jewish people and Medinat Yisrael because that is what is objectively right.

Ramaz students and parents should understand that when they are part of the Ramaz family, they are making such a commitment. They may not be at the level of full commitment yet - Who is? Isn't that why we all have a Yom Kippur? - but that is the goal toward which we should all be striving. It is what we are teaching in school and it is what we should be teaching at home as well, in every area of life. And, as the Rav puts it, it must be taught not by force or indoctrination, but by presenting the texts of Judaism, the ideas and ideals of Judaism and urging ourselves to accept them of our own free will. It is not an easy task; but whoever said it was easy to be Jew? It is a struggle, but a blessed struggle in which we should all be actively engaged.


The third principle of our mission is the pursuit of academic excellence in accordance with the ability of the child. Here, too, the Rav spoke eloquently and powerfully:

"Judaism is wedded to the logos (the Rav loved to use Latin and Greek terminology). It thinks very highly of the intellect. It is first and foremost a thought system, a way of thinking. The Halakha stands for a modus cogitandi, a way of reacting to stimuli and events..."

For us, this means that we try to give our students the opportunity to reach the highest level of academic and intellectual development of which they are capable, each in accordance with his or her own ability. The Rav continued:

"... we believe in the Jewish child, that he/she is capable of carrying a double educational load; that he/she is capable of carrying a universal secular and specific Jewish educational load, in terms of concentration, study and absorption - and that he/she can excel in both! Some people deny it; they don't believe that literacy is possible on both levels; they say literacy in both realms is an absurdity. We reject this philosophy of doom and say that a Jewish child is educable in terms of literacy and scholarship in both realms as well. Such a concept is indispensable to our philosophy of religious commitment. We believe the Jewish child can learn and assimilate secular scientific viewpoints without contradicting Torah viewpoints. He/she can be committed to a very ancient past and hold the vision of a glorious future, while simultaneously coming to understand the world about him..."

There it is: the same philosophy that my father embraced when founding Ramaz in 1937. It is our same philosophy today. We should all try to do our best to be fully integrated Jews and Americans, steeped in the knowledge of Judaism and the understanding of Western civilization.


The final principle of our mission is to develop in our students a sense of responsibility to the Jewish people and the world. Here again I quote the Rav's speech:

"And last, we believe that the Jew cannot live alone. He belongs to a covenantal community established by Abraham. The password of the Jew is chesed. The Jew is supposed to share in the travail of humanity in general and of his people in particular. He must share in the destiny of his people and be sensitive to the destiny of mankind..."

This is the Rav's way of saying what Ramaz has tried to stress over the past seven decades, namely, that a Ramaz student and alumnus/alumna should always have a sense of responsibility for the Jewish people and for the general society. "It is not good for man to live alone," says the Bible in Bereishit. The immediate reference is to the need for marriage but the wider implications were stated by the Rav on many occasions: a Jew is not allowed to live a Robinson Crusoe existence. He or she must always live in society, caring about society, committed to the well-being of others and not just living for himself or herself alone. This is implicit in all of our prayers which are always in the plural and in dozens of mitzvot in the Torah which teach us that every Jew is responsible for every other Jew and that nobody is permitted to stand by while others, Jew or non-Jew suffer or are in need.

I continue to be very gratified by reports of Ramaz alumni who demonstrate that kind of responsibility in college and in their communal lives. It is something which we try to teach at Ramaz and which should be taught and practiced at home as well.

I hope that the above thoughts about cheshbon ha-nefesh - both personal and institutional - will be helpful for you as I pray they will be helpful for me as well. I urge you to discuss this letter with your children, depending upon its age appropriateness and to think about its contents for your own personal lives and your role as parents and teachers. You might even want to make this a subject for discussion at your Rosh Hashanah table. It is much more than a statement about a school; with the help of the Rav, I believe it is a statement about how to live a Modern Orthodox Jewish life.

On behalf of Head of School Judy Fagin and the entire faculty of Ramaz, I wish you all a happy, healthy, peaceful and blessed year. L'Shana Tova Tikateivu V'teichateimu.

Very cordially yours,
Haskel Lookstein


muse said…
Now people can figure out who you are. Not me, I went to Great Neck North.
Lady-Light said…
Muse: Ha. Anonymity be damned.

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