Rabbi Menachem Gottesman, longtime dean of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills and the school’s heart, mind and soul for 42 years, died on Dec. 25, 2014, at 84. An inspiring, pioneering Jewish educator and institution-builder, Gottesman touched and influenced thousands whom he personally welcomed into the Hillel family. He died in Jerusalem, where he had made his home for the last 12 years with his wife, Leiba, who was also his partner in his life’s work.
At the shivah in Jerusalem, hundreds of Hillel alumni, local leaders and heads of yeshivas streamed into the Gottesman home to pay respects and share stories of his acts of kindness, towering presence and commitment to Jewish education — and to honor a man whose positive personality and unrelenting drive to make Orthodox Jewish education accessible eventually led Hillel to be widely regarded as the West Coast’s premier Modern Orthodox, Zionist day school.
Gottesman was born in in Welland, Ontario, Canada, on April 14, 1930, to Eastern European immigrants. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles in 1961 to lead Hillel, which at the time was situated in the basement of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. In 1964, Hillel moved to the Samuel Fryer Building on the corner of Oakhurst and Doheny drives. Gottesman expanded the campus in 1990 with the addition of the Doheny wing, named after donor Uri Harkham. Under Gottesman’s tutelage, Hillel grew to have as many as 850 students at its peak.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and founder of YULA High School, remarked on the poetic timing of Gottesman’s death occurring one day after Chanukah. “He understood that if you really stick to it and are really dedicated to the task at hand, you will live to see that from one little cruse of oil, hundreds of cruses of oil will receive a true Jewish education and be of great benefit to klal Yisra’el.”
Hier recalled moving into Gottesman’s Beverlywood neighborhood in 1977, when the Orthodox community consisted of only a dozen families. Over the years, Hillel became the prime feeder school for YULA, and developed as the center of an ever-growing, vibrant Orthodox community that encompassed Beverlywood, Beverly Hills and the Pico-Robertson area.
Gottesman is best known for never turning down parents due to financial difficulty and always receiving them with dignity and compassion, especially given the potentially humiliating experience of asking for a scholarship. In speaking with parents and alumni, one theme emerged: “If not for Rabbi Gottesman,” many Jewish families may not have afforded a quality Jewish education.
Hillel’s former bookkeeper and Gottesman’s professional friend of 24 years, Carmelith Arfa (who is also this reporter’s mother), said, “He gave graciously, always. When parents told him they’d give back when they were able to, he trusted them. And they did. Parents who couldn’t afford full tuition came back years later with big checks,” Arfa said.
Giving was part of his philosophy. When he was out of town, he’d leave personal signed checks for “chai” ($18) at the front desk of the school, to be paid to anyone walking in to the office seeking tzedakah, so that they would never leave empty-handed.
For Gottesman, fundraising was an intuitive art, guided by his faith in people and God, his love for the Jewish people and — above all — his dedication to Torah values and their perpetuation for generations to come.
He commanded loyalty by treating all Jews with respect, never discriminating between rich and poor, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, Shabbat-observant and on their way there.
“He managed to do simultaneously two impossible tasks: One, to keep the door open for people who could not pay; and two, later on, figuring out who could,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Wiesenthal Center and a former Hillel board member. “Under his tutelage, the tent was always big enough for anyone who wanted to make a serious commitment to step up and give kids the chance of a Jewish education.”
Gottesman taught first and foremost by example and positive reinforcement. He and his wife would welcome students to their home for Shabbat. He’d walk the school’s hallways, his imposing, even daunting, presence softened by his constant smile and enthusiastic compliments, like “beautiful” or “gevaldik.”
“For me, personally, he really put me on the map in terms of being an educator,” said Shulamith May, a former assistant principal of the junior high and now founding head of school at the girls high school, Bnos Devorah. When May first started teaching at Hillel upon arriving from New York, Gottesman encouraged her to adapt her approach when her New York style didn’t prove effective.
“Here you are with a snowsuit in the middle of California, and it won’t work,” she recalls him saying, a defining moment for her.
Rabbi Moises Benzaquen, who taught at Hillel and went on to become founding rabbi of the West Coast Torah Center and director of Jewish studies at Yeshiva High Tech, credits Gottesman with instilling in him belief in his own capabilities as a Jewish educator.
“He gave opportunities to everyone to improve themselves. He did that for me. I was always grateful. He always had kind words for me and everyone.”
Gottesman’s son, Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman, is mirroring his father’s legacy, both in deed and in personality, as the founder of the Mesivta of Greater Los Angeles, an Orthodox high school in Calabasas.
“All of his success in kiruv, with people in the school and in fundraising, all boiled down to one thing: his middot,” said Shlomo’s wife, Bella Gottesman, who flew to Jerusalem with her husband immediately upon hearing of Gottesman’s death.
In 2002, Gottesman and his wife fulfilled their dream of making aliyah. “It was my parents’ dream to move to Eretz Yisrael, and they pushed it off until they felt it was time to move on to their dreams,” said their daughter Rivky Krischer, speaking at their home. “Many of their students made aliyah. One of the mottos of the school was aliyah. It was a very Zionistic school, so they were modeling what they spoke about.”
Indeed, during the shivah, the Gottesman home served as an impromptu Hillel reunion for Thea Leibtag, a graduate of the class of 1973, reuniting her with five former classmates. “So many graduates are in Israel. Zionism was a part of its identity,” she said.
Gottesman’s visionary, motivational spirit inspired his own community in Bayit VeGan, in southwest Jerusalem, where he guided young families to turn a makeshift synagogue in a caravan into a full-fledged synagogue. “The young people didn’t know the first thing about fundraising and building. He gave them the push,” Leiba told the mourners. The study hall is named in his honor.
Gottesman dedicated his retirement years to his three great loves: his wife, Leiba; learning Torah; and living in and building the land of Israel.
“I’m very happy he got to live his dream of moving to Eretz Yisrael and enjoy it, and to learn the Torah he loved,” May said. “He deserved it.”
Rabbi Gottesman is survived by his wife, Leiba; children Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman, Malkie Torgow, Rivky Krischer, Avrami Gottesman and Ashi Gottesman; grandchildren; and great-grandchildren.
Donations in honor of Rabbi Gottesman can be made to Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy or Mesivta of Greater Los Angeles.