Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Role Model of Jewish Commitment

Torah U’Mada. That is the motto of a man who I consider to be as close to a Lamed Vavnik as there is on this earth.  A Lamed Vavnik is the nickname used to refer to one fo the thirty six hidden Tzadikim that no one knows about because of their great humility.  (Lamed and Vav are two letters of the Hebrew alphabet whose combined value is 36.)

The man I am talking about is Dr. Joseph Walder. He was featured last week in a cover story in Inyan, the weekly magazine of Hamodia.

I don’t really know him that well. My only real contact with him was during the taping of an interview that was going to be played at an out of town banquet honoring him that he could not attend. During that interview he used that phrase quite liberally.

Dr. Walder is an MD and PhD who has built a scientific and financial empire. Among other things his company, IDT (Intergrated DNA Technologies) synthesizes DNA and provides it all over the world for medical research  and  other things (Dor Yeshorim is one of his customers using it for genetic testing.) IDT is fully Shomer Shabbos - the business is closed in all its facilities and branches.

Dr. Walder passion is science. But he has another passion. And that is doing things for the Jewish community.  Now many of us work for the community in various ways. But Dr. Walder more than anyone else has a special talent for finding voids and filling them with innovative ideas. He is a doer, not talker.

Among them are the following.

He has created something called the Kehilla Fund. This is a fund where people are encouraged to donate a monthly fixed amount to a fund that is distributed to the 10 religious day schools here in Chicago. One can donate as little as $5 a month up to any amount one wishes. There are many people that participate in this fund some of whom donate $1000 per month! This amount is automatically deducted from your checking account.  Last year it raised 650,000 dollars. The money is divided per capita among all the schools. His goal is to fund one third of all tuitions costs, the rest to be provided by tuitions and traditional fundraising.

There is another fund he created to help those parents whose schools subject them to a minimum payment no matter how little they make. There ar some who cannot afford even that. This fund helps them cover their shortfall.

As an aside I am opposed to these extortionary tactics. If parents don’t have the money they should not be forced to pay it. That can lead to all kinds of bad things.

The problem of course is that many of the parents who are that poor, are poor by choice. If one chooses to live on a Kollel stipend – which is the case with many of the parents in certain schools, those schools would never be able to pay their teachers and would end up closing. So it’s hard to blame them for having this policy. They are desparate!

Ideally there should be no minimum in any school This fund should help all parents in every school who are unable to pay what a school feels they might need as a minimum amount per family. But I digress.

Another great thing he has done is to create a resource center for teachers. Teachers from any school can come there and utilize many innovative ideas with materials provided by the center. There are workshops where teachers can learn about the latest and most innovative new curricula, teaching techniques, use the latest technology, and attend seminars on the latest teaching techniques and bring them all to the classroom. Rabbi Yaakov Perlow (The Novominsker Rebbe) who was invited to see it was so impressed that he has urged Torah U’Mesorah to adopt a similar program in all of their affiliated schools. According to the artilce - they have begun to do this.

He has also opened a Holocaust educational program. With the dwindling population of survivors, he feels that everything should be done to assure that it never be forgotten.  As far as I know this is one of the few (if not the only) religiously based projects in the country. He has hired the best professionals to see this task through.

Perhaps one of his greatest undertakings is the creation of a science laboratory and learning center for Chicago’s religious students. Students from any school can come and learn the value of science and more importantly see that there is no contradiction at all between science and Torah. He provides the resources and has hired an administrator dedicated solely for that purpose.  This project sponsors science competitions and gives students the facilities and materials to be able to compete at a very high level.

As part of his belief in promoting the philosophy of Torah U’Mada he has had world renowned scientists and educators that are observant give public lectures there. Among Dr. Gerlad Schroeder and Rabbi Natan Slifkin.  (You read that correctly.)

Not satisfied with what is  -he  always thinking about what could be. An idea that really sounds both interesting and plausible is hiring top teachers to teach certain subjects like science. Realizing that religious schools do not have enough money to hire that level of teacher on their own, he has suggested hiring teachers for top dollar and sharing them with all the schools. In this way it would not break the budget of any single school.

He is also known for his kindnesses to individuals. I know of at least three people who lost their jobs or businesses. The incomes of these people had ranged from very large to very modest. He found a place for them in his organization. I would not be surprised if there are plenty more like this in his organization.

These are just a few of the things he has done, which he tries to do as quietly as possible. Doing things quietly is hard to do for a man of his many talents. But it isn’t for lack of trying. Dr. Walder is a quiet man who shuns the limelight. If you saw him you would think that this man with a trim beard and black hat is just a simple Charedi Baal Habos. But there is nothing simple about this great man.  We in Chicago are very lucky to have him.