Bergenfield’s Yaakov Guttman, 34, after a year at Yeshivat Lev HaTorah for his gap year, opted to stay in Israel and entered the IDF as a lone soldier, with limited Hebrew skills. He did well, working his way up to serving as a sniper commander in Jenin, Shechem and Ramallah. He was injured during his service and endured a difficult recovery. Today, he is a firefighter in Tel Aviv. Firefighters are first responders to terror attacks, and of course they run into burning buildings, saving lives practically every shift. He is still active in the IDF reserves. He lives in Ra’anana, is married to Dalya and is the father of a newborn baby boy.
Guttman’s life work is that of a hero. But 24 years ago, it was his own life that needed saving.
SINAI Schools, and a member of Guttman’s Bergenfield community, Shimmy Stein, helped save it. Guttman, an alum of SINAI’s Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, will be honored at this year’s annual dinner on February 25. Alongside him, Stein will receive recognition as Shomer She’erit Yisrael (guardian of the remnant on Israel).
This year’s SINAI Schools documentary features Guttman’s story. SINAI Schools, which runs independent yeshiva day schools and high schools for students with a wide range of special needs inside existing day and yeshiva high schools, is opening its
seventh partner school this September, at SAR in Riverdale.
When Guttman was 10, his life reeled as his father, Sruli Guttman, passed away suddenly from a heart attack. His mother’s brother, who stepped in to help out his mother and Yaakov’s other siblings, also passed away less than a year later. Angry, confused, in terrible pain and struggling with profound illiteracy, he began life as a SINAI Schools student at JKHA. Guttman was still in shock from watching his father die, remembering his father only as a larger-than-life active member of the community, an ish chesed (a man of kindness) and a dugma yeshi (an example of a proper Jew).
It was a hard time for his whole family. Guttman was without his father, but his mother was dealing with the loss of her husband and brother, while caring for a houseful of young children and an infant. Adding to that, Guttman faced considerable and complex learning challenges, rendering him unable to succeed in school. He also felt his father’s void in shul terribly.
“At SINAI, often our students have experienced many years of academic or social failure before they come to us. Many of them are children who have incredible potential but who have been defeated by so many challenges,” said Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs, dean of SINAI Schools. “They may present as angry, depressed, cynical or even destructive. They are often in such a dark place that they do not yet have the bandwidth to advance their academics. In those cases, we take a few steps back and focus on developing relationships with them and building trust. After we build that foundation with a child, he or she is infinitely more available to learn and develop his or her own goals for growth,” said Rothwachs.
Guttman’s father’s friend Shimmy Stein, who lived nearby in Bergenfield, saw a child suffering at home and stepped in without delay. Shimmy took Guttman to shul at Congregation Beth Abraham, and if Guttman didn’t want to go to shul, they went for a walk. Stein, who is known in the community for his brusque manner, is almost as well known for his incredible (and often private) acts of chesed and his unique, self-effacing way of “doing things that need doing” around the shul and for community members. With Guttman, he saw that a boy was hurting and needed kindness and a firm, constant presence. “I noticed he was angry; he was frustrated, he was alone, he felt a bit lost. A person loses a father, your world collapses on you, and that was what he was feeling,” said Stein. Stein recalled that he had also lost his mother at the same age Guttman lost his father, so he had a sense about what he might have been feeling. “He just didn’t have a father to talk to. If Yaakov had a father there would be no story here,” added Stein.
“At SINAI, we recognize that people who need this level of support can’t do it on their own,” said Sam Fishman, SINAI’s managing director. “Shimmy Stein takes the community story of SINAI to a whole new level. Yaakov Guttman was a child with serious learning disabilities. He came to SINAI at age 10 unable to read. SINAI was there for him, but his learning disabilities, while they were serious, were perhaps the least of his problems,” said Fishman.
Stein was gabbai of the minyan Yaakov attended at Beth Abraham, and Stein described the difficulty Yaakov faced of walking into shul without a place to sit next to a father. He ran to fill that space and gave special treatment to Yaakov along with all the boys of the community, as well as his own. “There was constant contact. I said to Yaakov, ‘I expect you to be here.’ I seated him next to me on yomim noraim.”
“His mother, Shelly, is an incredibly strong woman and did an incredible job,” said Stein, “but I was able to be a comfort to him in shul. Unless someone has been through that you wouldn’t know,” he added. “My father raised me to watch out for the other guy. If someone was suffering, he could not fully enjoy things. My wife is a social worker so this is her field as well,” Stein said.
Stein added that Rabbi Yaakov and Rebbetzin Peshi Neuburger also acted as para-parental eyes and ears for Guttman, making sure he had what he needed at shul, camp and elsewhere. “Rabbi Neuburger—it’s amazing how much he knows and understands,” said Guttman, noting his knowledge and demonstration of Torah and chesed was an amazing example to have grown up with. “His kindness and giving to the community is breathtaking. He always runs to help and do for the community. Especially with us, my family, he was always there for us. He and his wife, Peshi, are an amazing team and they have been a shining example of help whenever we needed it,” added Guttman.
But, Guttman explained, what Stein did went beyond just shul friendship. “What many people don’t know is my father died on Shimmy’s birthday. Shimmy did the tahara (ritual cleansing after death) for my father on his own birthday. Shimmy stands up to any challenge that is important, that has to get done. He has self-honor and discipline. He is a force to be reckoned with. He has always been there for my family.”
Stein added that the Guttman and Stein families were close, and grew closer after Sruli passed away. “We always had them [over] on Rosh Hashanah and Pesach and made sure their sukkah was built.” Along with other families—the Franks, the Danishefskys, the Taubeses, the Krugs—the Guttmans had a army of friends making sure they had what they needed. A group of three—Barry Frank, Jackie Stromer and Stein—always built the Guttman family sukkah together, for example. There was never any sense that this was charity. “This was friendship, not anything else. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh. Every Jew is responsible for every other Jew. These are our friends and this is what you do. You’re supposed to do this. You don’t get a cookie for that,” said Stein, in his inimitable way.
Stein, ever a “tough cookie,” did not see being honored at the SINAI dinner as appropriate, because he believed that anyone who had seen what Guttman was experiencing would have done the same thing. However, he agreed to be recognized by SINAI as a Shomer She’erit Yisrael, a guardian of the remnant of Israel.
And how far does Guttman’s story in Israel go, you might ask. What were his accomplishments, and how did he get where is he now? In the IDF, Guttman rose to the top of his unit and went on to become a commander. “Upon leaving the IDF, he was determined to continue his mission to help the State of Israel and continue to save lives. What a loss it would have been for the Jewish community if Yaakov had never come to us. It’s easy for me to say thank God for SINAI, but what I really need to say is thank God for Shimmy Stein,” said Fishman.
Guttman, for his part, is grateful for the support he received in his Bergenfield community. “Shimmy’s example is what my father was and what I hope to be. I could not ask for better mentors in my life,” said Guttman, noting that he too, like Stein, was not interested in the attention the SINAI dinner might bring. “The only reason I am doing this is to help people. I don’t like to be in the spotlight; Shimmy and I share these traits. But if I can help one kid have it easier than what I had, it will be enough. Yes, I had trials and tribulations, and hard walks. I want SINAI students to know that, yes, you can have a family. You can be whatever you want to be. But you have to work really hard. There is no shortcut but hard work. I learned that in the military,” said Guttman.
“I was brought up in a house where you go out and help others. Especially in this time with all this technology, you still have to get off your butt and go do. Get up, face the challenge. I learned from Shimmy, from my parents, go get it! Go do it! It doesn’t matter if it’s up the mountain.”
Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, the head of school at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, spoke to The Jewish Link about why he invited Guttman, as a Kushner alum, to speak to all of RKYHS on Feb. 13, though Yaakov initially expected to speak only to SINAI students. “We invited Yaakov Guttman to speak to our students to demonstrate the power of one and the importance of every individual student. Given the right supports and guidance, every student, whether from SINAI or Kushner, has the potential to make important contributions to community and humanity,” Rabbi Rubin said. “Yaakov internalized the values taught at Sinai and took inspiration from the Kushner mission to become a genuine hero in the State of Israel,” he added.
“Yaakov is a master of determination and resiliency,” said Rabbi Rothwachs. “With the deck stacked against him, he demonstrated at every stage of his life outstanding courage, unwavering drive and a deep desire to impact the lives of others...to pay it forward.”
Today, Stein is proud of his friend Guttman. “He’s an adrenaline junkie. Running into [burning] buildings doesn’t faze him in the least. He’s careful, he knows what he is doing and he’s happy. He has come a very long way.”
“All our SINAI kids, in a metaphorical sense, have walked through fire. They have been burned by previous experiences,” said Abigail Hepner-Gross, SINAI director of communications. “These kids are all heroic in their ability to learn what they need to learn. Yaakov represents one incredibly successful example for us. But for some SINAI students, for someone to be able to care for themselves, to live independently, to have a job… these are all metaphoric fires, and succeeding at their goals makes them all heroes.”
Sign up to attend the Feb. 25 SINAI Schools annual dinner at https://www.sinaischools.org/dinner. The film about Guttman, “Walking Through Fire,” will premiere at the dinner and will be available to watch on the SINAI website or SINAI’s Facebook page after Feb 25. Watch the trailer now on at https://tinyurl.com/yal25xc5.
By Elizabeth Kratz