Thursday, March 21, 2019

On February 13, RKYHS students heard from Yaakov Guttman, a former IDF soldier now serving as a firefighter in Tel Aviv, when he presented a “TED”-style talk as part of RKYHS’ special SEED speakers program. As a child with significant learning disabilities, Yaakov shut down academically when his father passed away unexpectedly, prompting his mother to send him to SINAI. His teachers at SINAI poured their time and energy into him, and Yaakov rose to overcome personal adversity and his learning disabilities to graduate SINAI with the JKHA class of 1999.

Born and raised in Bergenfield, New Jersey, Yaakov had grown up on stories of his maternal grandfather’s heroic exploits, first as a decorated gunner pilot for England in World War II and then as a fighter in the Haganah. Emboldened by the inner strength he had learned to harness during his early years at SINAI, Yaakov hoped to emulate his grandfather, and he joined the Israel Defense Forces as a Lone Soldier in the Nahal Haredi unit. Despite understanding no more than a few words of Hebrew when he began his service, Yaakov ultimately rose to become one of the first sergeants for a special sniper team, and trained soldiers in sniping and hand-to-hand combat.

Following his army service, Yaakov worked single-mindedly to make his dream of firefighting a reality in Israel, ultimately securing a prestigious job as a firefighter in the Tel Aviv fire department.

Yaakov stressed to the RKYHS students that in order to succeed, you must not be afraid to fail—a message which he reiterated during smaller, more intimate gatherings with the SINAI middle school and high school students. Yaakov told the SINAI students that his purpose in speaking out about his struggles and allowing his personal journey to be the subject of a SINAI documentary (“Walking Through Fire,” which premiered at this year’s Benefit Dinner) was to impact children who are struggling as he once did, and to give them and their parents hope for the future. For these SINAI students, hearing from Yaakov proved an inspiring experience; having once stood in their shoes, he was able to convey to them the importance of hard work and grit, and told them never to underestimate what they can accomplish.

In speaking to both the RKYHS and SINAI students, Yaakov did more than simply give SINAI students hope for their futures; he helped RKYHS students understand the innate potential of their SINAI classmates, and reminded all of the students that every individual has value and something to give back to the world.

Students at SINAI’s Maor High School at RKYHS were inspired by Yaakov’s presentation and put their thoughts on paper. Three of those students shared how Yaakov’s story impacted them and encouraged them to dream big and persevere though even the most difficult times. Read the stories, published in The Jewish Link alongside this one, by Yisroel Newmark, Tzvi Freedman, and Reuvy Keane.  

To watch Yaakov’s presentation and “Walking Through Fire,” visit www.sinaischools.org/walkingthroughfire.

By Chana Shestack