Community Defends and Celebrates Preschool

by Rivka Chaya Berman - STATEN ISLAND, NY

May 30, 2005

After city officials forced children out of their preschool at Chabad of Staten Island, NY, on May 25, the synagogue’s long-planned inauguration of its new building scheduled for that very evening turned into a massive show of support for Chabad’s activities.

“The school has been the foundation of my kids’ love of Yiddishkeit,” said Jessica Landa, whose twin sons attend Chabad of Staten Island’s Torah Tots Academy preschool. “It amazes me that at age four my children have such an appreciation of the holidays and Shabbos.”

Landa joined more than 200 community members to salute those who made Staten Island Chabad’s new building, a home adjacent to the original Chabad House, a reality. She came despite the fact that her sons’ normal naptime at the preschool had been disturbed by an intrusive contingent of firefighters and city officials who came prodding and poking their way into classrooms in search of building and code violations. Turns out all that was missing was a Certificate of Occupancy, which is now being processed.

As Rabbi Moshe Katzman, spiritual leader of Chabad of Staten Island, addressed the crowd, he expressed optimism. “G-d will help us that the pain we have now will be rewarded with greater success,” he said.

Earlier that day, as five year olds sang “G-d Bless America,” practicing for their upcoming preschool graduation, four fully uniformed firefighters entered the classrooms. Without asking permission of the teachers, city building inspectors strode into the five-year-olds’ room to snap pictures of the classroom layout.

ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, New York Channel One, among other news media, swarmed the school, blocking traffic with their satellite news vans, to get the scoop on what turned out to be a slow news day. The fire chief’s trucks and several police cars parked around the school added to the drama. Reporters hounded parents as they picked up their children at the 3:00 p.m. dismissal. Meital Kalev, whose daughter, Darin, 5, is a student, told reporters, “This is a very good school.”

Rivka Denker, whose son Shmuel, 5, attends Torah Tots, was similarly stalwart in her defense of the school. “If they are in any violation, I am sure it will be solved soon,” said Denker to TV journalists. “My son loves it here. The teachers are very nice to him. They are so self-confident, they are beautiful. They take very good care of the children.”

While local news broadcasts carried melodramatic reports about the shut down, smartly attired Staten Islanders dined on a smorgasbord of puff pastries, Israeli food, and carving board meats to inaugurate Chabad’s new building. The building, once an Indian restaurateur’s home redolent of curry and cumin, is now an attractive mocha-colored prayer space. The renovation was brought about by the hard work of several community members, said Rabbi Moshe Katzman, Chabad’s representative on Staten Island.

Rabbi Katzman spelled out the role that each honoree played in the building’s transformation. Avi and Irit Matuszewicz and Aryeh and Chana Matuszewicz, electricity contractors, were hailed for their donation of electrical work. Moishe and Rachel Guttman of Deck Masters, Inc., were honored for their services as contractors. Ronny and Ilana Abramove and Boaz and Felice Sussman were lauded for their support of Chabad.

With a straightforwardness that is a hallmark of Staten Islanders, Irit Matuszewicz spoke about her attachment to Chabad. “From Rabbi Katzman I learned that rabbis can be cool,” said Matuszewicz. “Not only do they have great personalities, they sure know how to run a school.” Matuszewicz continued, “The Katzmans have created a haven for many of us who would otherwise have been disenfranchised from Judaism.”

In a touching ceremony, community members who gave of their own time to paint, trim bushes, and fix plumbing for the new building were called up. Sam Steinberg, Alex Steinberg, Hershey Papier, Michael Papier, Sam Papier, and Abe Maltz lit candles before the entire assemblage.

Rabbi Shimon Lawrence of Congregation Bais Yehuda, Staten Island, which is not affiliated with Chabad, said, “The rabbinate of Staten Island owes a debt to Rabbi and Rebbetzin Katzman for the change they have brought to our community. Torah Tots is unparalleled, and their yeshiva’s level of learning is among the best I’ve ever seen. One trait I see there that is lacking elsewhere is the derech eretz, the genuine care and concern the students show for one another. It is exemplary.”

The night’s standing ovation came when the work of Chani Katzman, director of Torah Tots Academy and wife of Rabbi Katzman, was mentioned. The sustained applause was a potent, moving show of support for Chani Katzman, whose day had gone from the stress of the city officials’ intrusion to the spotlight on a glorious night of celebration.

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