Rabbi Menachem Rottenberg z”l, who passed away May 16 at the age of 96, was a prime example of the continuation of world Jewry, and helped lay a foundation that influenced thousands of students at a prominent Queens yeshivah.
Born in Germany in the early 1920s, young Menachem was afforded the privilege of a yeshivah education on the sacred grounds of Eretz Yisrael. Just as Hitler assumed leadership, the Rottenbergs escaped to what was then known as the British Mandate – Palestine. Serving in Italy as a member of the Jewish Brigade during the Shoah, Rabbi Rottenberg saw the immediate need for a Jewish education for the refugees emerging from the concentration camps, and assisted in the creation of a 400-person Jewish school. The legacy of Rabbi Rottenberg includes much selfless dedication for others, exemplified by participation in Aliyah Bet, the illegal program activated to aid Holocaust refugees in immigrating to the Holy Land.
New York became home, and life began anew as Rabbi Rottenberg married his eishes chayil, Judith a”h. The young couple first took up residence in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where Rabbi Rottenberg taught in the local day school and led a local Talmud Torah. This was followed by a stint in a Columbus, Ohio, Hebrew school, and later a position at the Hillel Academy in Pittsburgh, then leading a local yeshivah. It was not until 1963 that the Yeshiva of Central Queens, at its South Jamaica campus, welcomed Rabbi Rottenberg as its executive director. Over the next 40 years, a stalwart yeshivah was established, providing youth with an unsurpassed quality of Torah and an enriching general education at an affordable tuition for parents. It was under Rabbi Rottenberg’s direction and careful management that the Yeshiva undertook its move to the Kew Gardens Hills campus at the corner of 70th Road and 150th Street in 1974, with its subsequent addition of a new state-of-the-art junior high school facility in 2000.
“Rabbi Rottenberg just knew it was time for the Yeshiva’s unprecedented move to Central Queens,” noted the Yeshiva’s longtime resource room director, Mrs. Debbie Bermish, who met Rabbi Rottenberg when she entered the first grade at the Yeshiva’s original home in South Jamaica. Speaking of the rabbi’s character, Bermish was reminded of a poignant story from 1967 that unfolded during the Six-Day War. “Israel was in desperate need of an ambulance, and Rabbi Rottenberg assumed leadership in soliciting funds for its purchase.” Bermish continued, “Generations of YCQ students are leading lives following the principles of the Torah and its laws while maintaining deep-seated support for the State of Israel.”
Dr. Joel Wein, current president of the Yeshiva, noted, “Rabbi Rottenberg was a strong and fair leader who was completely devoted to YCQ. This extraordinary dedication, along with his unmatched foresight, laid a foundation that has enabled decades of excellence for thousands of students.” He also noted that “it is ironic that Rabbi Rottenberg passed away during a very challenging time for all of our institutions, but that it is the foundation that he laid that makes us confident that, with G-d’s help, YCQ will weather this and emerge stronger on the other side. He was a true adam gadol.”
The Yeshiva of Central Queens has housed Agudath Israel of Kew Gardens Hills in its expansive beis midrash for many years. Its devoted president, Mr. Nachum Shmuel Hartman, admired Rabbi Rottenberg as his mentor. “The invaluable advice I received from Rabbi Rottenberg is the framework for much of my daily endeavors.”
In the mid-1990s, Rabbi Herschel Welcher, rav of Congregation Ahavas Yisroel, was the president of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens. Rabbi Welcher and Rabbi Rottenberg shared a warm relationship and held many constructive discussions on the issues of the day. Rabbi Welcher mentioned a story that may have been a catalyst for Rabbi Rottenberg’s commitment to yeshivah outreach. A Tel Aviv rabbi encountered a sporting club coach preparing to begin a race on Shabbos, starting at the doors of his shul. When alerted of the disrespect a race would cause to the sanctuary, the coach became apologetic. A nearby youth questioned his coach’s methods, as it was not their practice to associate with the religious folk. Rabbi Rottenberg bore witness to the polite manner in which the coach spoke to the boy and made a personal vow to make a difference in the lives of youngsters.
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, has fond memories of the subject matter the two leaders would discuss. “Rabbi Rottenberg was the definition of a talmid chacham who gained his expertise from calling upon the Torah sages of the generation for advice and counsel.”
Rabbi Peretz Steinberg, rav emeritus of the Young Israel of Queens Valley, strives to pass the spark of Torah from generation to generation. Rabbi Steinberg took note of the story of a Bronx woman and her young son who, many years ago, happened upon a bazaar held at the Young Israel’s 77th Avenue premises. Rabbi Steinberg’s father, Reb Alex Steinberg z”l, an astute baal t’filah and lover of Judaism, probed this woman as to where her son went to yeshivah. Perplexed, the woman replied that her son was too young to attend yeshivah and hoped to abandon the conversation. The senior Steinberg was not one to quit, and he persisted on the line of questioning, hoping to reveal the yeshivah the young mother had in mind for her son. “I’m close with the Kosonier Rebbe; I will seek his guidance,” she stammered, referring to the revered Rabbi Meshilem Feish Rottenberg zt”l of the Bronx. The quick-witted Reb Alex retorted, “No problem; Rabbi Rottenberg is my friend,” and dialed Rabbi Menachem Rottenberg of YCQ immediately. Following a short conversation, Rabbi Rottenberg took the word of Rabbi Steinberg’s father and enrolled the boy into YCQ’s first grade program. This young boy became a respected Torah educator.
Dr. Alex Weingarten, a former student and parent at YCQ, recalls vividly how the rabbi took the mitzvah of bikur cholim to the next level by traveling out to a Brooklyn hospital to pay his father a visit. “My father never forgot the kindness of the rabbi taking from his busy schedule to visit a hospital-bound yeshivah parent.” On a personal note, Dr. Weingarten chose a class graduation trip to the 1968 Montreal World’s Fair as his most touching memory, where Rabbi Rottenberg taught the children to respect all denominations, noting how the group thanked the bus driver and hotel staff. His wife, Mrs. Meryl Weingarten, gives Rabbi Rottenberg credit for the current robust student body of nearly 1,000 children, forever changing the Jewish map of Queens in a post-World War II world.
YCQ dinner chairperson Mrs. Reize Sipzner remembers Rabbi Rottenberg as an exemplary leader and role model for YCQ for over 50 years. “Rabbi Rottenberg’s financial and operational achievements have created a durable foundation for future YCQ generations. Rabbi Rottenberg’s love for education and our students has left a lasting impression on me and taught me many important lessons about public service. Our work together on numerous dinner campaigns was particularly meaningful to me,” said Sipzner.
Daniel Goldschmiedt spent 30 years working beside Rabbi Rottenberg, during which he was instrumental in designing both YCQ’s main building and subsequently the junior high school. “With his keen ability in knowing the functional and educational needs of YCQ, Rabbi Rottenberg assisted me greatly in developing the program that would shape my final designs. With much devotion, Rabbi Rottenberg showed great foresight and had the ability to combine quality with economy.” The Goldschmiedts’ bond to YCQ grew as their children attended and graduated YCQ, and as Daniel’s wife Tzerel served the Yeshiva as a beloved dance instructor for 27 years.
Ellen Orlanski, a current YCQ teacher, noted Rabbi Rottenberg’s attention to detail, especially within the classroom. “To me, he personified YCQ. He was a man of strong convictions and stood by what he believed. It is thanks to him that our school continues to thrive. I very much respected him.”
In 1991, Yeshiva Education for Special Students (YESS!) was founded by Mrs. Neva Goldstein Hellman, thanks to Rabbi Rottenberg’s encouragement and commitment to help give every child a chance for a bright future by mainstreaming children into YCQ’s regular program wherever possible.
Rabbi Mark Landsman, current principal of YCQ, recalls going on a few building walkthroughs with Rabbi Rottenberg and watching as he basked in the fruits of his labor. “We recognize and appreciate all Rabbi Rottenberg did to build the Yeshiva and maintain Jewish continuity in Queens.”
In the fall of 1990, the YCQ Board of Trustees appointed Rabbi Yaakov Lonner as the Yeshiva’s administrator. Rabbi Lonner worked alongside Rabbi Rottenberg for 12 years until Rabbi Rottenberg’s retirement in 2002, at which time he was appointed executive director. He continues to follow and build upon Rabbi Rottenberg’s legacy.
During his retirement in Lakewood, New Jersey, Rabbi Rottenberg continued to build Torah education by facilitating the construction of two modern buildings for the Bais Faige girls’ school, among other educational projects with which he was involved.
Rabbi Rottenberg is survived by his two sons Reb Yossi and Reb Aron, and his two daughters Mrs. Dena Feldman and Mrs. Simi Lonner. Rabbi Rottenberg’s wisdom and strength guided a strong community, and his ability to see far ahead of his time enabled many hundreds of Jewish children to continue in Hashem’s path.
By Shabsie Saphirstein