By Michele Justic
This Shabbos, Jewish children everywhere came home to their parents, proudly showing off their projects and explaining about the parashah. In Suffolk County, this included 75 children whose parents might have little or no other connection to Jewish learning, in places like Northport, Commack, Huntington, and Melville, thanks in large part to the work of one woman.
She might have seemed like a typical redheaded little old lady, yet she accomplished much and let nothing stand in her way. Whether bureaucratic regulations, financial limitations, or even cancer, Anita Kaufman proudly and determinedly faced them all and won time and again.
Her recent passing sent shockwaves among the vast number of people who counted her as a friend, mentor, and problem-solver. It was an especially great loss to her children, Andrew Kaufman of Great Neck, Ivan Kaufman (and wife Lisa) of Kings Point, Stephanie Maza of Lawrence, and Marcia Kaufman of Old Westbury, as well as nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She also leaves behind a beloved sister Betty.
Marcia described her mother as “quite a force,” saying, “For such a small person, she was so big.” Regarding all her mother achieved during her lifetime, Marcia concluded, “Her legacy speaks for itself.”
As noted in the obituary prepared by the Kaufman family, “Morris and Anita Kaufman were very active in the leadership of the Hebrew Academy of Suffolk County. Mrs. Kaufman’s involvement spanned more than 35 years. After her husband’s untimely passing in 1988, Anita was instrumental in developing the Maimonides Day School in Lake Grove in 1989. In 2004, she single-handedly established the Jewish Academy of Suffolk County and has been the main supporter since its inception.”
Why did Anita take it upon herself to found the Jewish Academy? As she explained at the 2013 JA dinner, “The real reason for a person’s success in life is how much we give of ourselves to make the world a better place. Life is short. Through our giving, we can make an eternal effect on the world.” She explained the importance of Jewish education for her own family: “I had to put them into a day school, to know who they are. You know something right was happening when all of my nine grandchildren also went to Jewish schools.”
Beyond her own family, Anita’s impact can be felt among hundreds of families in Suffolk County and beyond. The Jewish Academy began with 25 students in 2004. In this quest, and in other aspects of Jewish life in Suffolk, Anita became close friends with Rabbi Tuvia and Rebbetzin Chaya Teldon, Chabad emissaries who lead activities on Long Island and who founded and lead the Jewish Academy together. Rabbi Teldon explained in his hesped, “She had so much pleasure from knowing that she actually built a new Jewish community and she loved her visits to special events, her talks with school parents, and even board meetings, which all meant so much to her.” He recounts how “she told me once that after her visits to the school she cries, not because of what she did for the JA, but because of what she received from it. She supported the JA as if it was one of her own companies, and she always gave from the heart.”
Her reach spread beyond New York as Mrs. Kaufman eventually moved to Boca Raton, Florida. She established the beautiful Morris and Anita Kaufman Chabad Center and became a pillar of the community there, too. Sabbath meals at her house on Friday night were part of the Boca Jewish scene and Marcia details how Anita even checked herself out of the hospital to attend a candle-lighting ceremony there.
Beyond her incredible philanthropy, Anita was also a professional and a businesswoman. She was a registered nurse and held a master’s degree in social work. She wrote books on child abuse and neglect, drove an ambulance, and taught at Stony Brook’s Nursing Lab. More recently, she founded both the Anita Kaufman Family Partnership and NextLevel Venture Partners.
As almost-lifelong friends, the Teldons felt a special bond with her and describe Anita as “a unique combination of so many qualities, all rolled up into one: feisty, determined, hard-nosed, soft-hearted woman who had so much compassion and love and cared so much for so many people.” Rabbi Teldon recalls how Anita “defined herself in some ways with her principles, her politics, her morals and values.”
He laughingly remembers, “She was so outspoken that I was surprised she didn’t get herself in trouble. But she lived by a number of convictions and sayings. Some that come to mind are ‘Never burn bridges.’ ‘Always do the right thing.’ ‘Don’t be negative, be realistic.’ ‘I’m OK if you’re OK.’ And finally, ‘You can only get me once, but then watch out!’ We could write a book of Anita-isms and the down-to-earth wisdom she was always quick to share with her family, friends, and confidants. But to her it wasn’t wisdom; it was simply a way of life she learned from her parents, Morris, and the streets of the Bronx. If there was ever anybody who talked the talk and then walked the walk, it was Anita.”
Where did such passion come from? Anita was born in the Bronx in 1937 in a traditional environment. When she and her husband, Morris, moved on to raise a family in Commack, NY, the lack of Jewish options was blatant and something they could not live with. Marcia gives one example of how Anita’s determined personality operated: When Anita’s son Ivan decided to keep all the laws of yomtov rather than attend a temple that required driving to on Rosh Hashanah, Anita set up a tent in her backyard and put together a minyan–complete with sifreiTorah, a rav, and Ivan blowing shofar. Ivan has followed this path, as well, as the founder of the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck.
Rabbi Teldon summed up the thoughts of hundreds in the community when he concluded, “Anita, it’s been my honor and pleasure to know you all these years. Thank-you from the bottom of my heart for being you. We pledge to continue your legacy and continue to expand the school you dreamed of, and to enrich the lives of hundreds of Jewish families.”
To help continue Anita’s legacy, please visit www.thejewishacademy.com for donation options.