Travails and Conquests: The Life of Dr. Leon A. Reich by Yaakov Kornreich is much more than a memoir primarily of interest to friends and members of the Reich family. It bears witness to historical events and accomplishments in which Leon and his wife, Rosalie, played a significant part.
The biography of Dr. Reich—may he live and be well—spans three critical eras of modern Jewish history. First were the final years of pre-World War II Europe, as Jews were faced with the life-or-death decision of whether to stay or flee in the face of the gathering Nazi storm. The second covers the period during which the fast-growing Jewish community in Palestine became the newborn State of Israel, and then waged a desperate and ultimately successful fight for its survival. The third is the story of the post-war renaissance of America’s Orthodox community and how its dedicated lay leaders founded and built some of today’s leading Jewish communal and educational institutions.
These momentous events are presented through the eyes of a man who moved as a child with his parents and family from their relatively comfortable situation in Poland a few years before the war to face the challenges and hardships of starting a new life in Palestine. We follow Leon as he grows up on his family’s dairy farm on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Starting as a youth volunteer, Leon was a member of the first unit in the Haganah to be called up for combat duty in November 1947.
Leon viewed the War of Independence from a soldier’s perspective. Faced with a moral dilemma, he refused to obey his unit’s orders to go to the beachfront and open fire on the Altalena, an Irgun ship that was filled with Holocaust survivors and arms to defend the country against the Arab invaders.
Eventually, the Israeli army recognized Leon’s unique technical skills and put him in charge of a special unit that modified, repaired, and improved the aiming devices on the weapons and equipment used on the front lines. During this period, Leon demonstrated the creativity and imagination that were to mark his professional and communal leadership and his activities for the next 60 years.
After the war ended, the army delayed releasing him because it wanted him to help develop the Israeli defense industry. But Reich did not want a career in the military. He refused the army’s offer to make him an officer and demanded his discharge so that he could fulfill his own career ambitions. He wanted a degree in optometry from the highly regarded program at Columbia University in New York City. To meet the program’s entry requirements, he planned to take the required courses at a community college in California, where he would live and support himself while staying with family members in the Los Angeles area.
That is why Leon Reich found himself getting off the long flight from Tel Aviv at Idlewild (now JFK) Airport in New York on September 9, 1950, the day before Yom Kippur. Waiting for him at the gate was his father’s cousin Mrs. Esther Richman, who invited Leon to spend Yom Kippur with her family at their home in Flatbush before continuing to California.
Mrs. Richman was accompanied by her daughter Rosalie, a Brooklyn College student. She and Leon quickly developed a friendship. Leon’s invitation to stay was extended to Sukkot and beyond, and he missed his first semester of college classes. But by the time he finally left for California, a lifelong bond had been formed with Rosalie. The two were married the next summer and returned to live in the Richman home in Flatbush when Leon was ready to continue his studies at Columbia University.
After obtaining his license, Leon started a neighborhood optometry practice in the Richman home, specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of eye conditions, rather than selling eyeglasses. He became involved in the development of gas-permeable contact lenses, a more practical and healthier vision correction than the then-newly introduced Bausch & Lomb soft contact lenses. He also developed The Learning Disabilities Treatment Center, a multi-disciplinary approach to diagnosing and treating students with learning difficulties. In both cases, Leon had to battle the entrenched establishment to gain a hearing for his new ideas.
Leon and Rosalie sank deep roots in the community. They bought a home of their own and sent their three children to the Yeshivah of Flatbush. Leon and Rosalie were part of a group of religious parents who successfully fought to establish strict Orthodox standards of conduct for the Yeshivah of Flatbush’s lay leaders. When some of the school’s non-Orthodox donors stopped giving, Leon organized fundraising projects that enabled the yeshiva to finance its operations.
In the 1960s, Dr. Reich launched an ambitious effort to expand the Midrasha, an advanced-studies program for alumni of the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, into an accredited upper two-year Jewish college. Later, working with Dr. Bernard Lander, Leon’s plan evolved into the concept for Touro College. Dr. Reich was instrumental in enabling Touro to receive its charter from the New York State Department of Higher Education in 1970.
In 1987, Reich was seriously injured in a mugging attack outside his home. After his miraculous recovery, he became determined to show his gratitude by applying the practical expertise in construction that he had gained in a side career as a small real-estate investor and developer to meeting the needs of the Jewish community. Among those projects, he personally supervised the construction of the attractive new building of the Young Israel of Avenue J in Flatbush. Dr. Reich was also a driving force behind the establishment of a badly needed regional emergency medical center, which is located in the West Bank town of Efrat, where his daughter and her family now live.
In the meantime, Rosalie earned a Ph.D. from New York University and became a full professor at the College of Staten Island’s Department of English, Speech, and World Literature. In the early 1990s, Rosalie was asked to serve as national president of Emunah Women. With Leon’s support and encouragement, Rosalie used her communication skills to vigorously defend the rights of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and to rebut supporters of the Oslo peace process in the media and international forums.
Travails and Conquests paints a vivid picture of the times and Jewish communities in which Leon and Rosalie Reich lived, illuminating them for all generations while offering their unique perspective on issues with which the Jewish community still struggles. v
Travails and Conquests: The Life of Dr. Leon A. Reich is sold in paperback at www.amazon.com/Travails-Conquests-Life-Leon-Reich/dp/149102075X. All proceeds go to the Young Israel of Avenue J in Brooklyn.