Lee Lasher of Englewood believes very strongly in the power of the Jewish community.
Yeah yeah yeah, of course he does. He is the new president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Doesn’t he have to say that?
Well, no, he doesn’t, or at least not the way he says it. It’s not pro forma when he talks about the enormous difference that the Jewish community has made in his life, and about the debt he feels he owes it. He really means it.
Mr. Lasher had a difficult childhood; his unlikely path from there to the happy life he leads now was affected significantly by the community.
He was born in 1963, and “grew up in Brooklyn” — in Coney Island, the particularly mythic edge of a mythic borough — “to a totally unaffiliated family,” he said. His grandparents all were born in this country and all of them grew up on the Lower East Side, and so did his parents, Howard and Doreen. “My father’s father, Louis Lasher, died when my father was 3, and my father grew up on the corner of Suffolk and Houston, with nothing.” His mother, Ida, worked in the garment district.
Mr. Lasher’s mother’s father, Harry Botkowsky, “was a war hero,” Mr. Lasher said. “He fought in Italy; he landed in Anzio. He got a silver star and a bronze star.” He also had an escape story; “he was hiding in a house, on an upper floor, and the Nazis walked in.” They were downstairs, and he was able to get out.
But what we don’t hear about many war veterans, heroes or not, is that the war scarred them. “It affected a lot of people in that generation,” Mr. Lasher said. “When my grandfather came back from the war, he was a tough guy.”
He and his wife, Sylvia, “lived in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn — and he always was one of the country’s leading airplane model makers.” (The New York Times wrote about Mr. Botkowsky and his hobby — he made the planes and then flew them, and it demanded both intellectual and manual dexterity, because those planes were very complicated — in 1991.)
Howard Lasher and Doreen Botkowsky married and had two sons, Lee and his younger brother, Drew. Then “they had a very acrimonious divorce,” Lee said. It affected everyone. All four of the Lasher boys’ grandparents lived in the same apartment building. It had three wings; the elder Lashers lived in one, the Botkowskys in another, the younger Lashers in the third. Until the divorce, the two sets of grandparents had been cordial to each other, if not actively friendly, but after that they actively detested each other.
Neither his grandparents nor his parents were Jewishly affiliated, Mr. Lasher said. “I grew up having bacon and eggs in my grandparents’ house.” But “my parents didn’t want to send me to public school in Brooklyn.”
His father was a stockbroker, so the family had options. “He asked a family friend — I always call that person, who I don’t know, my guardian angel — where he should send his kid to school, and this guy said, ‘Send him to the Yeshiva of Flatbush. It’s like a private school.’ And my father said, ‘But we don’t observe anything.’ And the man said, ‘It’s okay. He’ll learn. It’s a great school.’”
At first, he and Drew lived with their mother, “but she got remarried, to a very nice Italian guy. And we had a Christmas tree. I had a Christmas tree and I went to the Yeshiva of Flatbush!
“It was very weird. Kids couldn’t come to my house to eat.”
But it was okay. He had friends; “luckily, I was always good at sports. That was good for me,” he said.
The Lasher kids moved back and forth between their parents; both “had issues” that made the moves seem wise, Lee said. “From the time I was in seventh grade on, my father lived in Lincoln Towers,” the large apartment complex on the southern end of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
When he lived in Manhattan, Mr. Lasher went to school at Ramaz, the Orthodox day school on the Upper East Side.
“I went back and forth between these two schools four times,” he said.
Both schools were important to his development. Ramaz was crucial. “I would not be the person I am today without Ramaz, without Rabbi Lookstein,” its longtime principal, “and without many others there. For whatever reason, people, thank God, took a liking to me. They knew my story wasn’t a typical one.”
But his time there wasn’t trouble-free. “I almost got kicked out,” Mr. Lasher said. “I was a wild kid. A tough kid. A troublemaker. I was good at sports, but I didn’t do my homework. I was a terrible student.
“In I think eighth grade, there was a kid who made fun of my mother. It was weird — I don’t know of another kid whose parents were divorced.”
This kid, the one who made “derogatory comments about my mother — he was bullying me,” Mr. Lasher continued. “They didn’t call it that then, but that’s what it was.
“But I was a hockey player. So I turned around and punched him in the nose. So of course I got sent to Rabbi Lookstein’s office.
“I literally remember it to this day, being in his office. I was a little kid, and I was sent to the principal’s office and there were three rabbis there, and the three of them were like the Supreme Court. Or maybe the Heavenly Court.
“So Rabbi Lookstein started lecturing me, and then finally he said to me, ‘Lee, what are we going to do with you? If we kick you out of Ramaz, what will you do?’
“I had a little bit of a sense of humor, and I said, ‘I guess I can become a boxer.’”
Mr. Lasher was not a big boy. He didn’t look like a boxer.
“Rabbi Lookstein cracked up, and he said to the two other rabbis, ‘Leave him with me.’ And he was such a big rabbi, such a busy person, and he sat there for what seemed like a really long time.
“He talked to me about values, and about having ethics, and about making the right choices. Instead of lecturing me and yelling at me, he told me that he understood what I did, but that I was wrong.
“That always has stuck with me. That’s why ethics and values matter.”
Someone else who took an interest in Lee, and whose interest changed his life, was Rabbi Mayer Schiller, who is an unusual figure in all of the many worlds he frequents. He’s a baal teshuvah, a chasid from Monsey who identifies as both Skver and Rachmastrivka; he is an author, a maggid shiur at Yeshiva University High School, and was a hockey coach at Ramaz.
Lee had spent many summers playing ice hockey in Canada; when he was a junior at Ramaz, in 1979, Rabbi Schiller started a floor hockey league. “I showed up for practice that year; I was pretty good, and I made the team.”
Religiously, “I was coming from nothing,” he said — a bit of an understatement, because by then he’d spent a few years at Flatbush and Ramaz, but still it was true, relatively speaking. “Rabbi Schiller was the first religious person I could also talk to about Shakespeare, Vince Lombardi, Torah, gemara, the Rolling Stones, Greek philosophy…
“It was eye-opening. I thought you couldn’t be cool and religious, that you couldn’t be worldly and religious, but he was.” The two became so close that Rabbi Schiller officiated at Mr. Lasher’s wedding. There’s only a 10-year age difference between them, which seemed gaping when they met — Lee was 17 then, and Rabbi Schiller was 27 — but has shrunk miraculously since then. They’re still friends. “He is a great speaker, a great intellectual, a wonderful guy,” Mr. Lasher said.
Another great discovery that Mr. Lasher made at Ramaz was Shabbat — not its theoretical existence, which he did learn about, but its real-life joys. “I started dating a girl in Ramaz, and her family was so wonderful,” he said. “They invited me for Shabbat, and I saw what a beautiful thing it is, what a beautiful way of life.”
He didn’t have Shabbat at either of his parents’ homes. His mother wasn’t practicing Judaism. His father — “he worked on Wall Street,” Mr. Lasher said . “He is a hard-working, dedicated guy. I got my work ethic from him. But we ate together maybe once a week. We had a housekeeper. I basically raised myself.”
So when he was exposed to a Jewish family living a traditional Jewish life, “I said to myself that I want to become observant,” he said. “I am attracted to this lifestyle.
“So I took it upon myself to do it, when I was a senior in high school.
“I told my father that I was doing it. He said, ‘okay, let’s make the house kosher.’ That lasted for about a week. So I was okay, we’ll get paper plates.
“My father started telling friends, ‘My son is studying to be a rabbi.’ People would say to me, ‘Lee, you’re becoming a rabbi?’”
The answer to that was no. But he was becoming a modern Orthodox Jew.
In 1981, before it was fashionable to do so, Mr. Lasher went to Israel for a gap year. “Out of 81 kids in my grade in Ramaz, only 10 kids went,” he said. But he went to BMT, Beit Midrash L’Torah, “and it was a great place to go, and it was so formative to me,” he said. “I had the most unbelievable rabbis.
“One of them, who sadly passed away, Reb Benny Eisner, was a person who loved every Jew. He taught that you should love every Jew. He was a disciple of Rav Kook, who taught that we should love the land of Israel, that we should know it, and that we should be proud of it.
“There were so many rabbis!
“That year in Israel made me a Zionist. It gave me a passion for learning our tradition, for Torat Yisrael, eretz Yisrael, and lev Yisrael. It really was a beautiful experience.”
When he got back home, Mr. Lasher started at McGill University in Montreal. He’d applied and been accepted there before his gap year. It seemed like a natural choice; he’d spent his summers in Canada and loved hockey. But now, as an observant Jew, he found his options limited. “I was mostly hanging out with Chabad,” he said. “I was pretty isolated.”
That was the year of Sabra and Shatila, the massacre of civilians in a refugee camp in Lebanon. The killers were Lebanese, but the IDF was considered at least in some part responsible as well. “I was on Sherbrooke Street,” more or less Montreal’s Fifth Avenue, “wearing a kippah, and an older man came over and started screaming at me, ‘Shame on you Jews! Shame on you Jews!’ So I transferred to Yeshiva University, and I graduated from there.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Lasher had grown up working for his father. “He was one of these old-school guys,” he said. “Very tough.
When he began to work for his father during a school vacation, “The workers started at 7:30, so I had to start at 7. I was 14. I didn’t know how to do anything.”
But it was good, solid training. By the time he graduated from YU, “I had offers from training programs at Bear Sterns, at Lehmann, at Hutton.” That was the time of the programs that would plop new graduates onto the conveyor belts that led to hugely lucrative jobs. “But I heard from YU about a company called Amlon Metals. And I went to the interview.”
That was in 1985. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” Mr. Lasher said.
Amlon was “a tiny European company — Amlon comes from Amsterdam and London,” Mr. Lasher said. A Jewish family started it right after World War II ended. He and his first business partner, Robert Koppel, took over the tiny, flailing New York office, and it took off. “Long story short, we were successful, and basically we bought the company and we repositioned it from metal trading to environmental services. We were doing a lot with industrial waste from oil and chemical companies. All of these companies produced waste. We were becoming environmentally aware and green, and we saw that the world was becoming a smaller place, even before the internet.
“So we repositioned the company, and in 2003 Robert and I bought it from the Europeans, and we’ve been working in environmental services and recycling ever since.” It’s now called Amlon Services.
Amlon has expanded; there now are five partners. “They’re all great guys,” and they’re all involved in the Jewish community.
Mr. Lasher’s home life has been happy as well. He and Cheryl Zimmerman, who grew up in Teaneck, got married in 1986. Ms. Lasher is a school psychologist in Dumont. Lee and Cheryl have three children. Gabriel, the oldest, is married to Jake Moskovitz. The family just moved to Englewood with their baby, 16-month-old Noah Lev. “He is a beautiful kid with great curly hair who calls me Poppa,” Mr. Lasher reports with clear joy. The Lashers’ son David lives on the West Side, and their son Jake, a college sophomore, “is now at home trying to figure out the virtual life. He’s become a great chef and bartender during covid.”
The family’s been in Bergen County for decades now. “We lived in Forest Hills for a couple of years, but we were always sure that we would make Bergen County our home,” Mr. Lasher said. They moved first to Fort Lee, where they were attracted both by the town houses and their jaw-dropping city views, and by Rabbi Neil Winkler, who headed the Young Israel of Fort Lee then.
After seven years, though, “we moved to Englewood, in 1996, and we joined Ahavath Torah,” the city’s modern Orthodox shul, “right away. It has been such a formative place for me. I’m very close to Rabbi Goldin” — that’s Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, who made aliyah in 2017 — “and the quality of people at Ahavath Torah sometimes just astounds me.
“The doctors, the lawyers, the other professionals; the people who start political or social organizations; the amount of tzedakah they do, the Israel emergency campaign they run. They are wonderful people.”
He was particularly influenced by Gail Billing, who was its president when he and Cheryl joined. “She is a wonderful person,” he said. “And so many Englewood people are! We have more and more friends; there is a great Saturday morning learning group that we go to before synagogue. We drink coffee and learn gemara. The associate rabbi taught that class, and it gave me a chance to get close to him.”
He’s still very close to that one-time assistant rabbi, now Ahavath Torah’s senior rabbi, Chaim Poupko.
During that time, Mr. Lasher joined Ahavath Torah’s board; from 2011 to 2014 he was the shul’s president.
“A lot of people like to joke about being shul president,” he said. “About how difficult it can be. Yeah, it had its moments. Yes, people can be difficult. But for the most part, it was so empowering and impactful. We had some amazing programs, like bringing Rabbi Sacks to speak.” That’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks — by now Baron Sacks, but Rabbi Lord then — who had just retired as the chief rabbi of Great Britain.
At some point close to the scheduled end of his presidency, Howard Charish, who lived in Englewood then and was the executive director of what then was called the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey (and has evolved into the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey) “started talking to me about federation,” Mr. Lasher said. That was at least in part in reaction to Mr. Lasher’s story, “which I always am very open about, because it made me who I am,” he said. “And then Zvi Marans” — the pediatric cardiologist who lives in Teaneck and was the president of the federation starting in 2013 — “asked me to get involved.
Mr. Lasher also had been part of the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, an 18-month initiative, founded and funded by the Berrie Foundation and by the federation, that trained Jewish leaders, choosing from a pool of young-ish people who’d already shown their commitment and involvement.
“That was wonderful, eye-opening, and enlightening for me,” he said. “One of the sad things about the community is that we have our own little silos in it. We have a huge Jewish community in Bergen County, but it is hard to interact with each other because people are so busy. You hang out with people in your own synagogue, particularly if you are modern Orthodox. Maybe you see other types of Jews at the JCC, but that’s it.” And there isn’t much time to engage with them if you’re there to work out, listen to a speaker, or take a class.
“In the Berrie program, you see other types of Jews, dedicated, passionate, smart, fun people from across the county, Reform and Conservative, from Emanu-El or Beth Rishon or Emeth.
“Ahavath Torah is a big place. In a big synagogue, a small group of people do most of the work. I would ask people to volunteer, and they’d say, ‘No. I am too busy.’ Well, so am I. Everyone is busy. But I would see people from other communities, who didn’t have the same ritual practices that I did, but who are equally passionate and dedicated, and who are working nonstop for the community.
“That really broadened my view. It got me more involved in the big picture of the community. It got me more involved in the federation.”
That involvement has led, step by step, to his assuming the presidency this July.
Although he loved being his shul’s president, and didn’t flinch from the workload, he was heartened to hear from past federation presidents that “this is not like being the shul president. You don’t have to do most of the work. The staff here is wonderful. It is a great partnership.”
Mr. Lasher started naming names, beginning with the federation’s executive director, Jason Shames, but stopped when he realized that the list is too long and the danger of leaving someone off is too high. “They are all amazing,” Mr. Lasher said. “It’s like an all-star team. And all the people on the board, and the officers — they’re all dedicated. It’s a really exciting place to be, to work for, and to be able to have the impact that we have in the community.”
It seems that months into a pandemic is not likely to be the best time to take over as the lay leader of a community nonprofit agency, but “in a way it’s been going better than I expected it would,” Mr. Lasher said.
“We had the emergency campaign, and we raised more money than people thought we’d raise. More than our goal. Our virtual programming has been very successful, and we had a program with Bari Weiss,” the writer who until recently was a New York Times columnist, and whose controversial departure lit up the national conversation about cancel culture, “where there were 100 people on the Zoom.
“We’ve given out food in Teaneck, working with the OU. We packed backpacks for students. We bought temperature scanners to allow schools to open. There has been one thing after the other.” (See box for a longer list of JFNNJ programs.)
“You get to see how much of an impact we make. We raise all this money, and you really see the impact that we are having on the community. It has been very empowering.”
Mr. Lasher has some goals for his time in office. “Of course covid relief is the first thing that we are thinking about, whatever that entails,” he said. But there’s more. “Because of who I am, I think about community building and Jewish unity.
“Because of my background, I pretty much cover all of it — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Christmas tree. I really believe that we have more in common than what divides us. I believe that it is important to engage with and embrace all parts of the Jewish community.”
His goals also include “combatting anti-Semitism and hate. Strengthening Jewish security sadly has moved up on the list because of all the attacks and threats. The federation now has a full-time security office.
“Also, Jewish identity and learning is very important. You have to know who you are.
“I have a home in Jerusalem,” he continued. “I usually go there three, four, maybe five times a year, and spend Passover there. I hope that soon we can go back to going there. Israel protects Jews around the world. When a Jew is hurting in France or Ukraine or South America, it should hurt us here in New Jersey too, and we should try to help.”
He also is concerned with the rest of the world. “We need a strong relationship with other interfaith communities, and with the Black community. They are aware of our problems with anti-Semitism and with the Black Lives Matter movement. We should be honest. We should talk about it. Of course racism can’t be tolerated — including racism against the Jewish community.
“The work of the JCRC” — the Jewish Community Relations Council — “is critical right now. We want to build real relationships. It’s not just about them helping us.”
Lee Lasher looks forward to working with all of the Jewish community as the new president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
During this pandemic, generous donors have allowed the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey to help in these ways in 2020:
1. $200,000+ allocated to buy personal protective equipment for its beneficiaries.
2. $25,000 was sent to the Paterson Hebrew Free Loan Association for economic relief.
3. 100 meals were provided to front line workers at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck.
4. $50,000 went to Jewish Family and Children’s Services to pay for two extra case workers.
5. $50,000 was sent to Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey for emergency assistance (rent, utilities).
6. $40,000 went to Jewish Family and Children’s Services to restock the food pantry.
7. $32,600 went to the Kaplen JCC of the Palisades to deliver meals to seniors who normally participate in the center’s meal program.
8. $9,000 was distributed for basic supplies for families and seniors in its sister city in Israel, Nahariya.
9. $23,500 was given to the Jewish Associated for Developmental Disabilities to provide special seder meals and to sanitize its facilities.
10. Negotiated community group purchasing opportunities for PPE and materials required for our beneficiaries to reopen (physical space dividers, masks, sanitizer, temperature scanners, etc.).
11. 110,000 meals have been distributed to isolated and hungry seniors and families in northern New Jersey.
12. $200,000 was allocated for fighting anti-Semitism in our community.
13. $28,000 was allocated to fund PJ Library.
14. $30,000 allocated for Bnai Brith Youth Organization’s regional outreach director.
15. $34,500 was allocated to fund the Onward Israel summer intern experience for teens.
16. $35,000 was allocated to fund the Scott Pazer STEM exchange program for Israeli and American high school students.
17. 1,800 backpacks filled with brand new school supplies were donated to kids in the community.
18. 8,000 pounds of food were donated to ten local food pantries.
19. $32,000 was given to Moishe House in Hoboken for post-college young adults to stay engaged in the community.
20. 40 Incentive grants were awarded through Jewish Right Start Program to families choosing a Jewish pre-school experience.