Rhoda Poplack Mendelowitz of Teaneck, who died on October 29, hadn’t taught at the Yavneh Academy since she retired in the late 1990s, but you’d never know that she wasn’t there still, her son, niece, and nephew all reported.
“As soon as they heard that you were related to Miss Rhoda, everyone would say that they’d had her as a teacher, or their children had,” her nephew Moshe Horn said. “She’d taught hundreds of kids. She was like a football coach, very intense, larger than life.”
“If you said, ‘I am related to Miss Rhoda,’ you suddenly became special,” Mr. Horn’s sister, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser of Franklin Lakes, said. (Dr. Prouser is the executive vice president of the Academy for the Jewish Religion in Yonkers; she is married to Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey.) “There was always someone in the room who had been in her class, or whose kid had, and they all loved her.
“It was unusual. She made every kid and every parent feel that they were important. She didn’t let things go. She believed that every child was important. Every kid mattered.”
Ms. Mendelowitz believed so strongly in education, her family hypothesized, because she had to earn it for herself. She was born in 1929, the youngest of four children in a proudly Orthodox family, in Seattle. Her father, Rabbi Abraham Poplack, who had been a student at the rigorous Slobodka Yeshiva in Lithuania, “was responsible for starting one of the first yeshivot,” her younger son, Dr. Alan Mendelowitz, said. Her brothers went to Brooklyn to go to school, and eventually the family — which included her sister, Pearl Poplack, who went on to marry Isaac Goldin and was the mother of Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood — all moved east. But, as Dr. Mendelowitz said, “my mother was absolutely beautiful, and her father told her, ‘You don’t need to go to college. You’ll have no trouble finding a husband.’”
She did find a husband — Rabbi Samuel Mendelowitz — and had two children, Mark, a lawyer who died of cancer in 2012, and Alan, a psychiatrist — but she also ferociously wanted an education. When her children were young, she earned a bachelor’s degree and then went on to earn three masters’ degrees. In the mid- 1960s, at the same time that she continued to pursue her education, she started teaching at Yavneh. In time, with her early childhood credentials in hand, she “created and directed the early childhood program there,” Dr. Prouser said.
“I think this was a way of proving herself,” Dr. Mendelowitz said. “For many years, she was a rebbetzen.” Her husband had been a pulpit rabbi from the 1950s until 1973; the last synagogue he headed was in Ridgefield Park, where the family then lived. His career traced the relationship between the Orthodox and Conservative worlds as they hardened the borders between them, which once had been far more porous. Rabbi Mendelowitz, an Orthodox rabbi, led a Conservative congregation until the movement’s decisions about egalitarianism propelled him out. That’s when the family moved to Teaneck. And that’s when Rebbetzen Mendelowitz became Miss Rhoda.
Ms. Mendelowitz had firm opinions on everything, Mr. Horn said, “and she was never afraid to weigh in on anything. “She was goofy and funny, into health and fitness well before anyone else was. She was jogging in the 1960s.” She eventually developed Parkinson’s — the disease that killed her — “and I think that her Parkinson’s had the longest course ever. Twenty-three years. I think her fitness level was a major reason for that.”
“She was an interesting mix of very serious, very direct, and also wacky and very funny,” Dr. Prouser said. “I think that’s what made her such a very good early childhood teacher. She could think deeply about what she was doing, and also sit on the floor, and march around waving her arms and singing silly songs.
“She had real challenges in her life, and she was strong and dignified.”
A story that her aunt had told her decades before stuck with Dr. Prouser, and resonated more and more as she grew older and understood more, she added. “She told me that she was in contract negotiations at Yavneh, and she said, ‘I really wanted risers on the stairs’ — at the back of the stairs, so that people, particularly little kids, wouldn’t fall through them. ‘So I put it in my contract that they had to do that.
“I said, ‘Really! You really want to do that? You really can do that?’ And she said, ‘Ora, I do that at every contract renewal. I think of something I want for the school.’”
Dr. Prouser also remembers that her aunt took her shopping before she started her first job as a teacher, at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “She bought me clothes, because she said she was worried that I would go to teach in jeans and a T-shirt. It was her way of saying, ‘I am proud of what you do.’
“She always used her full self,” Dr. Prouser concluded.
“My mother lived by principles — Judaism, family, and having a shem tov — a good name,” her son said. “You had to think about the way people saw you. Miss Rhoda — that was her shem tov.”
Her mark on Yavneh was indelible, he added. “One of the principals there said, ‘I have been there 20 years, I did not overlap with your mother, and there has not been a week when her name did not come up,’” he reported.
He told a story that he had heard from two parents about two children — the same story, he said; his mother might have worked the same miracles more times. “Two educators who both had their kids in the schools both said, ‘My kid won’t go to school today.’ My mother asked to put them on the phone, and talked to them. Both times, the kid got off the phone smiling — beaming — and they never had any problems not wanting to go to school again.”
Dr. Mendelowitz has no idea what his mother said to each child — most likely something different to each, because her guiding principle was that each child is different, and is to be treated as a unique and individual person, a complete one-off. “She felt responsible for every family, to every kid,” he said.
Rabbi Goldin “always knew, from the time I was a child, was that my aunt really was an extraordinary person,” he said. “She had the ability to make each day extraordinary for the people around her as well.
“My childhood memory of her was of someone who was very put together,” he continued. “Very professional. But you know how childhood memories often are not accurate.
“When I moved to Bergen County, in 1984, I began hearing about my aunt. She really was a powerhouse. In the end, my childhood memories ended up being true. They ended up being who she really was.
“It’s funny,” Rabbi Goldin added. “When her children and grandchildren talked about her, they said she was a short lady. Petite. I was surprised — I never thought of her as short, because she was such a presence. When she walked into a room, she took it over. Talking about her as short — it just did not compute.”
Moshe Horn tells a story about his aunt. “I must have been in seventh or eighth grade, and I remember that I was at home. She called my mother — they were sisters-in-law, and very close. My mother wasn’t home, but I was.
“I remember that it had snowed, and my friends had gone sledding, but I hadn’t come. I had homework to do. I told her that, and I remember her yelling at me. She said, ‘What’s wrong with you? Go out and go sledding! In 20 years you won’t remember anything about your homework, but you’ll remember being with your friends, on your sled.”
His mother could do just about anything, Dr. Mendelowitz said. “She taught me how to throw a baseball, how to hit a baseball, how to ride a bike, how to drive a car,” he said. “She played baseball. She also taught me how to bake and cook.
“She loved art, music, style, Broadway,” he continued. “She had no fear. She was tough as nails. And everything she did was out of love.”
Ms. Mendelowitz’s husband, Rabbi Samuel Mendelowitz, who became a marital therapist after he left the pulpit, died in 2008. Her survivors include her son, Alan, her daughter-in-law, Francine, and her grandchildren, Rachel, Dylan, Elana, David, Joshua, and Alyssa. They also include her nieces and nephews, and the children and parents whose lives she touched and made better.