The Chazzan Upstages the Singer at HTC’s 97th Anniversary Dinner

The chazzan upstages the singer at HTC’s 97th Anniversary Dinner

December 16, 2019

For an organization nearly a century old, Hebrew Theological College looked quick on its feet at its 97th anniversary dinner.

HTC pulled several surprises out of its hat at its December 3 annual banquet with nearly 500 people in attendance. The highlights started with surprising Dr. Avi and Deena Stein, the Distinguished Leadership honorees, by flying in their son Jacob from Israel for the dinner. Jacob then surprised the audience with a quick siyum on Masseches Sukkah.

The Steins were honored for their efforts to help strengthen Fasman Yeshiva High School, including donating video equipment for the student lounge, participating in several key committees and the “Light up the Night” committee, and helping initiate and sponsor FYHS’ first-ever participation in Yeshiva University’s Red Sarachek basketball tournament in March 2019, among their other contributions.

“Whether it’s giving their time and counsel, or giving financially very quietly, they really put their time and money, and to a large degree their reputation, behind the effort to help HTC and Fasman Yeshiva move forward,” said HTC Co-Chairman Brian Levinson of the Steins.

“Avi and Deena Stein don’t just point out problems,” said HTC CEO Rabbi Schuman. “They come up with solutions, and they implement them.”

The dinner was chaired by Dr. Shimi and Zehava Krauss, Daniel and Jessica Lefton, Yossi Meystel, and Michael and Dr. Yael Zahtz. Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Avraham Friedman gave a D’var Torah to kick off the evening, followed by remarks from Touro College and University System President Dr. Alan Kadish, who also serves as HTC president.

The evening featured musical entertainment from Shulem Lemmer, a rising star whose debut album, The Perfect Dream, marks the first signing of an Orthodox Chasidic singer to a major record label. Lemmer, whose musical influences range from chazzanim to Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Andrea Bocelli, and Josh Groban, did not disappoint, singing everything from the national anthems to Mimkomcha and tunes from the Yomim Noraim davening. He also delivered a 30-minute kumzitz set after the banquet, joining Fasman Yeshiva students in lively dancing.

But despite the big-name entertainment in the house, it was another chazzan—HTC Vice President of Administration Rabbi Sender Kutner, receiving the Lev V’Nefesh Award together with his wife, Tova—who truly stole the show.

Rabbi Schuman set the stage when, in recognition of Rabbi Kutner’s nearly four decades of service and his upcoming December 31 retirement, he presented the Kutners with two-round trip tickets and accommodations for a 10-day trip to Israel.

Following the presentation, Rabbi Kutner delivered heartfelt remarks, thanking current and past colleagues and community members who helped him along the way. He also shared the emotions that come with straddling the fence between having to pay the bills while maintaining compassion for families who cannot pay their tuitions.

“Sitting on the other side of the desk, I have heard and seen many families with true problems. I have felt their despair and hopelessness,” said Rabbi Kutner. “The Yeshiva truly goes out of its way to try and help families in need.”

Still devotedly serving the Yeshiva even with retirement only weeks away, Rabbi Kutner then made a request of the crowd that could only be described as, well, vintage Rabbi Kutner—asking families to make their best-faith effort to help the Yeshiva.

“The Yeshiva is a needy child,” said Rabbi Kutner. “It is only through your help that we can exist and continue in the sacred work we do. Please don’t forget the Yeshiva even after your children have left.”

Best known among HTC students for decades as the Yeshiva’s inspiring chazzan on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, Rabbi Kutner then closed his remarks by telling of a family who had three sons in a cheder during the Great Depression era. He related that one Friday when the husband came home to get ready for Shabbos, he didn’t put on his usual Shabbos clothes and raced out the door to shul. When he returned home, he explained to his wife that during the week the cheder said it had been a few months since he paid any tuition, and that in order for his children to stay in school he needed to make some payments. So the husband pawned his only suit so his children could continue their Torah education.

That husband, it turns out, was Rabbi Kutner’s grandfather.

“We don’t ask for heroics,” said Rabbi Kutner. “We are just asking that people please be fair, and know their priorities.”

Finally, Rabbi Kutner, whose own children attended and graduated from various HTC schools, thanked his wife Tova for her support and understanding throughout his many long nights at the Yeshiva; he said she patiently often asked if he would be coming home for dinner or eating at the Yeshiva.

“Well, let me tell you now,” he said, addressing Tova, “I will be home tomorrow, b’ezer Hashem.”

A truly devoted husband and father. And a truly devoted servant of HTC for four decades, with all of his—and her—heart and soul. Their Lev V’Nefesh.