On February 13, RKYHS students heard from Yaakov Guttman, a former IDF soldier now serving as a firefighter in Tel Aviv, when he presented a “TED”-style talk as part of RKYHS’ special SEED speakers program. As a child with significant learning disabilities, Yaakov shut down academically when his father passed away unexpectedly, prompting his mother to send him to SINAI. His teachers at SINAI poured their time and energy into him, and Yaakov rose to overcome personal adversity and his learning disabilities to graduate SINAI with the JKHA class of 1999.
Born and raised in Bergenfield, New Jersey, Yaakov had grown up on stories of his maternal grandfather’s heroic exploits, first as a decorated gunner pilot for England in World War II and then as a fighter in the Haganah. Emboldened by the inner strength he had learned to harness during his early years at SINAI, Yaakov hoped to emulate his grandfather, and he joined the Israel Defense Forces as a Lone Soldier in the Nahal Haredi unit. Despite understanding no more than a few words of Hebrew when he began his service, Yaakov ultimately rose to become one of the first sergeants for a special sniper team, and trained soldiers in sniping and hand-to-hand combat.
Following his army service, Yaakov worked single-mindedly to make his dream of firefighting a reality in Israel, ultimately securing a prestigious job as a firefighter in the Tel Aviv fire department.
Yaakov stressed to the RKYHS students that in order to succeed, you must not be afraid to fail—a message which he reiterated during smaller, more intimate gatherings with the SINAI middle school and high school students. Yaakov told the SINAI students that his purpose in speaking out about his struggles and allowing his personal journey to be the subject of a SINAI documentary (“Walking Through Fire,” which premiered at this year’s Benefit Dinner) was to impact children who are struggling as he once did, and to give them and their parents hope for the future. For these SINAI students, hearing from Yaakov proved an inspiring experience; having once stood in their shoes, he was able to convey to them the importance of hard work and grit, and told them never to underestimate what they can accomplish.
In speaking to both the RKYHS and SINAI students, Yaakov did more than simply give SINAI students hope for their futures; he helped RKYHS students understand the innate potential of their SINAI classmates, and reminded all of the students that every individual has value and something to give back to the world.
Students at SINAI’s Maor High School at RKYHS were inspired by Yaakov’s presentation and put their thoughts on paper. Three of those students shared how Yaakov’s story impacted them and encouraged them to dream big and persevere though even the most difficult times.
Read the essays below, or click on the titles to see them published in The Jewish Link.
Click here to watch Yaakov’s presentation at RKYHS.
Click here to watch the powerful documentary about his journey, “Walking Through Fire.”
By Yisrael Newmark, SINAI sophomore
I find Yaakov Guttman’s story inspiring because he pulled himself up from an abyss of tragedy and walked the winding path of life. It could have been easy at many points of his journey to drop or lie down and never get up. But he didn’t. It was not an easy road, it never is.
I associate with his life because I lost my father as well and have gone through times when I felt like just giving up. I can’t say that every time I faced a problem I conquered it at all. However, I would like to think that over time I will improve and seeing how Yaakov was able to do so, I gain hope. Because that is what a hero is, someone who you see yourself in their past. You look at them for inspiration and advice to prevail like them. But because every person passes challenges differently, using different techniques and methods, it won’t be exactly the same. That is what truly makes us unique.
His name, I feel, is very fitting. In the Torah, Yaakov Avinu suffered many trials and tribulations, ranging from having to leave his home to confronting his brother Esuv, yet he kept going. So too, Yaakov didn’t give up either, be it trying to become a firefighter, a sniper, or just a better person, he kept going. Through the challenges he didn’t stop, always trying to find his true calling, not taking a less than optimal position and sticking to it instead of just saying it’s enough.
Also, I feel that Yaakov realized that to excel at life you must play by your strengths. That was what he did, as he found his calling as a fireman, using his skills that Hashem gave him to help others and become a better person. Even though it was hard to get to being a firefighter, he didn’t fall victim to the common mistake that if you fail at something you should just give up.
That is why I admire Yaakov Guttman and take inspiration from him: through hardship he persevered, through challenges he continued, and through difficulty he found his calling. That is why when I look at him and see myself, I feel hopeful and optimistic for my own future.
By Tzvi Freedman, SINAI senior
Yaakov’s story is inspiring because the way he grew up, and became the man that he is today, showed how someone like him, someone who had a harder time than I have had, was able to become a very important person. I thought I was struggling, but after hearing his speeches, I thought to myself “If someone who has more difficulties in certain areas than I do was able to achieve great things, by pushing past their limits, why can’t I?” The answer is, “I can.” With help, and support, I can go past my limits, and I will achieve great things, because if Yaakov can do it, so can I.
Although Yaakov has a different disability than I do, I feel like we have something in common. We both struggled in school when we were younger, and we both didn’t know what we wanted to do, or how to succeed in high school. As a child we both took lessons out of life. After learning that his father performed chesed and became a pillar of the community, he learned that he wanted to help others too. After a lot of thinking and experiences, I want to be a cook. I also thought about being a fireman, because I want to save lives, but I wasn’t so sure if it was the right choice. After seeing how happy Yaakov was when he told us about how he saved many lives I said to myself, “I want a job that shows who I am, and if just thinking of saving lives makes me happy, I can’t imagine how I would feel when saving a life, so maybe being a fireman is the right choice.”
What I learned from Yaakov is: At times you want to give up, whether it’s because you can’t do it, or you don’t want to do it, and sometimes it’s both reasons. Yaakov had both reasons, he even felt depressed, but that did not stop him. He fought and fought, pushing his boundaries, taking one step at a time, until he became the man he is today. No matter what challenges he faced, he faced them head on, and beat them. And for this reason, Yaakov Guttman is my inspiration and my hero. Yaakov said to live life with your heart and this essay is my heart.
By Reuvy Keane, SINAI freshman
A special speaker came to RKYHS,
his name was Yaakov Guttman.
He had a great story, he had an inspirational one.
It started long ago:
Yaakov’s dear dad died.
Yaakov was but a lad of ten.
His spirit went
into a state of despair and he shut down
down down from the world.
With no book read, he made his way
to the program that saves: Sinai. It was like Bnei Yisroel
coming to a beautiful mountain in the desert.
With no book read he came,
and a teacher now well known
as Sinai’s director, spent time
one-on- one teaching Yaakov how to read.
Once he mastered the book he felt
Fifth through ninth he kept climbing that mountain.
In time, he joined
the school basketball team and became
its star, filled with new self-esteem.
After ninth grade Yaakov changed
his path for MTA.
When High School ended, his journey did not.
He took his gap year to a place far away, but truly
close to us all: Eretz Yisroel.
His grandfather, a fighter just like him
fought too for his cause, for freedom
of the land of the Jewish people.
There Yaakov’s climb continued, right up
to the IDF. He began again
at rock bottom, not knowing
the language, with no Hebrew book read. He found himself
in trouble with his commanders for words
he could not understand.
In time, he learned the basics; from the bottom
of his squad he scaled up to sniper, with perfect vision.
It did not come easy, visions hardly ever do.
Back in the States Israel kept calling to him.
He had to return. He did.
Yaakov worked hard
to reach his goal and become a firefighter
in a fire company in Yerushalayim.
That too was uphill; most other firefighters had family
connections. Still he kept trying, rejection after rejection,
denied his passion for so long.
He did not surrender.
In time—after five years,
though many told him to give up—
he made it, as he made it through all
the struggles throughout his life.
He made it into the fire
and rescue department.
“When you have a dream,
if you really believe
in it, you have to go forward
and get it.”
Israel brought Guttman to
love—his wife for life
and their baby boy, in Raanana.
Yaakov’s words showed me
that if he could realize his goal against all
odds, I too, a Sinai student, can reach mine
whatever obstacles and mountains are in my way.
This article was originally published in The Jewish Link.