Rambam Mesivta High School in Lawrence has only 170 students, but these teenage boys have had a huge impact.
The school’s dean, Rabbi Zev Friedman, received a flood of emails from former students when it was reported that 95-year-old Nazi war criminal Jakiw Palij had been deported to Germany on Aug. 21.
For years, Rambam students, Rabbi Friedman and other administrators and teachers had protested outside Palij’s Jackson Heights home, calling attention to his history as a former SS guard at the Trawniki labor camp in Poland.
“Since the school was founded, we decided that it’s important to provide the kids with not just a classroom education, but one outside the classroom,” Rabbi Friedman said. “It’s very, very important for is to be involved in the community.”
That commitment began two years after the school was founded in 1992. Rambam students became involved in efforts to deport a native Lithuanian, Aleksandras Lileikis, who was accused of being a Nazi war criminal. A 1994 article in USA Today brought the story to students’ attention. Initially, Rabbi Friedman and the students rallied outside Lileikis’s house in Norwood, Mass. “Unprecedented,” he called it.
The Rambam action caught the eye of Eli Rosenbaum, a Westbury native who was then acting director of the Office of Special Investigations, the U.S. Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting unit, which brought civil charges against Lileikis, then 87 and a retired manager at a Lithuanian encyclopedia publishing company. Officials said he headed a Gestapo-like force in occupied Lithuania that handed over Jews to Nazi execution squads from 1941 to 1944.
With Lithuania unwilling to accept Lileikis, Rabbi Friedman said, Rambam students went to work. Using old-fashioned research skills, as Google had yet to be invented, they unearthed an extradition treaty between the U.S. and Lithuania and met with Lithuanian officials.
The experience was to be repeated through the years — in the Palij case, and in 2000, when Rambam members spoke to Australian officials about reputed Nazi war criminal Konrad Kalejs, who had fled there. Latvian authorities charged Kalejs with war crimes in September 2000. He died in November 2001.
Once Lileikis’s past life became known, the District Court of Massachusetts determined that “tens of thousands died under his command,” and ordered his denaturalization in May 1996. One month later, he returned to Lithuania on his own. Despite the legal wrangling, he was never tried for war crimes and died in 2000, at age 93.
Rosenbaum is now the director of Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy for the Department of Justice. In his remarks at the White House the day Palij was deported, he cited Rambam’s role in bringing attention to this case.
“Deserving of special mentions are the several generations of high school students at Rambam Mesivta, in Lawrence, Long Island, who, under the leadership of their revered teacher, Rabbi Zev Friedman, himself a child of Holocaust survivors, never stopped crying out publicly for justice in this case,” Rosenbaum said.
Avi Posnick, 33, who graduated from Rambam in 2003, not only learned the lessons, but has been using them professionally. Today, he is the managing director of StandWithUs Northeast, and executive director of StandWithUs New England. StandWithUs is a pro-Israel education and advocacy organization.
“In addition to learning how to organize a successful rally and stand up for the Jewish people, it inspired me to work for StandWithUs,” said Posnick, who took part in a number of demonstrations as a Rambam student, including those outside Palij’s home.
“It taught me that when you see something wrong, you cannot just talk about how bad it is, you must act.”
Hempstead Councilman Bruce Blakeman is one of several local elected officials cited by Rabbi Friedman for their support of Rambam’s actions through the years.
“Rabbi Friedman and the students have always been at the forefront of being against anti-Semitism,” Blakeman said. “I’m delighted they were successful and happy the students have that spirit of activism that really could make a difference in the world.”