Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Ellul 5766 - September 13, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











An Extra Ordinary Man

by Fayge Parker

Le'iluy nishmas Kehos ben Avrohom Yitzchok Spetner z"l, niftar 8 Elul, 5765. Written on his first yahrtzeit.

My father was known to many across the Jewish globe as Kenny Spetner, askan and builder of the St. Louis Jewish Community. He was also a master insurance agent for Transamerica Life Insurance Company and a popular figure in the mostly non-Jewish insurance field. My brother, Jonathan, was maspid Dad last year with the following story:

Transamerica periodically creates a film presentation depicting the life of a legendary producer, shown at the opening forum of Transamerica's Leading Producers Convention. That year's convention took place in Rome, Italy. Unbeknownst to Dad, his life was about to unfold before a large, expectant audience, with an initial hint that would be apparent solely to him.

Jonathan watched my father closely as the lights dimmed. The film opened with a teenage look-alike of Dad entering Soldan High School's auditorium. The boy approached a banner emboldened, in Latin, with, "Dare Something Worthy," Soldan's motto for the class of '37. Dad seemed perplexed. When the title, "Dare Something Worthy — The Ken Spetner Story" appeared, consternation took over his features. As the story progressed, so did my father's discomfort. The public attention had upset Dad terribly.

The film was a true Kiddush Hashem, about a visionary who used all his talents, energy and resources to help his people; whose legendary success as a life insurance agent was only a means to the higher purpose of his legendary devotion to the Jewish People — locally, nationally and internationally.

The story ended, the lights went on and, suddenly, every Jew at the convention came out of the woodwork, gravitating towards my father, clearly proud to be one of the Chosen Nation. Now my brother witnessed a complete transformation in Dad. A glow of satisfaction emerged as my father realized the positive impact of this publicity on his fellow Jews.

Totally unassuming, Dad avoided the limelight. But if a fellow Jew could be influenced — well, then it was worth it!

My father was an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things. My husband, Mayer, was maspid Dad with the mishna from Pirkei Ovos: "Where there is no man, strive to be a man."

Born in 1921, Dad was orphaned at 15, when my Grandpa Abe died suddenly. Strong-willed Grandma Rose, born Rashi Raskas in St. Louis in 1890, raised Dad and his two younger brothers alone, by selling life insurance.

Dad came from stubborn stock. Rose was one of eight siblings whose father had immigrated to St. Louis from Kovno, Lithuania in 1881. Great-grandfather Shalom Yitzchok Raskas lived in poverty rather than desecrate the holy Shabbos. He eventually scraped together the funds to bring over Shifra Rivka and the baby. The couple wanted cholov Yisroel and to this end purchased a cow. Eventually, the Raskas Dairy was born.

Later, they sent their two eldest sons back to Slobodka to learn Torah at the tender ages of 11 and 13, to be reunited years later when they returned to St. Louis with wives and children in tow.

Shalom Yitzchok and Shifra Rivka eventually "retired" to Eretz Yisroel and are buried on Har Hazeisim.

Grandpa Abe's widowed father, great-grandfather Shimon Spetner, also left St. Louis in 1922 to live his last years in Chevron. He died shortly before the Arab uprising and was buried there.

Dad's formal religious education was of the after-school variety and, as an orphan, he worked to help make ends meet. His leadership qualities emerged during World War II when he served as a naval ordinance officer stationed in Cuba. There he took Jewish boys under his wing and became the unofficial Jewish Chaplain.

My father moved to the strong rhythm of high moral integrity, a sense of responsibility and innate stubbornness; the melody was his good-natured humor, sense of fun and eternal optimism. It was an unbeatable combination. He sang this song throughout his whole life.

Dad's great sense of Jewish pride at a time when Jews strived to melt into American culture gave him a clear direction. While most of his contemporaries "did well" if they married a Jew, my father waited until he found a religious girl, Rita Krumbein from Boro Park, with whom he built a family of five children. Meanwhile, life began in earnest.

There is no way, in this brief portrait of Dad, to detail a lifetime of unusual accomplishments. In essence: Money was earned to give away. (The rumor was: Most Jews tithed 10 percent, but Ken Spetner kept 10 percent.) Shuls were established, schools were built, rosh yeshivos arrived, immigrants found work, the elderly were less lonely, guests slept and ate, business partnerships were made, kiruv got its start . . . My father, with Mom at his side, did it all and more. And, amazingly, he transmitted the feeling that each project, large or small, was an adventure!

Dad was always climbing mountains. He had a single agenda: the growth of Torah Judaism locally and worldwide. Countless obstacles were encountered along the way, but he was relentless in his pursuit of Torah growth. Dad's trust was in Hashem and his guidance lay at the feet of the gedolim of his generation, untouched by personal honor or pride.

To recount all of my father's efforts would paint a picture of a man who seemed larger than life. But Dad was life itself: an affectionate father, trusted friend, kidder- around, joke- and story-teller and lover of Jews young and old. He struggled his whole life, but he never saw life as a struggle. He loved it all; he loved being a Yid.

From a child's perspective, my father wasn't just a community man. He was whole and there for us as well as for the klal. We explored caves, went fishing, and vacationed on a houseboat. Everywhere we went, Dad perused the local directory for Jewish names, scouted out the nearest minyan, and sometimes roamed the local Jewish cemetery to check out the tombstones. He seemed to connect every remote corner of America to a Jew of his acquaintance. Most Sundays we went to visit the elderly, the lonely or the mentally infirm.

An innocent child sees the true nature of a person. As a little girl at the local Day School learning about Avrohom Ovinu, the father of chesed, my image of this forefather was of Dad's countenance with a long white beard. I saw my father as Avrohom Ovinu, pure and simple. It was no wonder. Dad was an eager and joyful baal chesed in every way, and he and my mother Rivka Dina bas Moshe Yaakov, a"h, were my primary examples of living kindness.

So many of us find it difficult to move past our personal histories to a place beyond ourselves, and to strive for something more than simply being comfortable. Let my father be a lesson to every Jew who feels that he cannot reach personal gadlus.

Dad had no special yichus, grew up poor, and never had the opportunity to learn much Torah in his youth. He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.

And he changed the world.


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