By this point in time, Dad was ready to take the skills in Jewish education he honed in South Philadelphia and utilize them closer to home. The local Yiddish newspaper, דער מארגען זשורנאל – the Jewish Morning Journal of Philadelphia, carried an ad for Congregation B’nai Israel’s Talmud Torah. They were looking for a teacher proficient in both English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. The school was struggling, with enrollment having fallen from 35 student to six under the tutelage of a teacher who barely knew English. The Board was delighted that my father applied, and they guaranteed him that if he lifted enrollment to 25 students by Passover, they would reward him with a salary of $20 per week!
The Passover deadline came, and as word of Dad’s influence spread enrollment had already increased to 30 students but didn’t stop there. By the following September they were up to 50, and by the following Pesach were up to 140! Menash Mauskopf and Bernice Idstein were among the faculty who propelled the growth. The PTA was active, and that Purim the school put on a play – Purim High Jinks – that electrified the neighborhood! Dad collaborated with Reba Bennett, who worked with Rabbi Samuel (Shmuel Koppel) Wohlgelernter of Congregation Beth Judah, and all was copacetic.
Dad became heavily sought after as he developed a reputation for building programs. He catalyzed United Hebrew Schools on E. Wyoming Avenue in Feltonville and then went on to rekindle Yeshiva Mishkan Israel which had relocated to 16th & Champlost. Victor M. Solomon, Ph.D. was a licensed psychotherapist who served as the pulpit Rabbi of Congregation Ezrath Israel in West Oak Lane. The neighborhood was in decline and Rabbi Solomon was unsuccessful in convincing the congregation to relocate. He accepted a job in Fairfield, Connecticut and the congregants regretting their loss besieged him: “Other than relocating the synagogue, is there anything we can do to entice you to return?” Solomon picked up the phone and called Dr. Press, asking if he would be willing to come to Ezrath Israel to serve as principal of the Hebrew School. Dad accepted the challenge, and while Rabbi Solomon decided to stay in Connecticut, the Hebrew School at Ezrath Israel remained strong during Dad’s tenure there. One of my father’s favorite anecdotes comes from those days.
The mother of a student came in one afternoon to meet with him. She urged Dad to teach the boys some יידיש. My father patiently replied that it was called a Hebrew School for a reason, and that their mission was to teach Hebrew, not Yiddish. The boy’s mother pleaded: “Please, Dr. Press, can’t you at least teach him a bissel יידיש, so when I say to him “Boychik, push dem chair zum vindo”, he should know what I’m talkin’?”
Victor Solomon’s only regret in leaving Philadelphia was that he didn’t have someone of Israel Press’s caliber to serve as Principal of his congregation’s Hebrew School. He grew determined to import Dr. Press, and convinced the congregation’s board to send a contract to him with a blank amount to fill in. As flattered as Dad was by the offer, he declined. He had been weighing retiring from education to enable him to focus more fully on his optometric practice owing to the advice of his first cousin, attorney Joseph Rappaport.
Rabbi Solomon remained undaunted, going so far as to approach one of the optometrists on the State Board in Connecticut to make Dr. Press an offer to join his prestigious practice! Dad decided to remain in Philadelphia, and at Ezrath Israel to help the new Rabbi get acclimated before “retiring” to full-time practice. That Rabbi was Abraham Pelberg, one of Dad’s former students from Yeshiva Mishkan Yisroel at 3rd & Catherine Streets in South Philly.