When I left the Peace Corps, I applied to Columbia University’s Teachers College. I got accepted, but there was no way I could afford it. You can google how much it costs. Yet, there was a prayer going on behind the scenes that I was not privileged to know about.
Mrs. Jaffe had received a pile of applications for admission from the program director at Columbia. Later, she told me that the only thing she looked at was our essays. My application sounded like a knockoff of the Queen song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I was just a poor boy from a poor family, etc. Easy come, easy go. You know the song.
She loved it. Without meeting me, she looked at my picture attached to the application, then at the scholarship, and decided I was worth the risk. She trusted I was telling the truth and not yanking emotional strings.
I was the tithe and the risk, all in the same sentence. She told Columbia that she would pay my bill. All of it. Yeah, Barack Obama enrolled at the same time I did, but what did I care? I got free college. All those celebrities were behind the scenes. All I knew was that I was notified that I was accepted and had received a full-tuition scholarship.
I was in disbelief. I quit my job at the nuclear power plant and told the world I would get an Ivy League (notice the capital letters) for free, care of some anonymous donor. Yahoo. BTW, yahoo wasn’t a thing back then.
The day I arrived on campus, Henry Fernandez pulled me aside to tell me two things. He was the director of our program and had to listen to him. This was one of the best universities in the world, and I needed to listen.
He made his points: (1) he was gay, and (2) I needed to travel to a specific restaurant in the lower village and have dinner with the couple that agreed to pay for me (and a few others) to attend this university for free. He told me to wear my best clothing (see the picture) and be natural. Since I didn’t know how to filter a damn word from my mouth, the latter part was easy. And he never would tell me why it was so important I know that he was gay during the first 10 minutes of meeting him.
After school started, I got a statement from the registrar saying I owned nothing. Every now and then, I would call the Jaffes at their home in Connecticut, and they would put me on speakerphone. They would ask me 50 questions about how I was doing, did I have a girlfriend, how my grades were, etc. They sent me a graduation gift, and I moved away. I thought they were a phase.
I married a few years later, and they sent us a very nice wedding gift. Despite being Jewish, we got Christmas cards from them. I was wrong. I was not a phase. They were not a segment of my life.
They knew what a tithe was. For them, it meant a gift to those in the community who could not reciprocate. My parents combined income back then was $32K a year, and there was $0K for me for school. The Jaffes said I could not pay them back. It was their Hebrew faith’s demand that they invest in the next generation. I was more than a stock or a bond. I was the focus of Yahweh, alive in the 20th century. Dust of the heavens flowed in my veins, and they wanted to be a part of it.
At our first dinner, when I was wearing snazzy clothing. Mr. Jaffe owned the conversation and told me he was an immigrant. He got the brilliant idea that women also wanted snazzy clothing, even if they couldn’t afford it. Most businessmen stop when the supply and demand paradigm is functionally broken, but Mr. Jaffe didn’t. Instead, he bought year-old clothing, in very large lots, from the best retailers and sold them at his stores at prices the middle-class woman could afford. At first, he knew that many of his customers were farmers, looking for that special dress they only bought once a year. Some wanted more, but most didn’t.
His idea flew. The Dress Barn was formed. During my first meeting with them, they told us they had 1100 stores with revenue numbers on par with nationwide fast food chains. But they were grounded. Mrs. Jaffe bought her clothing at Dress Barn, even though she could have purchased majority ownership in Neiman Marcus.
Mrs. Jaffe reached out and held my hand during dinner, and I about cracked. She didn’t know me, but she cared about me. She knew I was the future, and she was a part of the fading past. What wisdom! I finished my seventh novel yesterday and thought about Mrs. Jaffe in the next to last chapter. She died 15 years ago. Indeed, this book will probably sell 10,00 copies, and the front cover will say, “To Francis Jaffe, with tears of gratitude.”
The complexity and the mystery continue. You see, I am a born-again Christian. Mrs. Jaffe was Jewish. My best friend the year before I met her was a Hindu priest. I have yet to learn how to sort that out. Even if we claim it is our faith, the impact we make is not as connected as we think. The Jafees were tithing. They were not in it for the tax deduction. History has proven to me that they wanted me to succeed.
The Jaffes understood tithing more than anyone I know who calls themselves Christian. We get all caught up in the story of the woman with two copper coins or the story of the five talents. Mrs. Jaffe lived both paradigms. All she knew was that she owned an obligation to change the future. Her checkbook was nothing but a tool along the way. It wasn’t her checkbook. It was Yahweh’s.
When I heard that they died, I send a handwritten note to their son, telling him of the impact his parents had made on me. I told him I had become the president of a multi-million-dollar company and had more money in the bank than I knew what to do with. The note went something like this.
“Hi, I am Jeff Gaura. Did you get my letter when your mom died? Your mom changed me and probably a few thousand people with her faith. Oh, by the way, I paid for three young men and women to attend university when I knew they could never pay me back. I am working with a young woman from Romania who will study in the USA for free. Guess what? I got that idea from your mom.”
The Jaffes taught me more than this short blog post can share.
I hope everyone has a Mr. and Mrs. Elliot Jaffe in their lives.
Better yet, I hope you see the Jaffes that you already have.