In the 1970s, the federal government mandated that dental schools were to begin offering courses in a new kind of treatment delivery system. As a student, I thought they were interesting, and I was one of the few who signed up. After my graduation in 1974, however, the courses were dropped; the government’s interest must have waned.
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By 1982, I had long since accepted a position as an assistant professor teaching clinical dentistry at Columbia Dental School, while also attending at Presbyterian Hospital and working in a private practice. I loved teaching, but it didn’t pay well – nobody is there for the money – and I already had four children and a mortgage, so having three jobs was necessary.
At around this time, however, the government renewed its interest in this dental delivery system, and was offering well salaried teaching positions. Columbia Dental School hired a dentist, Dr. Bernard Tolpin, who had expertise in grant proposals, and the search was on for dentists with the right training to form a department to teach the subject.
Since I was the only person around with any experience in this area, I perfectly matched the criteria for the position. I applied and was interviewed by Dr. Tolpin, and we hit it off very well. I even thought he would hire me on the spot, but instead he promised to keep me posted. As time passed, I would regularly see Dr. Tolpin around the school, and he treated me like an old friend – but there was no job offer.
One day during this period of time, my uncle, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s secretaries, called me to say that the Rebbe had been asking whether I was the kind of chasid who only contacted the Rebbe when he had a problem.
I had had a relationship with the Rebbe, going back to when I was in high school, when my class in Boston went on a school trip to Crown Heights for a Shabbat. It was an amazing experience! 770 was so packed, yet I remember seeing how suddenly a space opened up, remained open long enough for the Rebbe to walk to his seat, and then disappeared again.
At the first farbrengen I attended, I was impressed by hearing the Rebbe’s voice – even though I didn’t understand all of the Yiddish. And the singing! The singing just lifted you up, and carried you away.
In fact, years later, when I was teaching dentistry in a hospital, one of the nurses asked if I had ever “gotten high.” I thought back to my experience at that farbrengen. “Not pharmacologically,” I replied.
My first personal encounter with the Rebbe was just before my older sister’s wedding, when the groom joined my family for an audience with the Rebbe. I was nervous, and don’t remember much, except for the Rebbe’s beautiful, piercing eyes, the way he offered his hand to us as we were leaving – which was contrary to what we expected – plus one thing that he said:
My future brother-in-law had been rabbinically ordained, and had also just graduated from college. But now that his marriage was imminent, he expressed his concern that he still didn’t have a job.
The Rebbe’s reply to my brother-in-law remains in my consciousness until this day: “G-d provides a livelihood for 3 billion people; He can provide for two more.”
I would also write to the Rebbe, although not very often. I didn’t want to bother him, and so when I did write, I engineered my letters to use as few words as possible.
When my uncle called that day and told me what the Rebbe had asked about me, I took this to mean that I’d better write, although about what, I had no idea. The Rebbe wanted me to communicate. So I sat down and composed a short letter, about what my wife was doing; what my kids were doing; each of my jobs; and the new, better, teaching position that I hoped to get.
Meanwhile, at the school, weeks went by, and then months. I wanted the job badly, but there was nothing. Then one day, I saw Dr. Tolpin showing a young, well-dressed man around, introducing him to people. “Who’s this fellow?” I inquired.
“Oh, he’s a dentist from Florida, applying for that new department.” Dr. Tolpin was once again interviewing people for the position!
I admit: I felt badly hurt. I was disappointed by Dr. Tolpin, even angry with him. He had just about promised that position to me and now he was interviewing again. If it came to it, I couldn’t imagine working under him; at that point, I was so upset that I couldn’t even look at him. “How can I work with a guy like that?” I explained to everyone I knew.
But then, some time later, on a Sunday morning, Rabbi Krinsky called to tell me that he had an answer for me from the Rebbe.
“An answer to what?” I asked.
“You haven’t written recently?”
“Not for months.”
“And you hadn’t asked anything then?”
“No. It was just family news.”
“Well, in any case, he has an answer for you: ‘Take the job at the dental school.’”
Now I was completely bewildered. “But there is no job at the dental school!” I could not understand what had just happened.
The very next morning, Monday morning, I got a call from Dr. Tolpin.
“Boy, are you a hard person to get a hold of,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you since Thursday!” he exclaimed. “The federal grant has come through! Now, I can finally start hiring – I hope you’re still interested in the position?”
After a moment of shock, all I could manage was, “Yes… I am.”
I had been so angry with Dr. Tolpin, that if the Rebbe hadn’t told me to take the job, I would have answered no. But then came the strange call on that Sunday morning….
I wound up spending several years working in that department, with all its benefits, and with Dr. Tolpin, who turned out to be a wonderful boss. And those turned out to be the most rewarding years of my entire teaching career.
Dr. Dovid Krinsky, a retired dentist – who also taught dentistry for twenty years at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine – lives in Woodmere, New York. He was interviewed in April 2023.