ARRIVALS: A lawyer who answers to a higher authority

The purchase of a grave in Israel fueled the desire for a life here.

Tirtza Jotkowitz (photo credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)
Tirtza Jotkowitz
(photo credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)
On a rainy Jerusalem afternoon, sitting comfortably in the well-appointed Jerusalem apartment where she lives with her husband, Tirtza Jotkowitz firmly and precisely recounts the key moments of her life. A successful attorney who specializes in the field of halachic estate planning, she carved out a legal career in the United States and now in Israel. Bright and brassy, she is a lawyer through-and-through. Amazingly, she did not begin law school until she was 44.
“I always had this dream of going to law school,” says Jotkowitz, wearing a fashionable head covering and dressed in muted shades of brown. “When I was in my junior year in college, I said to my father, ‘Abba, I’d like to go to law school when I finish college.’ He said, ‘You can’t do that. No frum [Orthodox] boy is going to marry you.’” Jotkowitz acceded to her father’s wishes, finished school, married and became a teacher of English and French. In 1974, she, her husband and their two daughters were living in Boro Park and needed to move. Uncertain of where to go, they consulted the Skverer Rebbe of New Square, New York.
“My husband likes rebbes”, she says, smiling.
“If you cannot move to Jerusalem, move to Monsey,” said the rebbe.
Tirtza and her family, unable to move to Jerusalem at that early stage of their married life, obeyed the rabbi’s pronouncement and put down a deposit on a home in the Rockland County town that very day.
After moving to Monsey, the Jotkowitzes had two more children.
Nevertheless, she never abandoned her dream of becoming a lawyer.
“I kept dreaming about going to law school. I would visit Cardozo Law School once a year and sit in on a class to see if my interest was still sustained.” Finally, in 1990, when her youngest son reached seventh grade, she could hold back no longer.
“I said to my husband, ‘I’ve been talking about law school for 25 years, and I’ve been on the back burner. If I don’t do it, I’m going to fall off the stove. I’m going to be too old.’” Her husband was not in favor of her attending law school. She suggested to him that they visit three different rabbis, “of your choice,” for their opinion in the matter.
The couple visited a hassidic rabbi, a Lithuanian rabbi and an Israeli kabbalist. All three rabbis gave the okay to attend law school.
“He was wonderful, once he got the blessing of the three rabbis,” she says.
At the age of 44, Jotkowitz began Cardozo Law School’s accelerated entry program, and finished in two and a half years. “Some of the students,” she says, “were my friends’ sons.” Early on, Jotkowitz showed her mettle.
“The professor was calling the roster and he stumbled over my first name, ‘Tirtza.’ He said, ‘Would you mind picking an easier name?’ I said to him in front of the class, ‘Listen here. The Jews were saved from Egypt three and a half thousand years ago because they didn’t change their language, their clothes, or their names. It seems to me that Mahatma Gandhi and Chiang Kai-shek got to where they were headed in life without changing their odd names, so I’m going to stick with Tirtza.’ He said, ‘You’ll make a good lawyer.’” “I loved law school,” says Jotkowitz, who wanted to concentrate on trusts and estates. She attributes her interest in the field to the death of her father when she was 21, just three weeks before her wedding.
“I remember when the shiva was over and walking into my mother’s bedroom and my mother standing there with her checkbook and tears rolling down her face, and she says, ‘Abba took care of everything.
I don’t even know how to make a mortgage payment.’ I remember saying to myself, ‘I don’t want to be in that position. I want to know what’s going on.’ I probably have overcompensated,” she admits.
In her final year of law school, her legal career took an unexpected turn, when the late Rabbi Avraham Pessin, their rabbi in Monsey, offered to teach Jotkowitz the complex laws of Jewish inheritance, which affect estate planning, wills, and other related matters, on the condition that she would utilize these laws in her practice. She agreed.
In 1995, after graduating law school, Jotkowitz met another lawyer who was also specializing in halachic wills and estate planning. The two met, and they have been working together ever since. In 1998, she became a full-time attorney for the Social Security Administration, while continuing her Halachic legal work.
“It was a wonderful job,” she says, referring to her work at the Social Security Administration. “They had thought that Orthodox women were subdued, were subjugated, didn’t have opinions, were uneducated.
Oh boy, did I show them,” she chuckles.
“It was a great job, but I wanted to make aliya.”
Jotkowitz dates her interest in making aliya to a 2002 visit to Israel, when she and her husband purchased graves in Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot cemetery.
“From the moment we bought those graves,” she says, “something changed in me. I felt I had land in Eretz Yisrael and my davening [praying] took on an added dimension. I said to myself, ‘What a hypocrite you’ve been. Do you realize that everything you are davening about is Jerusalem and redemption and coming back to Israel? Stop being a hypocrite. This is ridiculous. Start being serious about life.’” In the fall of 2010, she and her husband moved to their new apartment in the center of Jerusalem. Her husband continued running his US-based business by phone and email in the evenings. Tirtza was not planning on continuing her work in Israel, but after speaking at an OU gathering about halachic wills, she was approached by a haredi lawyer who asked her to teach him the laws of Jewish inheritance. She trained him, and today, she consults with him in cases involving wills, prenuptial agreements, postnuptial agreements and probate, all written and executed according to Jewish law.
Since making aliya, she says, “I love my eclectic lifestyle – attending shiurim, doing halachic estate planning, lecturing/writing on this topic, touring ancient and modern Israel and meeting many different types of Jews.”
While Tirtza Jotkowitz is certain that the positive directions that she has taken in her life are due to the intervention of a higher authority, she is equally sure that “people should follow their passion.”
If anyone can state that with authority, it is she.