Growing up in a community of Polish immigrants in the Bronx, N.Y., 50 years ago, Anita Kaufman was branded a rebel for her unconventional pursuit of a nursing degree.

Today, a businesswoman, great-grandmother, athlete and philanthropist with a vision, Kaufman continues to knock down stereotypes. She counts among her biggest accomplishments approaching a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to help her reopen a shuttered Long Island Jewish day school when the community thought it couldn’t be done. Today, the school – the Jewish Academy of Suffolk County – has more than 80 students and is still growing.

In September 2003, she sought out Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, a longtime friend and mentor and director of Lubavitch of Long Island, regarding the reopening of the school, which she and her late husband Morris had founded 40 years earlier. She attached one condition to the financial commitment: The school would have to be open to students within one year.

When the academy opened its doors to students the following September, it was nothing short of a miracle. A newspaper editorial had denounced the project. And when she was faced with a room of community leaders vocally doubting the school’s success, she didn’t hesitate to stand her 5’1” frame straight up and respond: “I don’t need anyone’s permission. I am here and I am here to stay.”

Located on the grounds of a 15-acre former public school and boasting an indoor playground and full gym, the school places a strong emphasis on technology, art, music and sports. As a result of Kaufman’s fundraising, it offers generous scholarships.

“Anita Kaufman’s guidance, passion and hands-on involvement in Jewish education is an example of philanthropy at its best,” Teldon said soon after the grand opening.

Looking back at the initial opposition, Kaufman, the president of the school’s board, said that she had the community’s best interests at heart. She continues to maintain a hand-on approach to the operation, conferring with Teldon on the school’s policies, administrative procedures and issues of infrastructure.

“I knew that with the school, Suffolk could grow,” she explained. “I didn’t let their negativity frighten me.

The future of Jewish youth has always been a heavy weight on Kaufman’s mind.

“My parents instilled in me my love for Judaism,” she said. “And it is our obligation to do the same for our children.”

Each of Kaufman’s nine grandchildren attends Jewish day schools. And her son Ivan Kaufman is the founder of North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in the Long Island community of Great Neck.

“My husband and I had a goal, and I want to finish our work together,” she emphasized. “Our work together was to promote Judaism, inspired by its healthy way for families to grow up.”

Contagiously Positive

The same fierce spirit, a portion of which was captured in a portrait presented to her at a dinner in her honor last year, can be seen in her business dealings. After her husband’s passing in 1986, she took the reins of the family’s computer company and established Next Level Venture Capital.

Living in Florida, she balances her daily schedule by offsetting her professional ventures with tennis, golf and bridge. Somewhat of a personality in both the communal and business realms, Kaufman can count on both Jewish and non-Jewish colleagues to appear at school fundraisers and other events.

“We call Anita the matriarch of Boca Raton,” said Rabbi Moishe Denburg, the co-director of the local Chabad-Lubavitch center who recalls that in the winter of 1988, Kaufman was looking for a synagogue within walking distance of her new home.

Finding Orthodox Jewish life in the area scarce, she arranged for the rabbi and his wife Rivkah to move to Boca in 1989. When after 10 years of operating in a store front, Kaufman felt that the Chabad House should expand, she helped establish the Anita and Morrison Kaufman Center, the biggest Chabad-Lubavitch facility in the region at the time.

“Anita is a one woman emissary,” said Denburg. “Whenever someone new moves to town, I get a call from her saying, ‘Wrap me up a mezuzah. And put the blessing in it. I’ll be by to pick it up.’ ”

Denburg related how each Friday night, Kaufman opens her home, filling an enormous dining room table with guests.

“Many of my friends are non-observant,” said Kaufman. “But I feel that I am the perfect person to make them feel comfortable with the beauty of Judaism.”

“Anita has a unique quality,” explained Rivkah Denburg. “She makes everyone feel important, while she chooses to remain humble.”

“ ‘Look at what you have built,’ Anita always says, and I answer her saying, ‘No look what you have built,’ ” added Moishe Denburg. “But she refuses to take credit.”

“You can bring a horse to the shul,” said Kaufman, laughing. “But only the rabbi can make it drink.”

She said that what originally attracted her to first the Teldons, and then the Denburgs, was the positive outlook common among Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries. She admired the insistence on growing and learning from every experience.

Teldon, who sometimes refers to Kaufman as “Suffolk’s live-wire of positive energy,” remembered a time when she wasn’t so hopeful about the future of Judaism.

Back in the 1970s, Kaufman, who was already a registered nurse, was completing a degree in social work at Stonybrook University. She began to notice the growing numbers of young Jewish students getting caught up in missionary groups, but did not know how to respond. She took up the cause with local rabbinical leaders, but was repeatedly turned down.

Teldon, however, set up a table in the student union, stringing it with a yellow banner reading “Jews for Jews.”

“I was shocked!” she exclaimed. “Here he was with a hat and beard looking so conspicuous, and students were coming in flocks.”

Last year, she attended an annual conference for Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries as a guest, her first time. Remembering the gathering in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., brought tears to her eyes and conjured up another time she was in the neighborhood: when she and her husband met the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, decades ago.

“There are no English words that could possibly describe the inspiration I experienced,” she said of the conference. It “reminded me of Rabbi Schneerson’s eyes, and the time I received a dollar and he called to me, ‘Come back, I am not giving you one dollar. I am giving you two.’ And then he blessed me in Yiddish.”