Sunday, May 31, 2020

Last Wednesday evening, community members met to discuss the possibility of creating a new all-boys yeshiva elementary school in Bergen County. Led and invited into the community by David and Shani Ratzker of Bergenfield, representatives of the Rabbinical Seminary of America (a.k.a. Chofetz Chaim), based in Queens, met at Bergenfield’s Congregation Beth Abraham to introduce the Chofetz Chaim approach to yeshiva education.

Parents and community members living in Teaneck and Bergenfield asked questions about the new yeshiva, which, pending enrollment and funding, is slated to open in September 2020.

The Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva and network is named for founder Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz’s, z”l, great-uncle, the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagen, z”tl), and has its headquarters, main yeshiva, kollel and rabbinical school in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens. It also has an extensive and far-flung network of elementary- and high school level-yeshivot throughout North America and Israel.

The Chofetz Chaim learning style is set apart by its mehalach (approach) toward mastery, which teaches talmidim to work, painstakingly, through complex questions with an eye toward helping them develop excellent middot (ethics) that uplift and guide entire communities with the highest moral character possible. “We are Torah-centered, with a focus on mussar (moral conduct) and derech eretz,” said Rabbi Bentzion Chait, director of national Torah initiatives for the Chofetz Chaim organization. He, as well as the other presenters, exhibited the characteristic warmth for which the yeshiva’s rabbanim are widely known.

Chofetz Chaim yeshivot are particularly known for creating an environment where there is a strong kesher, or connection, with a rav, a commitment to ahavat Hashem and an effusive love for Torah learning. Textual learning, and mastering textual skills, with learning b’iyun (in depth), show students that learning is measured based on quality, not quantity.

In introducing the yeshiva and its rich history, it should be said that until his passing in 1933, the Chofetz Chaim, z”tl, was a recognized leader of Orthodox Jewry. The Chofetz Chaim published more than 20 books on the laws of daily living, tzedaka, chesed and careful speech (refraining from lashon hara), many of which are still studied intently today. Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz, z”l, in addition to his illustrious relative, was also a student of “The Alter of Slabodka,” and established the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in America in 1933. The yeshiva was headed by his son Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz, z”l, beginning in 1941. He would continually remind his students that as important as it is to become a lamden (analytical scholar) and a great pedagogue, it is even more important to become a mensch (a good human being).

Today, the yeshiva is led by two of Rabbi Henoch’s students, Rabbi Dovid Harris and Rabbi Akiva Grunblatt. In recent years, Chofetz Chaim has opened schools in Florida, Texas, Kentucky, California, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, New York, New Jersey and Ohio. Other schools have also been opened in Canada and Israel.

Over the course of the evening spent at Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield, David Ratzker and representatives of Chofetz Chaim, including Rabbi Grunblatt, took questions about what it would take to establish the school. “We felt that as a family, we could benefit from bringing a boys yeshiva to Bergen County, and the community could benefit as well,” said Ratzker.

“We have been meeting with people who know what it means to build a community school with an organization that knows how to build community schools,” Ratzker said.

The current plan is to open in the fall of 2020 with approximately 30 students, ideally 10 students each at the pre-K, kindergarten and first grade level. The organization estimated that the community must raise approximately $300,000 to open its doors. In cases where schools have been developed in smaller, less established Jewish communities like Louisville or Orlando, Chofetz Chaim has contributed seed funding, but because Teaneck and Bergenfield are already established as Torah communities, the organization plans to only contribute expertise and leadership, and develop a meaningful partnership with the community to develop funding for its establishment.

Offering introductory comments and answering questions were Rabbi Grunblatt, Rabbi Chait, and Rabbi Yisroel Kramer,
who has worked for Rabbi Harris since 2014. Rabbi Kramer has been designated as one of the heads of school of the Bergen County yeshiva.

The rabbanim were asked, why launch a boys yeshiva now? “We are living in a time of scary challenges,” answered Rabbi Grunblatt. “It is scarier today than in the times of the Vilna Gaon,” he explained, referring to moral character challenges associated with the modern world. “Torah has to be part of our students’ very being, something that they live. It needs to be a foundational connection to lifelong learning,” he said.

The hope is that this school will allow children to be educated within the community while offering more personalized attention in a smaller, warm environment permeated with a love for Torah, wrote Ratzker in his initial letters to community members.

Rabbi Kramer said the new school will have a strong commitment to secular studies beginning in the afternoon, with a “top team of educators and consultants.” Rabbi Grunblatt shared an example of how to break down a math problem in the same way one would break down a difficult sugya (Talmudic passage), expounding on how secular studies can be studied and retain students’ attention at the same intellectual level as Torah studies. “The school will have Sunday programming, as well as a full schedule of sports options,” said Rabbi Kramer. “Even if we have to play every sport in school on Sunday, we will do it because sports are important in so many ways,” he said.

For questions, registration information or fundraising opportunities, please contact Rabbi Yisroel Kramer at [email protected]

By Elizabeth Kratz