Rabbi Scott Friedman and Rabbi Asher Yablok are taking a lesson from Israeli yeshivot like Sha’alvim, Reishit and Aish Gesher, which are known for infusing Torah learning with fire, energy, personal growth and love of Yiddishkeit, and working to bring it to students at the high school level.
“We want to create an Israel experience for yeshiva students in America,” Rabbi Friedman said.
They are launching a new boys yeshiva high school called Ohr Yisroel of Tenafly, which will open this fall, with 20 students. It will be the first high school located at Lubavitch on the Palisades, warmly welcomed by Rabbi Mordechai Shain. The boys will benefit from the brand-new, world-class gym and multi-level building at 11 Harold Street, a place they feel is modern and flexible, conducive to the work-life culture that they hope to create in this school.
“In Israel, students are taught Yiddishkeit, Judaism and Torah. It’s not a class, but a way that benefits their life. This shouldn’t be a novel idea,” said Rabbi Friedman, who has spent the last 15 years as a rebbe and guidance counselor at Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC). He will serve as head of school and Rabbi Yablok will serve as Ohr Yisroel’s founding principal, after having spent the last four years as head of school of TABC. Joe Rozehzadeh will be the founding chairman of the board.
“The limudei kodesh should not be part of the graded curriculum, and should not be rote,” Rabbi Friedman explained. “Most adults find they enjoy learning later in life, even those who didn’t when they were younger, because then they were doing it because they had to. When one learns for the sake of learning, because they want to, and understand why they are doing it, it is a more meaningful and personal experience. That’s what the Israeli yeshivot do.”
“The students do not have to be ‘motivated self-starters.’ When you are in an environment where you love your teachers, you are happy to be there,” added Rabbi Friedman.
“I have taught in yeshiva high school for many years. I never gave my students tests, homework or took attendance. I told them they don’t have to be here. But they came and loved it and learned,” he said. “The focus for us is always on chinuch, never on control.”
Part of Rabbi Friedman’s motivation to launch the school now is the partnership he has built with Rabbi Yablok. “I think he is a really special person, with a big heart and stellar middos. This model will work very well for him and for the community,” he said.
“We’ve been in consultation with local rabbanim throughout this entire process, making sure this is indeed a fabulous addition, offering something different, to Bergen County students,” said Rabbi Yablok. He continued: “This is going to be a first-rate yeshiva. I have been inspired by my years already working in Bergen County in the yeshiva high school world, and we are very much driven by the idea to create a program that doesn’t really exist yet,” added Rabbi Yablok.
Rabbi Friedman explained that the structure of the dual-curriculum programs will be more flexible and fluid than those at other yeshiva high schools, with no grading, homework or tests as part of the limudei kodesh curriculum. Instead, there will be a 40-minute shiur each morning, delivered by a different prominent visiting rabbi once a week, with several rabbis coming once every other week. These are inspirational, Aish HaTorah-style speakers, who have experience reaching students and infusing them with the fire of Torah.
Presenters will include Rav Avraham Shor; Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein; and Rav Mordechai Finkelman, from Camp Dora Golding and the mashgiach ruchani of Ohr HaChaim in Queens. Rabbi Shain, of Lubavitch on the Palisades, will contribute a weekly shiur on chassidus, and Rabbi Menachem Zupnik, a rav from Passaic who gave shiurim at Princeton, Penn, and NYU inspiring many, will be joining as well. A monthly kumzitz with a musical guest is also planned.
Ohr Yisroel will also join the yeshiva league for sports, initially beginning with a basketball team, coached by Lenny Friedman, a veteran coach who brought Kushner and Frisch teams to championship titles. As the high school grows, Rabbi Friedman said, the school plans to add more teams.
Rabbi Friedman explained that the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (Middle States Association or MSA)-accredited program that Ohr Yisroel will use for general studies is an online learning program with a longstanding history of students getting accepted to top-tier colleges.
Several top-notch general studies educators have been hired to help guide the students’ online learning, which will take them through SAT prep, advanced placement classes and all high school—national and state—curriculum requirements. The teachers will remain with the students as they work their way through the online materials, serving as a resource and sounding board for questions. Special speakers will be brought in for business classes. “Parents should know we will guide their sons to be ready for the yeshiva of their choice, for college acceptances and beyond,” said Rabbi Yablok.
Joe Rozehzadeh said he was inspired to come on as chairman of the board because he has seen a need for a yeshiva like this in his own family. “I have seven kids, six boys and one girl. My oldest left to go to Israel a year early. It just wasn’t productive for him to stay,” he explained.
The challenge his oldest son faced got him thinking: “If they could do such a great job in Israel in one year, what are we not doing in high school in four years? Rabbi Friedman came to me with this idea, and he has helped many students be successful, inside this [the current] yeshiva system. Rabbi Friedman knows it’s not all about grades, but primarily about motivation and learning. Why do we learn? Why do we daven? Why not address these questions at the high school level?” asked Rozehzadeh.
“I also care a lot about secular education. I went through this curriculum that he picked and it makes sense. In every single aspect, we should provide role models of yirat shamayim for our boys and infuse the limudei kodesh with meaning. Now, with the technology to do chemistry labs and every AP class online, we can coach them through the general studies programs, but we should not expect the kids to be coached on davening in the same way. We don’t daven for grades. Judaism is not a gathering of information,” he said.
“At TABC, Rabbi Friedman has been motivating students and putting them on the right path. I think that 95% of high school students right now could benefit from this kind of system. More l’shma, more mitzvot, less grades and less requirements,” said Rozehzadeh.
Rabbi Friedman and Rabbi Yablok are also particularly looking forward to working at Chabad on the Palisades. “I want to thank Rabbi Shain and his board for seeing the vision and wanting to help us create an environment for the love of Yiddishkeit and Torah, a place that is totally positive.”
Learn more about Ohr Yisroel of Tenafly at http://www.ohryot.org. Financial aid is available for anyone who needs it.