Ohr Yisroel, a yeshiva high school for boys located at the Chabad of Tenafly, was founded last year by Rabbi Scott Friedman and Rabbi Asher Yablok, with Dr. Joe Rozezadeh as board chair. In an interview, Rabbi Friedman said the team is greatly looking forward to their sophomore year, now armed with the experience of an exceptional—and exceptionally educational—student-centered first year.
The school was founded on the principle that the Israel yeshiva experience, of inspiration amid a love for learning, can and should be provided to students at the high school level. It is built as a Aish Hatorah-style hybrid model of camp and school, or like an NCSY kollel that includes a secular curriculum.
The school is designed to help talmidim connect to Hashem and Torah so that they will become lifetime learners. “What is the use of having them retain information if it does not connect to their hearts?” asked Rabbi Friedman.
Ohr Yisroel launched the 2020-2021 school year with 20 students, but ended with 40. The 2021-2022 school year will begin with 65 students. Thus the school has already outgrown the building that had been designed and built for them on the campus of the Chabad House, and will be spending more time this year in the Chabad building as they design and build their own 50,000-square-foot building to move into for the 2022 school year and beyond.
The rooms where the students have shiurim were specifically designed in a way to promote a more natural learning environment. With built-in leather benches, and tables (not desks), the entire environment does not feel like school. “The learning and the growth was amazing to watch. The boys themselves were amazed,” said Rabbi Friedman.
“Talmidim have to feel involved, and have to choose to want to be there and can only do that if they build a relationship with the rebbe. In order to do so, every kid needs to have a rebbe they have a personal connection with. This is not a thing people get anywhere else,” said Rabbi Friedman, noting that the school now has 13 rabbis on staff in addition to general studies staff, aside from the administration. There are seven shiur options for 65 boys, all which are chosen exclusively by the boys themselves.
“The kids were super happy by us. Every day was an enjoyable, meaningful experience.” He explained that students are never forced to do anything at a specific time, and the only rules the students had was to stay on campus during designated hours, “with drugs, alcohol and bullying prohibited.”
The seniors all graduated, grew tremendously and got into college, with most going to Israel. “We have a wide range of yeshivas that boys will be going to such as Reishit, Lev HaTorah, Netiv Aryeh, Keshet Yehuda, TJ, Derech Ohr Somayach and TVA.”
“The first year was very good, but there were a few things we learned along the way,” said Rabbi Friedman. What really worked was the Judaics program. “Having kids not graded and forced to daven or learn, that really impacted the students. Over the summer there was a lot of personal growth. Much more inspired, they have become more involved [in their yiddishkeit] and grown immensely. They are also happier. They genuinely feel that the school is a place where they can rely on and have people they trust.”
One thing that didn’t go quite as planned was the general studies curriculum, which was envisioned as a program that students could complete entirely online. “It was very frustrating because it did not have any modifications or tracks. It was a tremendous amount of work and the honors track/one-size-fits-all model was not adaptable. We began moving into a hybrid model of three or four live classes, for English, math, music, science for ninth and 10th, with history online. Eleventh and 12th grade had both history and science online.”
The school has now moved to a program that allows for program modifications and for students with IEPs (individualized education plans).
“Because the program we worked with was so difficult, we brought in math and English teachers to supplement the online work with that, in order to help the students. This led us to create a model that is more balanced,” said Rabbi Friedman.
“For secular studies, it’s important to recognize the mistake we made. A better balance of both online and in-person is a better approach,” he said. “If a student misses a certain number of classes, he fails the course. It’s not optional to not go to those classes. They have to be there in order to pass.
“It’s very hard generally for kids in 2021 to sit still with back-to-back classes. With the hybrid model, they can do their coursework at night, on weekends and in school, but they can do other things at school if they want,” he explained.
“The schedule generally at Ohr Yisroel is designed to break schedules up so they don’t have to sit too long back-to-back, so days never feel super long. There were a few guys who didn’t want to do their work [as assigned], so along with conversations with their parents, we set them up to take their GED and started them taking online college classes. One student had an internship in the afternoon.
“The idea is that the kids not only feel empowered but actually be empowered to continue their education in effective ways,” Rabbi Friedman said.
Friedman also learned that guest speakers for limudei kodesh were positive, but were not as effective “as often as we were having it. These were more like lectures and not dialogues. It’s better to have learning based on a relationship, so the students preferred to have fewer lectures and more dialogues. We are making modifications to this year’s schedule based on that feedback.”
The school is also adjusting their business classes for seniors for this year, based on the experience their students had last year. The school will teach Excel and Powerpoint, as well as personal finance, exploring topics such as budgeting, leasing vs. buying, credit cards and bank accounts. “Originally it was people coming to explain what they did, like career development, but the talmidim wanted to understand more real-world applicable concepts.”
This summer, the school ran a program to Arizona. Thirteen boys went with Rav Gabi Rosenberg and Marc Shapiro and had a terrific time. In fact, the kids were enthusiastic about attending school the whole year. “When kids in other schools were out because of COVID or snow, our guys would fight to have us open the building,” Rabbi Friedman said. “Kids wanted to be there. I guarantee that’s not happening anywhere else, I promise you.”