April 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

NJ’s Ohr Yisroel Yeshiva HS ‘Feels Like Home’

A new community yeshiva high school, now in its third year, prides itself on being a home for teens to find greater meaning and connection to their yiddishkeit. This model has clearly worked for Ohr Yisroel, and the yeshiva has experienced remarkable growth since its inception.

In the fall of 2020, the school opened its doors to a class of 20 students and was located in a house on the campus of Chabad of Tenafly. This fall, the school welcomed 81 students and is now based in Temple Israel in Ridgewood, with plans to move into a newly renovated building in Teaneck next year.

The yeshiva’s meteoric rise in student engagement is evident in the opening this fall of its new yeshiva gedola, a post year-in-Israel branch of the school, which currently has 24 students.

Yeshiva founder Rabbi Scott Friedman said: “We are so happy to see that all the graduates were admitted to great yeshivas and to the college of their choice. What’s most important to me is to see happy people. What can we do to help the boys find greater levels of happiness and meaning in their lives? That is not unique to Ohr Yisroel boys, that is really what every human being in life is after.”

If you really want to understand the impact of Ohr Yisroel, it helps to hear the honest reactions of a few of the students themselves.

Aiden Petak, a ninth grader from Tenafly, shared his experiences in the yeshiva he attended before coming to Ohr Yisroel. “I just felt like I [was] trapped in a prison [where] you can’t be yourself.” Asked why he is so fond of Ohr Yisroel, he commented, “They don’t force you to learn; you want to learn. [Learning there], I’ve realized that Hashem wanted you to be in this world for a certain reason and you just have to find out what the reason is.” Prompted to identify what he appreciated most about the school, Petak said, “The best parts of the school are definitely the shiurim and your connections with the rabbis and that all grades get to hang out with each other.”

Moshe Alexander, an 11th grader from Monsey, shared: “My experience in the other school I was in was not the most positive; I was being drained by tests and homework, especially in Jewish subjects. It just didn’t make sense, and not having a rebbe I can talk to about personal things. And my whole life the schools make it that Gemara, Chumash, anything limudei kodesh is just another subject like math and science by making you take notes for tests and homework the same as a history test. It really makes a kid not interested at all about their yiddishkeit. I mean why would they be interested in a religion that’s just another subject?

“Ohr Yisroel really feels like home to me. From the second you walk in you’re greeted by countless hugs from all the rebbeim and it’s such a warm place where everyone feels comfortable and is so happy to come in every day. The best part of Ohr for me is the rebbeim. There’s not one person in school that’s there to get you in trouble; they’re all just looking out for how you’re really doing and making sure you’re having the best time, and they’re there for you through anything. Just having an adult to show you the best way to live life who’s also your friend has to be my favorite part of Ohr.”

Alexander added: “Ohr Yisroel completely changed the way I look at Judaism. They show you that having a real rebbe is so important. And they teach you how important davening and learning is by not forcing it. It makes Judaism a light instead of a burden. You’re not graded or forced to be in davening or shiur but they make it so enjoyable. They teach you that Torah is the best and most enjoyable thing when you’re taught the right way by the right rebbe for you.”

How does Ohr Yisroel generate such positive engagement among its students? The yeshiva’s success stems in part from their unique approach to Torah studies, which includes:

Providing students with more flexibility in selecting their limudei kodesh options;

A “Torah Lishma,” no test, no homework and no grade approach to Torah classes;

Inspiring guest lecturers, and dialogues with rabbonim, in the style of Aish HaTorah;

A 12:1 talmid/rebbe ratio, which Rabbi Friedman said is “unheard of” in other yeshivas.

Ohr Yisroel’s novel approach extends to English studies, where they have enlisted top-notch general studies teachers and use cutting-edge technology tools to underscore the lessons. As Rabbi Asher Yablok, the principal of Ohr Yisroel, explained to The Jewish Link, “We have multiple general studies learning tracks, offer an abundance of learning support services, and are proud that all classes are now in person, which allows the development of strong teacher/student relationships. Many schools talk about putting the needs of students at the center of the school, yet most find it very difficult to do in practice. At Ohr Yisroel, we bring that concept to life and will find the options to help students succeed; one strong example is the growing number of our students now taking college classes at Fairleigh Dickinson University.”

Azzi Kimmel, the director of student life at Ohr Yisroel, serves as a liaison between students, parents and teachers and works proactively to make sure students succeed in their studies and build their comfort level in the school. He shared that with the school’s unique approach, six professionals are all invested in each student—the grade mashgiach; the shiur rebbe; the principal, Rabbi Yablok; the director of student life (Kimmel); the assistant principal, Rabbi Soniker; and Head of School Rabbi Scott Friedman.

“In our model, no one is slipping through the cracks. We listen intently to the students, offer them lots of options, and respond to their needs,” Kimmel said.

One other person who can tell you why Ohr Yisroel is such a rare commodity is Rabbi Yitz Greenman.

Greenman knows intuitively what a promising new organization looks like; he’s founded seven of them over his career, many of them widely known and all of them well-regarded. Greenman would raise the initial funding, set up the agency policies, and then enlist professional leadership to take the group to the next stage of long-term viability.

When a good friend of his, renowned entrepreneur Howard Jonas, told Greenman that he had to see an innovative new yeshiva, he took an afternoon and visited the school. Greenman was so impressed with what he saw, he left his then-current professional role and assumed the role of executive director of Ohr Yisroel. He’s been in the role since January 2022 and is very excited about the prospects of the school.

“What’s truly unique about Ohr Yisroel,” said Greenman, “is that it is dedicated to helping teens build strong self-esteem, healthy relationships with their family and friends, and positive bonds with Judaism and God. We have tremendous respect for the students in our school and we give them lots of freedom and latitude to build their own schedules. And we see them rise to meet the occasion every day.”

Asked how he can tell that the yeshiva is meeting its mission, Greenman stated: “We see our success in the reactions of parents, who tell us how much happier their children are now that they attend Ohr Yisroel and how they want to go to yeshiva. Most importantly, we see it in the many daily positive interactions with kids who previously weren’t so engaged with yeshiva life.”

For more information on Ohr Yisroel, visit their website at http://www.ohryot.org

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