On Sunday, June 12, I sat for over two hours at my son’s high school graduation, listening to speech after speech. And it did not seem like even two minutes!
Ohr Yisroel of Tenafly held its graduation ceremony on Sunday night as its second class of graduates, 15 in all, proudly gathered in their black caps and gowns and gold tassels, reminiscent of the school’s colors. This was a graduation unlike any other I have ever attended, whether my own or my children’s ceremonies over the years.
Before I explain what was so incredibly different, remarkably unique and overwhelmingly special about the two hours I spent at the Ohr Yisroel graduation, I would like to explain what Ohr Yisroel is as a school and as a movement.
Avery, who just graduated, spent two years at another high school where he was miserable for many reasons. Sure, some of it was your typical teenage angst, but the atmosphere in the school, the strong political views encouraged by teachers and administration to the exclusion of other viewpoints, the dearth of strong male role models, led to a kid who was very unhappy. Despite pleas with the administration, Avery’s unhappiness was pinned entirely on him, leaving us frustrated as parents that he was not receiving the care or concern that he needed at school, and which was having an impact on his motivation and therefore his schoolwork.
And then COVID hit! For Avery, COVID school was a blessing in disguise. He quickly discovered that Zoom worked really well for him, his grades soared, and he was happy because he wasn’t in the school atmosphere that was not as nurturing as we as parents had certainly hoped he would experience. COVID helped us realize just how miserable Avery was, and we decided to explore other options for him.
It was just as we were exploring these options that we heard murmurs of a new school in the works. I had known Rabbi Scott Friedman from my own time working with him at TABC more than a decade ago. What has always struck me about Rabbi Friedman is the incredible and genuine love he has for each of his students; they are like his own children. We had a conversation with Rabbi Friedman and discussed the possibility of Avery starting at Ohr Yisroel as a junior. It was during this conversation that we began to more fully understand the educational philosophy he was proposing for the new school, and we quickly realized that this was an environment in which Avery could really excel. The decision was made, Avery began his 11th grade as a student at Ohr Yisroel.
To say that we were anxious being pioneers, even slightly concerned about our son’s academic success, would be an understatement. But over these past two years, we have come to truly appreciate the value that Rabbi Friedman, the rebbeim and teachers at Ohr have brought to Avery and our family.
Ohr Yisroel is not run like your typical high school. The model is one where students have a great deal of flexibility in Judaic studies, recognizing that not every kid enjoys learning Gemara, not every kid has the desire to pore over Rashi and Tosafot with little practical relevance to their world right now. Some kids need to learn the incredible beauty of Judaism in a manner that is not forced. Some kids need to experience learning about who they are as Jews, our history as a people, the practical halachot that govern our way of life, and yes even Gemara, Rashi and Tosafot for those who wish to embark on serious, text-based learning. Ohr has this all. But that’s not Avery. And Ohr Yisroel recognized that.
Avery was thrilled to be able to choose which Judaic subjects he was interested in and had the incredible opportunity to learn with and from superstars in the Jewish educational world: Rabbi Elan Soniker, Rabbi Aharon Ciment and of course, Rabbi Scott Friedman. Did Avery attend every shiur? No, but the school’s model allows for this flexibility, and for him and all the students to explore who they are as Jews.
On the general studies side, Avery excelled. Although he completed all his general studies courses through the online school system Ohr used from the Keystone School, Ohr has evolved to a teacher-based model, recognizing that the online model simply did not work for all the students. It is truly remarkable watching the school learn from its experiences and pivot to ensure that they are providing an excellent college preparatory education for all Ohr graduates. When Rabbi Friedman and his team recognize that something isn’t working, they make changes. More importantly, when Rabbi Friedman and his team recognize that something isn’t working for even one student, they make adjustments so that that student is taken care of and that their specific needs are met.
As an aside, we knew that something incredible was going on at Ohr when Avery would open his laptop minutes after Havdala to do schoolwork. Never having experienced this strange phenomenon before, the only thing we could point to as the cause for this sudden focus and motivation was Ohr Yisroel.
Now, back to the two-hour graduation that felt like no more than a couple of minutes. Rabbi Friedman did something I have never seen before at any graduation: He spoke personally about and to each graduate. Each graduating senior was publicly recognized for his strengths, for what he brought to the Ohr community, and Rabbi Friedman shared a deeply personal bracha for success with each graduate. Several times during the evening, Rabbi Friedman was moved to tears as he spoke about students who had come so far, had grown so profoundly as an individual and as a Jew. Rabbi Friedman and the Ohr rebbeim had been on some incredible journeys with their students and the emotional weight of it showed for all to see and experience.
But something else, even more incredible took place: Each student had the opportunity to share their own thoughts on their Ohr Yisroel experience. Graduate after graduate spoke about the abounding love the rebbeim feel for each of their students; they spoke about the profound impact Ohr has had on their lives as Jews; they spoke about the sometimes-incredible metaphorical distances they had traveled to reach their graduation, each one thanking his rebbi for being at his side throughout their journey.
Ohr Yisroel may not be a good fit for every student, but it has been a remarkably good fit for Avery and his fellow Ohr alumni. Ohr’s model is one that took us as parents time to get used to. We’re used to a more structured environment, with schedules (and a graduation date that doesn’t change seven times to be 100% sure every graduate and their family could attend). However, Ohr Yisroel turned out to be the absolute right choice for Avery and his fellow graduates. While Ohr Yisroel may not suit every student, it is well worth exploring to see if it’s an option for your son—who may not be into Rashi and Tosafot either—and is yearning for an environment where his growth as a Jew is paramount to a faculty that has, certainly for Avery and the Ohr Yisroel Class of 2022, become like family.
Ryan Hyman is a member of the Ohr Yisroel of Tenafly board. If you’d like to learn more about the school from a parent’s perspective, feel free to email him at [email protected].