All your friends are waiting for you," said Jessica Kohn, as she greeted a late-arriving child at the Ben Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Leonia.
Kohn, the early childhood development coordinator at the school, stands at the door every morning to greet the children as they arrive. But that doesn’t make the yeshiva unique its Hebrew immersion program does.
Starting from age ‘ 1/’, children are exposed to Hebrew from the minute they enter school, by teachers who will speak mostly or only Hebrew with them. For the kindergarten through third-grade classes, the day is split between Hebrew and secular studies.
David Hemed, Idan Glickman, and Dalia Cohen look at the differences in Ashkenazic and Sephardic Torahs.
"In first grade they fluently understand the Hebrew. In third grade they’re talking in Hebrew," said Rabbi Tomer Ronen, the head of school.
"The Hebrew is really unparalleled here," Kohn said. "They understand everything by first grade."
Objects in classrooms are labeled with English in black and Hebrew in red, so that even the students who cannot read yet can learn to identify between the two. Each class has a teacher who speaks only in Hebrew as well as one who speaks English. The students learn how to switch between the two languages without one language’s accent influencing the other, Ronen said.
"It’s a goal that the kids speak like Israelis," said Stanley Fischman, director of general studies.
During the Hebrew part of the day, a rabbi teaches Torah to half the class while the rest learn other areas of Judaic studies.
Ben Porat Yosef uses Jewish studies to enrich secular studies, Kohn said. If the students are learning about Noah and the flood, they will also have a lesson on the water cycle. If they are learning about the Exodus from Egypt, they will look at slavery in America.
"We don’t want the children to come out wearing one hat for Judaic studies and one hat for general studies," Kohn said.
Even though Ben Porat Yosef bills itself as a Sephardic yeshiva, it is open to both Sephardic and Ashkenazic students and teaches customs from both traditions.
While it is traditional for Ashkenazim to dip apples into honey during Rosh HaShanah, Sephardim dip apples into sugar, because honey comes from bees, which sting. At Ben Porat Yosef, the children performed both customs, Kohn said. They then had a taste test to see which they liked better.
During Sukkot Chol Hameod, when the school remained open, unlike other local yeshivas, the head of school had two Torahs brought in for the students to look at one Sephardic, one Ashkenazic. Ronen asked the students to point out the differences between the two. They said they looked different.
"I said they look different but if you look letter for letter they are exactly the same," Ronen said. "Even though they came from different sides of the globe, they are exactly the same. There is no difference between us. This is how our kids understand the differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. We are all part of Am Yisrael."
The school rents space from Cong. Sons of Israel. Plans have been drawn up for a new building on several acres behind the synagogue, but discussions are still under way about how to reach that goal, Kohn said.
The 140 children at Ben Porat Yosef are enrolled only through third grade. Eventually, the administration wants to see the school graduate classes through the eighth grade. But each grade will have only two classes, so as to maintain a small teacher/student ratio.
Avi Naiman, the overseas chair of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, has sent his 8-year-old son to Ben Porat Yosef since it opened its doors five years ago. Although initially attracted by the Hebrew immersion program, Naiman, who is Ashkenaz, said the Sephardic atmosphere is part of why he sends his son to the school.
"The school can provide him things I could never provide in my home," he said. "I’m learning about Sephardi [traditions] while he is. But for him it’ll be a second language."