The school’s 16 students begin the day at 7:45 with shacharit prayers and continue with Talmud studies until mid-afternoon, when they switch to a general studies curriculum until they go home at 6. While it may seem like a long day mostly spent on Judaic studies, Ohr Yosef’s administrators insist the school has a heavy emphasis on secular studies that will get its students into the colleges of their choice.
Housed in Cong. Kehillat Kesher on the Englewood/Tenafly border, the school, which began its first year last month, is the brainchild of its director, Rabbi Herschel Grossman, and its president, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, who is also the rosh yeshiva of Ner Israel in Baltimore. The pair began work more than a year ago to create a "traditional yeshiva-style education that will appeal to a broad and diverse student body," Grossman said.
"We’re not looking to impose a one-size-fits-all religious standard of discipline," he said. "We want to provide an environment that allows for the possibility of varied options."
The 16 students, all ninth-graders, begin their day in Kehillat Kesher’s sanctuary before moving to a classroom upstairs. They mostly come from Passaic and Rockland counties. Four out-of-state students board with area families. The school has no students from Bergen County but Grossman is confident that will change once the school establishes itself.
Rabbi Yisroel Teichman of Cong. K’hal Adath Jeshurun of Paramus is the school’s mashgiach ruchani or guidance counselor. Besides working with Grossman in administration, he provides a class in Gemorra and shapes the format of the tefillah, prayer. He agreed with Grossman that the school will attract more local students after its first year.
"Bergen County parents are very well informed and really prefer an institution with a track record," Teichman said. "When we have a successful track record we’ll be much more attractive for them."
Asked if the area can sustain another day school, Teichman replied, "Bergen County is really a growing community. There’s really room for everybody here."
Neither Teichman nor Grossman could classify the religiosity of the school’s students. Rather, Teichman said, the best feel for the type of student the school attracts is gained from watching the students pray. Some wear a hat and jacket during services, some wear just a jacket, and some wear neither.
"That’s some of the flavor," he said. "Most of the boys are somewhere in between."
The rabbi envisions the school becoming a local high school for the Teaneck/Bergenfield area, as well as a "school of choice" for parents in the Monsey and Passaic areas "parents who would like to have all the benefits of a traditional yeshiva education but also like their children to go to college," he said.
Grossman’s vision for the school, which he believes is unique, is to provide that traditional atmosphere with an emphasis on secular education that Teichman described.
"Today the nature of Jewish education has to change a little bit," Grossman said. "We’re striving to create an environment that will promote excellence in academics but at the same time to make sure all students will succeed to the best of their abilities and to create an environment where religiosity is admired and aspired to."
Tuition costs $1′,500 but no students were turned away if they were unable to pay, Grossman said. To defray the $’00,000 start-up costs, the school received aid from "philanthropists who are interested in the vision of providing a yeshiva with a healthy respect for general studies, and a lot of people who I was able to convince of my own vision."
To provide the school’s emphasis on general studies, Grossman hired Richard Wagner of West Orange to be the general studies principal. A long-time Jewish educator who has worked as a consultant for Jewish schools for several years, Wagner said he made certain that the school followed state standards. In addition to supervising the general studies program, he is teaching English and literature.
The state does not have specific requirements for independent schools. Rather, it recommends schools fulfill certain requiements in order to provide a complete education. Ohr Yosef looked at curricula from public and private schools and standardized achievement tests like the ACT.
"What we intend to do for the benefit of the school and the students and their families is to give the different ACT high school-level tests year by year so that when a youngster is entering 10th grade, he will have a sense of what he has accomplished based on the norms of other high school students across the country," Wagner said. "This will help them be prepared as best as possible for university study."
Students will return to Ohr Yosef on Monday after a two-week break. While it has only ninth-grade students now, Grossman expects it will have a ninth- and 10th-grade class next year. Another room in Kehillat Kesher awaits the second class. Once the school grows to include three grades, however, it will have to seek out a new location. Grossman is confident it will make the transition when the time comes.
While the students spend 10 hours a day at the school four days a week, half a day on Fridays, and half a day on Sundays, the secular studies are taught only Monday through Thursday.
The general and Judaic studies work in tandem with each other, though, Wagner said, which maximizes what the school can do with its time. The school’s biology teacher, Jon Greenberg of Paramus, was a member of the editorial staff at Prentice Hall and worked on the science textbook the school uses. He also maintains a Website on flora and Torah, which explores aspects of biblical plant life.
"He brings a Jewish quality to his teaching of science, as I do with literature," Wagner said. "In studying world geography, one of the things they will use as exemplars are demographic patterns of Jews across history. When Judaic studies and general studies are mutually supportive of each other, it doesn’t detract from either but supplements both."