Nestled in Englewood’s fourth ward is Yeshiva Ohr Simcha, a boarding school that draws 14- through ‘0-year-olds from all over the country and Canada to its four-year high school program and three-year post-graduate beit midrash program.
"At day schools, kids come in, do their work, and then go home," said Rabbi Yosef Strassfeld, the school’s principal. "When boys live here, this is their home. For all practical purposes we are their family."
Strassfeld lives across the street from the yeshiva. He and his wife, Chaya, eat Shabbat meals in the dining hall with the school’s 90-plus students and take them on errands.
Students work on lessons at Yeshiva Ohr Simcha in Englewood. Photos by josh lipowsky
"Many of the students, being far away from home, need somebody to turn to for advice, encouragement, help with homework," Strassfeld said. "We try to give them the feeling this is all part of one family."
Older students will spend time with younger boys, take them on walks, and reassure those who are uneasy in their new environment, Strassfeld said. "That’s what makes everybody one family. We have a lot of brothers."
Englewood residents may see Ohr Simcha’s students at ShopRite, and if somebody is heading in the direction of the yeshiva they may ask for rides. The yeshiva aims to make its students feel a part of Englewood through trips to city parks and community programs, Strassfeld said. The boys offer their services as tutors to day school students in Englewood. They also check mezuzot and tefillin, as well as shatnes. When somebody needs extra people to make a minyan, the students are ready.
"It’s extremely important to me they become an integral part of the community," said Strassfeld.
Once, he recalled, he was telephoned by someone who needed to say the mourner’s Kaddish but was stuck in Toronto and would not arrive home until after midnight. When he did arrive at the airport, though, nine yeshiva students were waiting for him, to make up the needed minyan.
"The yeshiva feels it should be a resource not only for the boys, but a resource for the entire community," said Rabbi Gidon Lane, director of Ohr Simcha’s community enrichment program. The yeshiva runs educational programs in Englewood and Teaneck several times a week, including an overview for patients and personnel at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center of the weekly Torah portion.
When they tutor young children, the students are more like big brothers, Lane said. "They’ll play a little ball, buy them a nosh. It’s a positive experience," he said.
The yeshiva "has become part of the mosaic and diversity of Englewood," said Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes.
While some of the students will continue on to four-year colleges or vocational schools the day is divided between secular and Judaic studies many go to Israel or to Lakewood, a tight-knit Orthodox enclave, to continue their educations. (Like many schools, religious or not, Ohr Simcha offers SAT preparatory courses.)
Yosef Zavulunov just completed 1’th grade at the school and plans to begin a beit midrash program in Lakewood in the fall. The 18-year-old from Queens began at Ohr Simcha in 10th grade because of the quality of the school’s rabbis and support for its students, he said. As part of the school’s tutoring program, he tutors three children, 7 to 17 years old. His time at the yeshiva has completely changed him from when he began three years ago, he said.
"When you come to yeshiva, it makes you into a different person," he said. "They build you into something. They prepare you for life."
Rabbi Don Blumberg, Ohr Simcha’s rosh yeshiva, started a high school in Manhattan 14 years ago. After so many years there, he wanted a school that would be near Manhattan but not in Manhattan proper. After talking with the Orthodox Union’s Rabbi Menachem Genack, who lives in Englewood, Blumberg learned that a building for sale in Englewood’s East Hill neighborhood was zoned for a school.
That’s how Yeshiva Ohr HaTalmud started 10 years ago, with ‘6 boys, but it quickly outgrew its space. It sold its building to what would become the East Hill Synagogue and moved to a larger complex on Forest Avenue.
Ohr Talmud changed its name three years ago in honor of one of its students, Simcha Davis, who was killed in a car accident. His parents, Yosef and Edie Davis, helped finance an expansion of the school in their son’s name. Legally, the yeshiva operates under both names.
A board of directors oversees the school’s financial matters, but the education is left to its rabbis. While tuition costs $1′,000 per year, many of the students are on scholarship, Strassfeld said. Approximately 60 percent of the school’s budget comes from solicitations, donations, and Ohr Simcha’s annual dinner.
Within the next year the yeshiva plans to expand its facility, adding in ‘0,000 square feet for a new gymnasium and more dorm rooms. The yeshiva’s faculty members take the students swimming and to parks in the summer but the school wants to be able to properly nurture its students both mentally and physically, Strassfeld said.