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Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael Shines A Light on Learning
The latest chapter in the story of Jewish education in Greater Boston began on September 2, 2014, when Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael, a new boys’ high school, opened its doors to its first ninth-grade class of six students. The school was founded by menahel Rabbi Uri Feldman to respond to a perceived need among some in the Brookline-Brighton Jewish community for an Orthodox boys-only school with a solid Torah orientation as well as excellent secular studies that would prepare students for college and a career.
Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael’s permanent home will be at 325 Reservoir Road in Brighton in a three-story, 4,400-square-foot building just off of Beacon Street overlooking the Cleveland Circle Reservoir. While renovation on the site is completed, classes are meeting on the upper floor of the Sephardic Community of Greater Boston, also in Brighton.
The site of Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael's eventual home in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston.
Traditional in-depth study of Mishnah and Gemara forms the foundation of religious studies at the new school, but the Judaic curriculum also includes a number of unique features. Mussar—ethics and developing positive character traits—plays a key part in Torah learning at YOY; the school is named for the signature book by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, pioneer of the mussar movement. Classes begin each day with 15 minutes of mussar study and discussion. Additionally, prominent members of the Boston Jewish community share mussar thoughts with students once a week.
YOY devotes more attention than usual for day schools to Nach (the non-Torah books of the Bible) and Jewish thought, spending two class sessions per week on each of these topics. Feldman laments that they “tend to be neglected because it is assumed that students studying in a yeshiva automatically have developed a well-developed Orthodox hashkafah,” or outlook on Judaism. “This assumption can leave students lacking the knowledge and tools for addressing challenging questions throughout their lives.”
The student body comes from diverse backgrounds within Orthodoxy, and Rabbi Feldman aims to expose the boys to an eclectic spectrum of hashkafos. This year, for example, features a Friday class on Chassidic commentaries on the weekly parshah. “We anticipate that some of our students will come from families where Chassidus is a focal point,” Feldman explains. “We want these families to feel included in the YOY community. We also feel that the other students will benefit by getting a richer understanding of the full range of insightful Torah approaches and thinking.”
General studies focuses on the core curriculum subjects, taught in two schedule blocks combining related subjects, math/science and English/history. “The double block encourages interdisciplinary studies and helps the students to integrate the way they think about these studies,” says general studies director Dr. Peter Holland. Hebrew is the only foreign language class, and computer science is offered as an elective.
In line with Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael’s goal of readying college-bound students, the school will highlight SAT preparation—with Holland foreseeing teachers conducting special workshops on the exam—and include Advanced Placement courses as the current freshmen move closer to graduation.
Ohr Yisrael joins a growing trend of high schools teaching physics as the ninth-grade science course, continuing with chemistry, then culminating with biology and Advanced Placement courses in any of these subjects. At a December 2013 information night for families of prospective students, Holland observed that historically high schools have sequenced these subjects in the reverse order, but “today, biology has become a lot of biochemistry, a lot of microbiology, and it really depends upon knowing more about chemistry and physics.”
In mathematics, the school is starting with Algebra I and plans to progress students into geometry, Algebra II, pre-calculus, and, for some, calculus. To accommodate the varied range in mathematical aptitude usually found in any given class, however, Ohr Yisrael will take advantage of the individual attention made possible by small class size to allow each student to learn math at his own pace. This format enables more proficient students to accelerate their advancement without more challenged students feeling left in the dust.
Approaches to Education
The flexibility afforded by small classes also figures in another strategy implemented across the Judaic and general studies programs. Both Feldman and Holland cite the importance of differentiated instruction—employing multiple instructional methods targeted to students’ various learning styles, such as visual, auditory, activity-based, and the like. Small classes allow instructors to grow more familiar with each student’s learning style and thus more effectively tailor their teaching methods. While Feldman notes that the school plans to add one grade each year until it reaches a full ninth-to-twelfth-grade scale, it plans to keep its average class size at eight to twelve students.
“Rabbi Feldman and I think that technology allows students and teachers to greatly expand the range and depth of their learning,” attests Holland, and Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael promotes its use in the classroom. “For instance, thanks to a generous sponsor, we have outfitted all of our boys with Chromebook laptop computers,” Feldman reports. Students use the Chromebooks for writing and storing essays in Google Drive, where teachers can read and comment on them; researching the Dead Sea Scrolls and Aleppo Codex; and reading comprehension exercises. They also complete physics assignments through online resources, practice math on the website IXL, and one student even takes an independent math course online.
Do you think a religious school can excel equally at both religious and secular education?
How It Happened
Feldman relates that over the past few years, several people approached him about creating a boys’ high school like Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael, combining rigorous Judaic studies with a strong secular studies program—an option they felt the Boston area lacked. Feldman held a meeting with ten families interested in starting a school in July 2013, and then began taking concrete steps to plan the school.
They likely came to Feldman because of his extensive background in Jewish education. Completing a master’s degree from Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Leadership, he taught a Gemara class at the Mesivta of Greater Boston prior to YOY's opening and led the Torah Club for high school students at the Maimonides School. Feldman gives an adult Gemara class at the Kollel of Greater Boston, which he is a former member of; in addition, he began a Gemara class for Boston University students and lectures for the Meor Maimonides kiruv organization at Harvard.
Holland joined the effort for starting Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael in the fall of 2013. Originally a high school science teacher, Holland has also served as a department chair, principal, and, from 1988 to 2008, Superintendent of Belmont Public Schools. Since retiring, he has filled consulting roles for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “A friend told me about the new school and indicated that the founding rabbi would like to talk with an experienced school administrator about the start-up,” Holland recalls. “I met with Rabbi Feldman several times and as he told me about his vision for the school, I became very interested and excited about the possibilities …”
Although a few of this year’s students come from families who first approached Feldman about founding YOY, he tells that “most parents and students became interested when they saw the mission of the school and its early faculty.” The information night in December 2013 helped word about the school take off.
Many specifics about the future for Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael—which Advanced Placement courses to offer and electives to add, whether to teach more foreign languages—remain up in the air. As a rule, Feldman and Holland reply that the answers to these uncertainties will depend on student interest and demand when the time comes. YOY was founded to cater to the needs and wants of those it serves, and this purpose will steer it through the years ahead.