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Learning by Heart

Barbara Bensoussan

“Kiruv” wasn’t yet a buzzword back in 1968, but that didn’t stop Rabbi Eli Freilich. Nearly half a century later, Ezra Academy is still living on miracles

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

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ONE FOR ALL The unifying goal of Ezra has always been to show teens from less-observant homes the beauty of a Torah lifestyle, and Rabbi Freilich isn’t particular about where students find their connection. His alumni are represented in yeshivish, Chabad, Breslov, Sephardic, and all other circles across the Orthodox spectrum (Photos: Amir Levy)

Say the word “kiruv,” and what comes to mind is campus outreach, or Birthright trips, or a Chabad house.

The favorite demographic for kiruv workers is the young-adult cohort, people old enough to think for themselves and young enough to change course in life.

But what if you could chap young people even earlier, before the toxic social environments of secular high schools and colleges lead to poor choices, warped perspectives, and Jewish alienation? Long before kiruv became a buzzword, Rabbi Eli Freilich decided to give it a try.

Back in 1968, he wondered if it would be possible to attract New York public school kids with weak or no Jewish background to a “late start” Jewish school that would meet them on their level. What he lacked in funding he made up in drive, and 49 years later, Ezra Academy is still that bridge school and Rabbi Freilich is still at the helm, having navigated the institution through nearly five decades of social and demographic changes.

Ezra Academy, today housed in an industrial-looking building off Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills, isn’t glamorous; there are no gleaming lobbies or indoor pools, no ultra-high-tech labs. But this heimish junior high and high school with about 100 students, which charges about half the tuition of most yeshivos in order to encourage local families to enroll their children in a Jewish environment, runs on a wing and a prayer — lots of prayers — and the indomitable spirit of its staff, headed by founder and longtime dean, Rabbi Freilich.


New Kid in Town

Rabbi Freilich’s decidedly lived-in office, filled with secondhand furniture and mismatched chairs, never attempted a stab at elegance. The surface of his large desk is covered with papers, and the walls are filled with his diplomas and awards, plus art work and photos from students and family. The bottom line, says Rabbi Freilich, is that at the core he’s really no different from his students — back in 1950, he, like many of those future talmidim, came to the United States from the Soviet Union as a young boy. He knows what it means to get a late start.

The staff shows up at every family’s simchahs. It’s that commitment to treating students like family that’s perhaps the recipe for Ezra’s success all these years

Rabbi Freilich’s parents were originally from Komarno, Poland, but in 1941, his father was drafted into the Polish army and never heard from again. “My mother gave birth to me without him,” Rabbi Freilich says. “I have just one photo of him.”

His mother took him and fled to Siberia, where she hid with a Christian family and supported the two of them by working as a seamstress (her salary was often a sack of potatoes). Rabbi Freilich remembers the Russian woman who sheltered them trying to convert them, ignoring the fact that he was Jewish as she showed him how to genuflect.

During the war, Haganah activists from Palestine were sent to help get Jews out of Siberia. Rabbi Freilich, then about four years old, remembers Russian officers coming onto the trains and throwing out all the men, directing them to a different train. The train with the women and children was allowed to pass; the men never made it out.

Mrs. Freilich and her young son Eli were the sole survivors of her immediate family. “My mother was a strong woman who always forged onward, but years later she once asked me, ‘Why did I survive, when my four siblings perished?’ ” Rabbi Freilich relates. “I answered her, ‘Ma, look at all the Jewish neshamos that stayed Jewish because you survived.’ ” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 677)

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