“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.
(Photos: Amir Levy)
ay 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.
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.’ ”
As the war came to a close, mother and son made their way to Austria, then to a DP camp in Italy. There was a Zionist school in the camp, with Keren Kayemet tzedakah boxes and photos of Theodore Herzl. The Freilichs were primed to move to Eretz Yisrael; Mrs. Freilich even set aside money from her sewing earnings to invest in pots, pans, and other utensils for their new life in the Holy Land.
But then, an uncle sent papers for them to join him in the US, offering himself as their sponsor. “There were American GIs in the camp,” Rabbi Freilich remembers, “and they told us, ‘In America, the streets are lined with gold, you can just pick it up!’ ” Persuaded by the twin lures of family and prosperity, Eli’s mother gave away the pots and pans and left with her son to the US.
The uncle lived in Baltimore, where he owned a grocery store in a black neighborhood. The Freilichs lived in a room upstairs, and Eli — who spoke no English yet and had little Hebrew or Torah knowledge — was enrolled in the Talmudical Academy.
“I was a big boy in a class with the little kids,” he recalls — an experience that surely sensitized him later to Ezra students, many of them immigrant kids with no Jewish background. But he caught up fairly quickly, mainstreamed, and eventually decided to attend the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn.
In those days, it was common for Mir talmidim to attend college, and Eli and his friends eventually enrolled in Brooklyn College. Eli majored in education and accounting. A friend introduced him to a fellow Brooklyn College student named Chavi (nee Weiss), and they were soon engaged.
The new Mr. and Mrs. Freilich moved to Crown Heights; Rabbi Freilich learned in the Mir kollel and then took his first teaching job at HANC (Hebrew Academy of Nassau County), under pioneering Rabbi Meyer Fendel, who bravely founded this day school out in West Hemptead, Long Island, before the town even had an Orthodox shul. Rabbi Freilich taught seventh grade limudei kodesh, and mathematics in the afternoons.
This led to a better-paying offer closer to home: a teaching job at Magen David Yeshivah in Bensonhurst. “It was the 1960s, and it paid $6,500 a year,” Rabbi Freilich recalls. “Then I took on work twice a week in the afternoons, teaching at one of the Talmud Torahs that were flourishing at that time, and that paid an extra $2,500-$3,000, so altogether my salary was $10,000 a year.
“I’m still making that amount,” he chuckles.
At some point, Rabbi Freilich found himself frustrated with teaching, with the communal askanim and balabatim giving their unsolicited input. And so he put teaching on hold and instead went to work for a company that manufactured swimwear. Then his tenant, Rabbi Yitzchok Mann z”l, approached him. “I know you’re not really fulfilled working in business. Your real calling is chinuch,” he said. “I have an opportunity for you. You’d be your own boss — no balabatim!”
Of course, no balabatim also meant…no balabatim — in other words, no one to finance the school.
What was this golden opportunity? In 1968, there was a strike in the public schools. “The parents were going crazy,” Rabbi Freilich recounts, “so Rabbi Elihu Marcus z”l, together with some people from the Board of Jewish Education, had the idea to take Jewish kids with very little background and offer them a Jewish school. All he needed was a sucker like me to take the job.”
They knew they couldn’t open a regular yeshivah, so they began with grades four through six, which soon expanded to grade eight. Eventually, however, when a high school opened, it made sense to remain only a junior high and high school. It would have been impossible to attract public school students without making the school coed, so the founders compromised by making the general studies classes coed but separating the limudei kodesh classes. Since the students were coming in with widely different levels of Judaic background, they were placed in limudei kodesh classes not according to age, but level.
Financially, it was tough. After Ezra’s first year, Rabbi Freilich drove a taxi in Manhattan all summer to make ends meet. “My wife would wait for me to bring my tips home so she could buy groceries,” he recalls.
The school was originally housed in Jamaica and Richmond Hills, before moving to a small building across from Shimon’s Pizza on Main Street. Then, 28 years ago, Ruby Schron and Dov Wolowitz found the current building, a former commercial business school, and deemed it a good investment. Together with Zev Wolfson and Paul Reichmann, they put together money for a down payment and manageable mortgage, and Ezra has been in this space ever since.
These were the days before professional kiruv activists; nevertheless, the idea was to acquaint students with the beauty of Torah and traditional Jewish values, and Rabbi Freilich knew he’d need a special staff to handle his population. Rabbi Freilich’s wife, Chavi a”h, came on board as secretary, complementing her husband’s presence as school “father” with her warm, motherly involvement with the students. Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, now rav of Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, became one of the school’s early teachers.
Rabbi Weinberger, who left the school close to 15 years ago, recalls his years at Ezra with contagious enthusiasm. “It was one of the most beautiful periods of my life,” he tells Mishpacha. “Many former talmidim now live in my neighborhood and daven in the shul.”
Rabbi Weinberger had been teaching high-level Gemara in a traditional yeshivah, but felt a calling to work with students who needed more of a boost. Someone suggested he speak to Rabbi Freilich. “We had a long discussion, and we simply fell in love with each other,” Rabbi Weinberger says. “He told me the salary and the hours, and reached into a desk drawer. I thought he was going to pull out a contract. Instead, he pulled out a bottle of schnapps and we made a l’chayim.
“We never did sign a contract, but I stayed there for 23 years.”
Rabbi Weinberger taught not only limudei kodesh, but also English literature and history; the idea wasn’t just to earn extra parnassah, but to show the students that a rebbi could also know “normal” subjects. It also provided a way for him to infuse Torah hashkafos into secular studies.
He Set the Tone
Rabbi Nachum Dinowitz is one of Rabbi Weinberger’s former talmidim and speaks of his Ezra days with that same love and nostalgia. Now a rebbi at Yeshiva Darchei Torah, he declares, “People go into chinuch for one of two reasons: either to fix the system, or because they had phenomenal rebbeim they want to emulate. I belong to the second category.”
Rabbi Dinowitz says it was Rabbi Freilich who set the tone for the yeshivah. He was the captain, the father figure. “I could tell you stories all day about Rabbi Freilich,” he says. “Even as jaded teenagers, we knew he had this amazing love for us. He would have walked through Gehinnom and back for us.”
Because of that love, Rabbi Freilich was able to push them forward when they were ready. Rabbi Weinberger tells how “he’d give a guy five dollars — this was 25 years ago — and tell him, ‘Go get a haircut.’ If the guy protested, ‘But how come Adam has a ponytail?’ he’d answer, ‘When you understand the difference between you and Adam, and who you are and who he is, then you can complain.’ ”
Weinberger recalls staying late one night in his office, and as he left he passed Rabbi Freilich’s office, still lit up, he paused to say goodnight. “There he was, playing chess with the most difficult kid in the school,” he says. “No one had the faintest idea. But he poured life into each kid; he understood where each kid was at.”
He recalls another boy who seemed to sleep through each day. The rebbeim, frustrated, proposed getting rid of him. “Let him stay,” Rabbi Freilich said. “His father is out of work, and at five o’clock every day the boy goes to work. He’s supporting his entire family.”
Rabbi Dinowitz remembers being in gym class with his fellow students, struggling to do exercises on the floor and complaining mightily. Rabbi Freilich walked in and exclaimed, “You guys are babies!”
“So you do it!” the kids rejoined.
Rabbi Freilich took off his jacket, folded it, placed it on a chair, and proceeded to do the exercise with them until none of the students could move any more. He got up, put the jacket back on, repeated his challenge, “You guys are babies!” and strode from the room. “Later he told us he was in pain later on — he really didn’t have all that strength,” Rabbi Dinowitz says. “What he had was strength of character.”
Everything’s on the Table
The demographics at Ezra have changed radically since its inception in 1968. “We began with a more American group, more Ashkenazic,” Rabbi Freilich says. “The families belonged to Reform and Conservative shuls. Now most of those shuls have moved out of Queens. For a while we had a lot of Russians. In the 1980s we started getting a lot of Persians, but since then many have moved to Great Neck and are sending to more mainstream yeshivos or to places like HANC. These days we’re getting a lot of Bukharians; there are 50,000 Bukharians in Queens, with thousands of them in public schools.”
It has been a challenge to learn each new culture — even differences within cultures, like the differences between Persians from Mashad, Tehran, and Shiraz — and to keep students from remaining exclusively within their own group. “We had to learn how to speak to each different type of parent,” Rabbi Weinberger recalls.
Rabbi Freilich admits it’s not easy these days to recruit students, when Forest Hills High School is free (although tuition at Ezra is about half of what other yeshivah parents pay). “The Bukharians are making the same mistake the Ashkenazim did a generation ago; they think it’s enough to be culturally Jewish,” Rabbi Freilich says. “But now they’re seeing the result, a lot of intermarriage.”
A smaller student body means less funding. As the Russian and Persian influx waned, the school population dropped almost by half — it now numbers around 100 students. “We are on the tightest budget imaginable,” Rabbi Freilich says. “We run on miracles.” Ezra is, to some extent, a victim of its own success; alumni who became religious are too overwhelmed with yeshivah tuitions and high rents to make large contributions.
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.
Many of the kids come from completely secular backgrounds; some are from broken homes (the school provides both official and unofficial social workers). Many parents espouse liberal values often at odds with Torah values. “The kids come in with no sense of what is appropriate, what is inappropriate,” Rabbi Freilich says. “Everything is on the table. That’s why we have to be very careful who we put in the classroom.”
The issue of drug use provoked a long discussion about whether or not to institute random drug testing. “We spent a lot of time worrying about how we would break it to the students,” Rabbi Freilich says. “Finally I told them, ‘I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to give you an excuse not to try drugs over the weekends. We’re going to do random testing in school, and so you tell your friends, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do drugs, I could be tested on Monday in school.’
“We were petrified how they’d respond. You know what they said? They said, ‘Thank you, rabbi!’ They were relieved — and so were the parents.”
One of the primary things Rabbi Freilich has learned over the years is never to be surprised, and never to underestimate. Four years ago, one of the rebbeim wanted to do additional learning with his students, and proposed holding optional 7:30 a.m. sessions before yeshivah, like a cocoa club in camp. The rest of the staff wished him luck, but rolled their eyes at his naןvetי. Well, he started with four boys, and now he has 30 regulars, and they’ve now finished four masechtos.
Parents On Board
Even when students become inspired, parents don’t necessarily follow, at least not right away. While Ezra parents are obviously connected enough to want their children in a Jewish school, many are afraid that they’ll “flip out” and become ultra-Orthodox. It often leads to delicate situations, like the boy who was expected to lead the Seder at his grandmother’s house even though he knew the home would not really be kosher for Pesach. “But if I don’t go, my family will have no Seder at all,” he said.
“We told him to speak to his grandmother, and we offered to buy him all the food he needed for the Yom Tov from a caterer, with plastic plates and utensils,” says assistant principal Rabbi Moshe Friedler. “It worked out — the grandmother was actually thrilled to have a real kosher Seder.”
One mother threatened to throw herself off a balcony if her son became Orthodox; then there was the Persian woman who railed when her son refused to go out in a car on Shabbos. She called Rabbi Freilich to protest: “In Iran, we had a minhag for 200 years to drive cars on Shabbat!” Another family offered their daughter a car if she’d just pick it up on Shabbos. She refused, and instead would take a much longer route to school from Great Neck.
Modesty in dress is one of the main battlegrounds. “One young girl was prohibited from wearing modest clothing by her mother,” Rabbi Friedler says. “Her mother told her, how will you find a guy if the boys can’t see how attractive you are? That girl used to go to a friend’s house on non-school days and change into more modest clothing.”
“We discussed the idea of uniforms; we thought maybe it would solve the problem,” Rabbi Freilich explains. “But a group of girls approached us and said, ‘If we have uniforms, we won’t have any other tzanua clothing, because our parents won’t buy it for us. It’s better to just have a dress code so our parents will have to buy us stuff that’s appropriate.’ ”
In the end, however, parents understand that the staff truly wants the best for their children; they help them get into college, or go to Eretz Yisrael if indicated. And 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 and his staff invite students for Shabbos, spend countless hours conversing with them, and participate in shabbatons and retreats. Students are also brought to Far Rockaway for a shabbaton with Shor Yoshuv yeshivah families.
“The idea is to show them happy frum families, families with working parents who impress the kids as ‘normal’ while embodying Torah values,” Rabbi Weinberger says. When Rosh Yeshivah Rav Shlomo Freifeld was alive, he enjoyed meeting the students, and his famous singer-composer staffer Rabbi Shmuel Brazil used to play guitar and sing for them. Rav Freifeld called Ezra Academy a “hidden treasure,” and even after he became ill he would travel by ambulette to visit the school.
Ezra remains open on Erev Shavuos, because some students may not otherwise have the chance to learn over the holiday. Likewise, school is open one day of Chol Hamoed Succos, ensuring the students will be able to participate in Yom Tov davening and in a Simchas Beis Hashoeivah.
Jasmine Livian and her husband are both Ezra alumni, although she says that “my family was actually considered very religious, as we were nominally shomer Shabbos. But we’d go to our teachers’ homes and see how they interacted with their families, how they spent their Shabbos, and we’d think, ‘Wow, we also have a Shabbos table at home, but where are the divrei Torah, the singing, the warmth?’ For my husband, who came from a nonobservant family, it was a whole new world.”
Rabbi Freilich says his greatest nachas is seeing his former alumni found not only strong Jewish families, but even congregations; there is now a shul in Great Neck comprised almost entirely of Ezra graduates.
It’s particularly special for him when students return to become rebbeim and teachers at Ezra, or in various other yeshivos. “Our rebbeim were our lamplighters,” Rabbi Dinowitz, now of Darchei Torah, says. Now he and many of his former classmates endeavor to pass the torch they were handed, illuminating a new generation.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 677)
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