Rabbi Ari Schonfld leads night seder for 1,500 eager teens
At 7:45 p.m., Rabbi Ari Schonfeld launches a Zoom meeting from his home office in Passaic, New Jersey. By 7:46, 271 teenaged boys are logged on. Join the meeting at 7:47, and you can actually see the number of participants rise at a dizzying pace: 328, 452, 581. As the clock ticks closer to eight, and Rabbi Schonfeld, the mastermind behind Night Seder America, schmoozes with the boys, the numbers keep rising: 649, 666, 723, 759.
You listen to Rabbi Schonfeld play One Hen Two Ducks, or lead a Zoom version of Simon Says (“Not very well, but everyone has a good time”), or do an impression, or chant in a singsong. It’s nuts and wild and you can’t keep up, you’re breathless with anticipation every time he singles out another boy.
And this is just the warm-up.
All around America, and beyond, homebound boys are clicking on and dialing in and clamoring to join, and it doesn’t stop, the numbers keep changing: 774, 798, 802 — or actually double that number, because this is only one of Rabbi Schonfeld’s two Zoom accounts, and the other is just as busy. You’re overwhelmed as boys continue logging into this nightly seder, a free Gemara shiur and program that’s taken frum middle school boys — close to 1,500 of them — by storm.
He jokes, he teases, he plays Jewish geography, he teaches, and the kids lap it up.
“Do I Know Your Father?”
After Purim, when coronavirus regulations closed all schools in the US, eighth-grade rebbi Rabbi Ari Schonfeld was talking to his colleagues about what they could do with their students while they were all home. There was a plethora of entertainment options for frum kids, but Rabbi Schonfeld, who is also the junior high mashgiach at Yeshiva Beis Hillel of Passaic, was hoping to create a more serious program for bar mitzvah-age boys. He decided to give an online Gemara shiur on Maseches Tamid for three weeks, culminating in a siyum bechoros on Erev Pesach.
It didn’t take much to get Night Seder America off the ground; when Rabbi Schonfeld mentioned the idea that had been germinating in his head to a relative, the response was an offer to help fund it. Rabbi Schonfeld quickly hired someone to design a flyer advertising the program, which he emailed to family, friends, and his contact list from Camp Eeshay, a local camp he runs in the summer.
“I was hoping for 100 boys or so, but somehow the first night we got 300,” Rabbi Schonfeld remembers. That was March 19th, and as time passed and word spread, more boys joined.
The program was pretty packed: every night there was the shiur, a guest speaker, divrei Torah on the Haggadah to prepare the boys for Pesach, and games and raffles. At the siyum on Erev Pesach, Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky delivered a prerecorded mazal tov message to the boys.
The feedback to the program was so positive, Rabbi Schonfeld decided to continue after the siyum with what he calls Night Seder America 2.0.
“The chizuk and the zechus is something I wouldn’t change for the world,” Rabbi Schonfeld says. He’s gotten heartfelt messages from parents whose children have special needs and can’t attend yeshivah and now finally feel a connection to yeshivah bochurim and Torah. He’s gotten emails from single mothers who say that quarantines and lockdowns prevented their sons from interacting with any father figures, until they discovered Night Seder America. He tells about a father who sent him a picture of his son’s Gemara full of notes, commenting, “My son never wrote notes in his Gemara in his life. I woke up this morning at 7:45 and found him downstairs, chazering what you learned last night.”
By the time night seder starts at 8 p.m., there are usually close to 1,500 boys logged in. The first few minutes are spent reviewing the rules: how to raise your hand with the blue hand button on Zoom; “Don’t tell me my video is choppy, I know it is, Davi Robinson! Close your eyes, do you hear my voice? It’s clear, it’s fine, don’t worry about the video,” and so on.
First on the agenda is a chazarah raffle for whoever reviewed what they learned the prior night. That’s followed by the shiur — currently it’s Maseches Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Schonfeld reads and explains, teaches and reviews, all while keeping his students in the thick of the action. He calls on random kids just to say hello, to ask them what the next word in the Gemara is, to see if they know what this teitch word means. His shiur is peppered with “Ay aya y, Eliyahu Dovid Aderet, fregt the Gemara a kasha” and “Zevi Trinzer, Yeshiva Orchos Chaim, does that make sense to you?” He doesn’t know either boy personally, he just sees their names, their shining faces, on his screen.
He dispenses advice and lessons alike to the group, to these boys from the metropolitan New York area and beyond, from Oregon, Detroit, Montreal, California, Cincinnati, Seattle, Florida, Baltimore, Milwaukee, even from Australia. When Yehuda Katz responds “I have no idea” to a question before proceeding to guess correctly, Rabbi Schonfeld pounces. “I have a talmid I say this to all the time, here’s a rule for life: ‘Never say I don’t know, because most of the time, you know.’ Shkoyach Yehuda — don’t be afraid to be great, don’t be afraid to be bold, don’t be afraid to be wrong.”
And for every other boy he calls on, Rabbi Schonfeld knows the last name, the neighbor, the rebbi, the cousin. It’s always an intense game of Jewish geography, and he’s one step ahead, bantering, bonding, building the boys up as he leads them through a jam-packed agenda.
“Weissman brothers from Cleveland,” he reads off the Zoom handle, “Which Weissman are you? From Cleveland? Wow, good guess.”
Imagine the energetic head counselor and the learned maggid shiur (he’s actually a daf yomi maggid shiur) combined. Charismatic, engaging, interactive, sure, but it’s more than that — it’s fluid and entertaining and real, a rebbi who relishes finding the unifying factor with each boy, each city and yeshivah and last name, namedropping and reminiscing while connecting to them and connecting them with each other.
“I’ve been around, I happen to know a lot of people,” Rabbi Schonfeld explains. “Yesterday one of the contestants was on the phone, he tells me he’s Ehrlich from Detroit. I said, ‘One second, which Ehrlich, was your father a third baseman in Camp Heller in 1997? Tall and blond?’ Of course he was, and his father got on, he remembered me too — ‘Schonfeld, short and dark.’ Truuue. It’s a lot of fun, connecting the dots, and that’s almost one of the shticks of Night Seder America — you know my uncle, I know your cousin, you look like your father, your rebbi is his father — we get this real feeling of yachas and connection. Somehow, someway, it’s become a real kesher.”
One of the most fundamental aspects of his program is the interaction, Rabbi Schonfeld says. “The kids feel like they’re really part of it, the connection has been so powerful. I don’t think this is more than textbook chinuch — people want to matter — and the ability to feel that they’re part of it, they’re not watching a shiur or a show, but that it’s us. It sounds crazy to say how you can get that feeling on a Zoom meeting, but it’s there. It’s us.”
And the boys feel it, too. Even the hesitant ones warm up pretty quickly, chatting and joking back in a way that shows just how comfortable they feel with this rebbi they’ve never met.
“Do I know your father?” Rabbi Schonfeld asks a boy he selects at random one Thursday night. “No, you do not,” retorts Goldberg from Flatbush. “He’s probably the only person you don’t know.”
“I Learned from the Best”
As a teenager, Ari Schonfeld attended Yeshiva Shaar Hatorah in Queens and Yeshiva of South Fallsburg. That was followed by five years in the Mir — one year as a single bochur, and then four years with his new wife, Esti nee Gross from the Upper West Side, a granddaughter of renowned philanthropist Mr. Benny Fishoff. The young couple moved to Passaic, and he learned in kollel for a few years before taking a job as a middle school rebbi. He’s been working as a rebbi for almost ten years, currently as an eighth grade rebbi in YBH and a tenth grade bekius rebbi in Mesivta of Clifton.
Rabbi Schonfeld jokes that the Night Seder America staff is small: a secretary, a tech guy, and his family. “The most important thing you need for something like this is a wife who supports your crazy idea, because with Night Seder America, the whole family is on call,” he says. Esti and the kids watch from another room and help out as necessary, she as the COO and cohost, managing the backend, while their sons Shabse and Azi keep record of the prizewinners.
But Esti’s support isn’t limited to Night Seder hours. These days, Rabbi Schonfeld’s schedule is pretty packed: Every morning he delivers a remote daf yomi shiur for the Clifton chaburah followed by a two-hour online shiur for his eighth graders. He then spends five or six hours getting ready for night seder: preparing the Gemara, researching and coming up with trivia questions, culling through suggestions others send, responding to emails, lining up guest speakers, and uploading videos. After supper, it’s time for Night Seder America, usually a 90-minute affair.
“It’s the most exhausting, exciting thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” he says, “but thankfully I learned from the best.”
That dedication to the klal is in Rabbi Schonfeld’s blood. His grandfather is the illustrious Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, a rabbi’s rabbi who established Torah institutions in the New York borough of Queens. Rabbi Schonfeld founded Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills in 1951, serving as rav there for 60 years. He also served as president of the Rabbinical Council of America.
Rabbi Ari’s father, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, worked at OU Kosher for close to 30 years before succeeding his father as rav of the shul. He is also heavily involved in the Vaad Harabbanim of Queens. But if you ask this indefatigable rebbi where he gets his drive, he says the credit goes to his mother, Morah Perri Schonfeld, a first-grade teacher in Bais Yaakov Academy of Queens for four decades. “They say my energy comes from my mother,” he explains with a laugh.
And the camp feel, he says, comes from his own experience at Camp Avraham Chaim Heller.
“That’s where I grew up in the camping world,” he explains. “I always say I have many rebbeim, and Rabbi Gershon Kramer, who was the director back then, is my rebbi in how to talk to a boy. He knows how to connect to a kid, to validate and make them feel chashuv, how to look a kid in the eye and show them they matter to you on their level, whether it’s playing ball with them or teaching a Gemara to them. He taught me the skill of finding things about kids and putting it into memory. He’d see a kid, notice his red shoes, call him ‘Red Shoes’ all summer, and six months later, out of camp, he’d bump into him and say, ‘Hey, where are your red shoes?’ ”
What Rabbi Schonfeld really learned in camp, you see, is how to do what he’s doing now.
Give Kids the Spotlight
The program continues with a guest speaker. Rabbi Schonfeld has reached out to gedolim, roshei yeshiva, and famous names like Charlie Harary and Rabbi Baruch Levine. His lineup includes professionals speakers like Rabbis Paysach Krohn, Ephraim Shapiro, and Yoel Gold, and roshei yeshivah and rabbanim like Rav Kalman Epstein, Rav Binyamin Carlebach, Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Yisroel Reisman, Rav Eytan Feiner, and Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum.
A majority of the speakers have grandchildren who are Night Seder America talmidim, and naturally, Rabbi Schonfeld gives shout-outs to their grandsons when he announces who’s speaking. It works the other way, too, because sometimes the grandson is the protektziya he uses to ask a rav to speak. He fondly remembers how he arranged for Rav Elya Brudny to join the program. “Before we launched, I called Rav Elya Brudny for a brachah. Two weeks ago, I called to thank him for that early support. Rav Elya responded, ‘I know you — my grandchildren call every night!’ I immediately asked if he could speak on Night Seder America as their Zeidy, and he did it the next night.”
Some of the guest speakers do live presentations, but most send Rabbi Schonfeld a prerecorded video, five to ten minutes long, which he screen shares with the boys. They talk about Sefirah, Pirkei Avos, and Chumash, sharing stories and chizuk — and ideas that Rabbi Schonfeld puts into action. In fact, after Pesach, Darchei Torah rosh yeshivah Rabbi Yaakov Bender spoke, and he strongly encouraged the boys to write letters to their older relatives in quarantine.
“On the spot we arranged a contest: Anyone who sent four letters to elderly relatives would be entered into a raffle for a real megillah. Between 600 and 700 boys did it, four letters each,” Rabbi Schonfeld remembers proudly. “I think we kept the postal service in business that week!”
The night Rabbi Schonfeld hosts Rabbi Yaakov Bienenfeld, rabbi of Young Israel of Harrison, New York, and former night activity director and basketball coach of Camp Heller, as the guest speaker, he introduces him as a sharp talmid chacham, always with a joke and a dvar Torah.
“How to be witty and self-deprecating and how to toe the line while being funny — I learned that all from Rabbi Bienenfeld,” Rabbi Schonfeld says. “In the camp world, we called him ‘The Bien.’ He’s laugh-out-loud funny, and the best Jewish dancer I know.”
But Rabbi Schonfeld’s favorite speakers are the Wednesday night special, what he calls Pshetl Night. The way it works is a boy whose bar mitzvah is that Shabbos reserves the slot in advance. He sends in a recording of himself giving his pshetl, and Rabbi Schonfeld plays it for Night Seder America, recognizing bar mitzvah boys who aren’t able to shine at the larger celebration their family was planning.
“I’m an eighth grade rebbi, bar mitzvahs are on my mind, and not being able to celebrate the bar mitzvah is something that hit me very hard,” Rabbi Schonfeld says. “The main point of Night Seder America is that the kids feel part of it, and when I thought of the Pshetl Night idea, it hit me — it covered all the bases: give the kids the spotlight, give the boys a chance to celebrate together, and give the bar mitzvah boys and their families the chiyus.” And it does, with parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles logging in from all over to watch the pshetl they can’t hear in person.
Following the speaker is the farher portion of the evening. At stake: an e-gift card to Amazon that can double in value. Rabbi Schonfeld calls on boys at random, testing them on the speech they heard earlier that night (“Which masechta did Yaakov Schecter quote in his pshetl?”) and on the Gemara they’re learning in yeshiva.
The program isn’t cheap to run, but it remains free, thanks to private donors and grateful parents who offer to cover nights of prizes. Pirchei Agudath Israel of America sponsors one of the popular trivia games, and fittingly, chazarah program Vehaarev Na sponsors the chazarah raffle prizes as well as a recent addition, an amud baal peh contest for a set of Shas.
Night Seder wraps up with a few rounds of a trivia game. One they’ve been playing a lot lately is called “That’s My Psak,” a yedios klaliyos game that increases in difficulty as the player progresses. A sampling: Name Rabi Shimon bar Yochai’s mother; listen to a clip of someone leining birchos Yaakov in a thick Sephardi accent and guess which parshah it’s from; put in chronological order Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav, and the Beis Halevi; identify a song based on a six-second clip of its introduction. The boys can use lifelines like phoning for help or polling the audience, and whoever plays and gets all six answers right wins a Segway, an automated scooter worth $500. (That’s happened twice.)
The ideas and multiple-choice options and references are wacky and crazy and exactly the sort of thing that appeals to a middle-school boy. Rabbi Schonfeld will tell you he gets the inspiration straight from his camp.
“I’m noshing a lot of my night activities,” he explains: the talent shows, singing competitions, and dvar Torah competition called Maggid Shiur America are all gimmicks of camp legend. On Chol Hamoed, he ran a “Best Chol Hamoed trip without leaving your house” contest. Lag B’omer saw a virtual version of the camp competition Neighborhood Day; the teams were New York and out-of-town against New Jersey, Baltimore, and Pennsylvania. “Passaic and Lakewood are our largest contingents, so that worked out,” Rabbi Schonfeld explains. The program included competitions and judges, and Rabbi Schonfeld renamed the program Night Seder New York Plus for two nights following their victory.
More than Chocolate
Not surprisingly, Rabbi Schonfeld’s biggest challenge is precisely what makes Night Seder America possible: the technology. “I’m sure the boys reading this are laughing because the running joke is that my screen is frozen or my voice is choppy,” he says. “I don’t get stage fright, but there’s a nervousness about the technology, and it’s very intense.”
There are security measures in place to keep the arrangement safe from Zoom-bombing, and the actual setup is complex: Each of his Zoom accounts operates on a different computer, and he can see all the attendees in a gallery view, so Rabbi Schonfeld scrolls through screenfuls of faces on both monitors, at least 80 galleries each, 20 boys per gallery.
To call on a boy — and he does that a lot, close to fifty times over the course of a night — Rabbi Schonfeld doesn’t just pick and choose. First he selects a gallery by pulling from a deli container slips of paper labeled one through 80. Once he selects the gallery, he uses a 20-sided die to select the lucky boy.
“It’s very yeshivish,” he jokes.
Yeshivish as it may be, it’s wildly successful, and word is spreading. Rabbi Schonfeld is getting around, figuratively: One week he’s hosting a digital event for Darchei Torah, the next week he’s running an online program for chareidi Anglo boys in Israel to help launch something similar there. He’s doing events in shuls and schools across the country (“Remotely,” he assures the boys), in Boca Raton, Boston, Cleveland, and Toronto — and working on plans for the summer, if camp isn’t a possibility. People are interested, he tells the boys, and they want to feel part of Night Seder America, part of the connection being built in cyberspace by this powerhouse of a rebbi and the kids who log in, night after night, to learn and connect and be part of something fun and cool and bigger than themselves.
Over the past few months, Rabbi Schonfeld has tried to emphasize several theme songs with relevant messages, and he often closes with a song. He started with “Kad Yasvin Yisrael,” a song that talks about how even when times are tough, Klal Yisrael sits and learns.
“Benny Friedman came on the Zoom meeting one night and sang it for the boys,” Rabbi Schonfeld remembers. “He celebrated with us that as a nation, even in this time of tzaar we’re still learning together.”
Post-Pesach, the message has become one of the sweetness of Torah, and Rabbi Schonfeld plays a song composed by Rabbi Hillel Paley to lyrics by the Ohr Hachaim in Devarim. The message: If people would only recognize the sweetness of Torah, they’d go crazy.
“I tell the boys two stories,” he says. “One, that once I took my class to the Novominsker Rebbe, zechuso yagen aleinu, who told them that his eighth grade rebbi told him, ‘Torah has to be as delicious as ice cream.’ The second is that one of my chaveirim asked my rebbi Rav Asher Arieli, ‘Would you say Torah is as sweet as chocolate?’ and he said, ‘Bidyuk — exactly! — v’afilu yoter — and even more so.’ That’s what we’ve been trying to experience here. Torah is allowed to be sweet and fun,” Rabbi Schonfeld tells the boys, “and we at Night Seder America are that niggun.”
That’s the secret sauce of Night Seder America, the balance of chashivus haTorah with the boys walking away in a good mood. “It’s like they just had an ice cream cone,” he explains. “They see how geshmak Torah is, and they go nuts.”
And to the boys, he says simply: “We’re the embodiment of the sweetness of Torah …. Now, speaking of sweetness of Torah, let’s raffle off some prizes.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 812)
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