By Larry Gordon
The idea for this story began with a large hole in the ground on Mott Avenue just off Rockaway Turnpike in the Village of Lawrence. By the time you read this over the weekend, the foundation will have been poured for the edifice that will be the new home of Rambam Mesivta, which has diligently educated over 1,400 students.
The Yeshiva has served the greater New York-area Jewish communities with advanced Torah scholarship and academic excellence under the direction of Rabbi Zev Friedman for over 30 years.
Last week, I toured the construction site with Rabbi Friedman, and while it is early in the process, the expansiveness of the site and the possibility that one can envision just standing there is breathtaking.
Of course, as is the case with many giant steps, there is a backstory that began playing itself out after last week’s edition of the 5TJT hit our distribution points.
Since its inception, Rambam Mesivta has been located in a three-story large space on Frost Lane in Lawrence that is owned by The Brandeis School. As soon as Rabbi Friedman informed the Brandeis board that they were planning on moving, the Brandeis board found a new tenant in the new Bais Yaakov of the 5 Towns, which is planning on opening in September 2022.
Last week, the Bais Yaakov school ran an ad in these pages stating that their open house this Sunday would be at “the former Rambam location.” Unfortunately, that led some people to conclude that Rambam may be closing after all this time, which, of course, is the furthest thing from reality.
So I asked Rabbi Friedman over last weekend what the plan would be if in fact the construction is a bit delayed, as is wont to happen with such projects as a matter of routine. The rabbi says that they have engaged the services of the 170 Group and director Ben Diamond. They have assured Rabbi Friedman that they will meet their deadlines and that the new building will be ready for the fall 2022 term.
He also said that Rambam still has an option to extend their lease and remain in the current facility short-term if warranted. If that is the case, he will, of course, coordinate with the Brandeis board of directors. And, he adds, they have commitments from two other possible locations if the move into the new facility on Mott Avenue is delayed beyond next September. Both locations are in close proximity to their current location.
So not only will Rambam Mesivta have the newest state-of-the-art high-school building in town, it will also be matched by the traditionally high achievements of their student body. While Rambam is determined to keep class size manageable, the new building will allow for additional classes in order to accommodate the needs of its current population.
Yeshivas are often categorized by people in one of a few ways: Yeshivish, “modern,” “black hat,” “kippah s’ruga,” and so on. Indeed, some yeshivas do appropriately fall into those categories. But Rambam has carved out a distinctive niche for itself, which some place in a category of its own.
Rambam is a two-time winner of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Blue Ribbon School Award of Excellence, which was awarded to the Yeshiva in 2015 and 2021. The distinction is awarded to schools that have proven to achieve excellence in education. Rabbi Friedman adds that this year, as in the past, he has been asked to speak at the Education Department’s awards ceremony, the only representative of an Orthodox yeshiva recognized in that capacity.
The message he delivers to educators from around the country when he speaks to the group is about the “universal value of Jewish education.” In Rambam, he teaches that “education is a vital tool of avodas Hashem.” Other members of the administrative team include Rabbi Avi Haar, assistant principal limudei kodesh; Mr. Hillel Goldman, assistant principal limudei chol; and Rabbi Avi Herschman, director of Israel Guidance. I asked Rabbi Friedman how he would categorize Rambam if he were asked to do so. His response is that if one defines Modern Orthodox as following halachah and being able to interface with the world, then, yes, Rambam is a Modern Orthodox yeshiva. As to whether the Yeshiva leans to what is referred to as the “left” or “right,” Rabbi Friedman points out that the same question was once posed to Rav Ahron Soloveichik, who responded that whether he can be considered left or right is determined by where the center is located.
It is clear that Rabbi Friedman’s commitment to teaching Torah to a new generation is his top priority. In fact, though it is a huge undertaking from an administrative perspective, Rabbi Friedman says that he still delivers a daily shiur to the 11th grade; this year, the Yeshiva is learning Masechet Kiddushin. As far as the method of limud HaTorah at Rambam, R’ Zev says that the Yeshiva subscribes to an analytical style, or a Brisker approach to the Gemara.
The Rambam Mesivta approach to education for teenage boys is traditional, but with large portions of creativity and innovation. Rabbi Friedman is a child of Holocaust survivors; his parents were in Auschwitz. He is thus committed in a very personal way to the mesorah of Torah, which is the fabric of Klal Yisrael’s continuity, along with the importance of the principle of “Zachor,” the imperative that we always remember.
To that end, and as another dimension of Holocaust studies, the new Rambam Mesivta will also feature a Holocaust Remembrance Center for students from all schools as well as residents from around the community.
Rabbi Friedman has lived here in the Five Towns/Far Rockaway area for decades. He attended HILI High School, which was once located on the property that is presently Yeshiva Darchei Torah. Following high school, he continued learning with Rabbi Chait at Yeshivas Bnei Torah in Far Rockaway. Rabbi Friedman later attained a degree of doctor of podiatric medicine while giving shiurim in Cleveland, Ohio.
Aside from being a visionary educator and rosh yeshiva, Zev Friedman is also an activist. On the matter of former Nazi guards residing in peace and freedom in New York and other parts of the U.S., R’ Zev says that he could never just sit idly by and watch things like that happen without taking action.
In fact, I have participated in several such demonstrations with Rabbi Friedman and his students outside the homes of Nazi war criminals. I also attended a meeting with him and the Lithuanian consul general in New York about plans in Lithuania to build a sports stadium over a Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, that city’s capital.
A Rambam education is also very Eretz Yisrael-centric. Principal Rabbi Yotav Eliach shares his experiences having served in Tzahal and inspires the boys with a love of Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Eliach is the author of Judaism, Zionism and the Land of Israel. The rabbis are very proud of their graduates who have made aliyah and now live in Israel. In addition, there are currently three Rambam graduates serving in the Israel Defense Force.
The other day, Rabbi Friedman related to me that his students have met with Rav Moshe Tuvia Leif of Agudas Yisrael Bais Binyomin in Brooklyn, among other great Torah scholars. I met Rabbi Leif at a wedding this week and mentioned that I heard he had farhered the boys at Rambam. He said, “They are unbelievable boys. I thought I would sit with them for 15 to 20 minutes, but we spent an hour and fifteen minutes together, and I was flabbergasted. They were so well-prepared with Gemara, Tosfos, Rishonim, Acharonim, and more. They were all on the mark.”
Other contemporary Torah luminaries who have visited the Yeshiva or whom the students have visited include Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Michael Rosensweig, Rav Reuven Feinstein, Rav Naftali Jaeger, Rav Avraham Kahn, Rav Eytan Feiner, Rav Yonason Sacks, and Rav Yehuda Kelemer, zt’l.
The best way to describe a Rambam education might be well-rounded, comprehensive, and worldly, just to mention a few adjectives that come to mind. So while Zev Friedman and Rambam Mesivta are now erecting a new building and campus, the reality is that they have been building for three decades. They have been building young men, building their character, fortifying a future generation of Jews.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.