AHI EZER YESHIVA The Much-Beloved Institution Moves Forward

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By: Machla Abramovitz

Ahi Ezer Upgrades Make an Impact

It's early morning, and the Ahi Ezer Yeshiva lunchroom resonates with the kind of laughter and conversation that only young girls congregating together can produce. Plates of waffles and scrambled eggs fill the tables. These are the products of the yeshiva's newly hired chef who is working out of a gleaming state-of-the-art kitchen.  New lighting brightens the school interior showing off the freshly painted walls. The yeshiva’s 60-year-old building also boasts central air conditioning, an updated heating system, and recently renovated bathrooms. Outside, a new playground has been designed for recess, and the young children are eager to climb onto its colorful Pixel climbers, slides, and merry-go-round. There is magic in the air.

 Zuki Jarada, member of the school’s board of directors, eagerly enters the school.  It's his first visit after these extensive renovations and he is thrilled at the changes he sees.  “The rooms look bright and cheerful.  I heard and felt the students' excitement in the hallways.  I also listened to the girls chanting Tehillim, which reminded me of the way the children in Syria used to recite Tehillim, with the same pronunciation and taamim that were passed down through the generations.”

His heart swelled at what he witnessed in the halls:  Well-adjusted, happy children - secure in the knowledge that they are looked after and loved by their administrators and teachers - being taught in the ways of their forefathers.   The renovations were necessary, and are only the beginning.  The loving care extended to every student is what distinguishes Ahi Ezer Yeshiva and makes it a home away from home for hundreds of children from the Syrian community.

All Star Leadership Stands Behind Ahi Ezer

It's a time of renewal for the yeshiva. Over ten months ago a new Board of Directors, all of whom are volunteers, was established.  Building on the successes of their predecessors, the new Board has already begun moving Ahi Ezer Yeshiva forward. The Board is young and passionate, and its members’ roots in Ahi Ezer run deep. “Our forefathers were connected with Ahi Ezer for decades. We’re not doing this for money or fame. You can’t buy passion - it’s priceless.  Ahi Ezer is our fathers' and grandfathers' legacies and that is what we are upholding," one member of the Board of Directors said.

The Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Saul Maslaton, is the grandson of the Damascus Congregation’s Rabbi Mordechai Murad Maslaton, who founded Ahi Ezer over a century ago.  Rabbi Murad’s great-grandson, Rabbi Elly Dayan (grandson of Nouri) is the yeshiva's new administrator.

The list goes on.  Harry Adjmi, a highly distinguished community leader sits on the Advisory Board. He always rushes in to lend a hand when asked.  Other members of the Advisory Board are Elie B. Levy, whose family was involved in the Ahi Ezer Congregation for years, and renowned community leader Zuki Jarada.

 Moreover, its Board of Operations includes Rabbi Raymond Azrak, whose late father Marvin was Ahi Ezer’s president for almost 30 years. There's also Victor Bibi, who is the son of the late Joe R. Bibi, a long-serving member of Ahi Ezer’s Board of Trustees, and a nephew of the late David Bibi, one of the yeshiva's founders, who served as its president for over twenty years. Joining them are Joey L. Indibo Cohen and Nouri Jarada, the son of Zuki. The Board acknowledges Bunny Escava, whose tireless fundraising efforts for the yeshiva kept it afloat for half a century, and Aslan Bawabeh, Eli Levy, and Albert Ayal for their dedication and hard work that helped build the yeshiva into what it is today.

Ahi Ezer’s Legacy of Helping Immigrants

 Ahi Ezer Yeshiva has always lifted hearts.  In the past, it was a home away from home for children who did not speak English or Hebrew, and were unfamiliar with American culture.  They were part of the last wave of immigrants to leave Syria in 1992 and who, together with their parents, arrived in the United States penniless. The yeshiva welcomed these children, irrespective of their parents’ ability to afford the tuition.  "While their parents were busy finding housing and adjusting to American society, we raised their children. These parents trusted us to provide a safe, nurturing environment for their daughters," recalls Judaic Studies principal, Mrs. Golda Winegarten.  Mrs. Winegarten has been with the school for 24 years, serving as the Judaic Studies Principal for half of her tenure.

Mrs. Rose Lati, Yeshivat Ahi Ezer’s Pre-school Coordinator was one of these immigrants. She was ten years old when her family arrived in NYC, and she began attending the yeshiva. She easily adjusted to her new environment. "We children came in together, and we supported each other.  The yeshiva made it as comfortable as possible for us. We didn’t know the language, just the aleph-bet and the English letters. The school assigned us special rooms where Arabic-speaking teachers taught us English and Hebrew. Later, they mainstreamed us into the regular classes.”  The system worked amazingly well.  “I'm a speech therapist, and I specialize in bilingual education - how to teach and mainstream bilingual children. Every time I learned a new approach, I realized that Ahi Ezer used that approach on us.  The school knew what it was doing." 

Over the months, these children not only picked up the language, but became aware of how beautiful Shabbat and kashrut and other mitzvot were.  "Mitzvot were taught in such a sweet way that we wanted to grow and better ourselves religiously.  My parents were very supportive.  They were happy that we had been given this opportunity because in Syria that opportunity had been denied to us.  In Ahi Ezer, we felt safe, wanted, and loved.”

Today’s Students

Mrs. Winegarten points out that today's students, unlike their mothers and grandmothers, focus on careers, going to seminary, and raising religious families. They represent a new generation of Syrian Jews with unique needs. Today's parents - many of whom are former students - work closely with the school to ensure that their children grow academically and spiritually.

Mrs. Winegarten, Mrs. Segal, the principal of the English Department, and Mrs. Lati share the same philosophy. "We don't only teach subjects but raise children. When we hire teachers, we don't only consider their academic credentials, but whether they love children and support the school’s mission.  Many graduates keep in touch long after graduating.  The administrators enjoy hearing from former students, especially on momentous occasions, for example: when they are getting married or becoming first-time mothers. The school helps students improve their social relationships, as well. Ahi Ezer Yeshiva takes advantage of the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation's social interaction program that teaches elementary-aged girls how to be kind and sensitive, especially during recess.

Ahi Ezer Implements Second Step Learning Program

This kind of sensitivity-training begins early.  Last year the school implemented the Second Step, a social-emotional learning program that teaches kindergarten and pre-1Aers how to appropriately express their feelings and pick up on other people's sensibilities. The idea is to conquer bullying before it starts. “Young children often act on their feelings, without knowing why they feel the way they do. Through puppetry, visuals, songs, and skits they learn to recognize what their feelings are, why they're feeling that way, and how best to respond when their feelings are hurt,” Mrs. Lati says.

In kindergarten, the last activity of the day is what they call “the appreciation circle.”  Every child points out something positive about a classmate or teacher that they noted during the day; whether it was helping them clean up their toys, or wanting to play with them, or just noticing that they were sad and asking why. The simplest acts often leave the biggest impact. "You see these sweet, happy children confidently verbalizing their feelings and thoughts about the other person.  It’s beautiful to watch,” Mrs. Lati says.

Focus On Academics

As dedicated as the school is to teaching middot and social skills, academics are at the forefront of the conversation.  During the past ten years the school developed a strong curriculum. Their students score well on the BJE (Board of Jewish Education) tests that enable them to get into the high schools of their choice.

This year, Ahi Ezer Yeshiva continued to make strides in order to improve the language skills of the students.  Mrs. Segal identified the needs of the students, while working closely with the teachers in grades 1-8. Together with the newly hired literacy coach, the school has implemented the Hochman Method, a research-based writing program that teaches children how to craft clear sentences and organized paragraphs. “We are seeing clear results in the students’ writing and thinking, and expect this to continue as the year moves to a close,” said Mrs. Segal. Mrs. Segal notes, “We are excited that our library has been catalogued and updated and that students can now take out books for their reading enjoyment.” Students are also preparing for school-wide contests and fairs, scheduled for the spring.

Focus On Sephardic Heritage

Lately, there is an added excitement in the air.  The girls are researching their proud Torah heritage; after Pesach, they'll display the fruits of their labors in a cultural fair that highlights Sephardic contributions to Judaism. Every girl is also interviewing her parents and grandparents about what it was like to live in Syria; who their great-grandparents were, and about the challenges they faced coming to America and starting over.  

To reinforce their Sephardic identity, every Rosh Hodesh and before the Yamim Tovim, Syrian women from the community -  role models in and of themselves - deliver words of inspiration.  This year, Janelle Matalon, Janet Esses, and Karen Bagdadi were some of the ladies who addressed the girls, as did the immensely popular Shimi Adar, a former Ahi Ezer student who also conducts Zumba classes and challah bakes for them. This year the incredibly creative Shimi put together a tzniut fashion show with all the works. The seventh graders dressed up and marched down the runway to music, lights, and ongoing commentary by Shimi, and had a blast.

The administrators are excited about the substantive changes taking place at the school, and are looking forward to working closely with this dynamic new Board of Directors, all of whom are passionately committed to moving the school forward in every regard. The feelings of the administrators, Mrs. Lati, Mrs. Segal, and Mrs. Winegarten can best be expressed as follows, “Children do well here largely because they don’t feel judged; we accept them as they are.  As Ahi Ezer Yeshiva continues to meet the needs of our community, we are looking for families who embrace the fact that we are a school that's growing religiously and academically."

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