By: Esther Aboud
In a city brimming with first-rate Torah institutions, Rabbi Mordechai Dabbah’s Yeshivat Keter Torah has drawn especially wide acclaim, combining t he highest academic standards with an emphasis on the personal development of each student in accordance with their rich Sephardic heritage.
Few would argue that the famous Bet Midrash Gevoha (BMG) represents the most elite institution for higher Torah learning in America today. If BMG is the Harvard of yeshivot, then Lakewood is undoubtedly the Cambridge of Jewish academia. It’s no wonder then, why so many budding and established talmide hachamim (Torah scholars) have flocked to its environs. While the population in New Jersey has grown some 14 percent since 1990, according to the US Census Bureau, Lakewood’s population has exploded by over 63 percent during the same period. Not surprisingly, among the leading Jewish families who have settled in bastion of advanced Torah exploration recently, is a distinguished group of young Sephardic households, many of who are pursuing nothing less than the finest Jewish pedagogic experience. By some estimates, the Sephardic population of Lakewood has ballooned to about 500 families. But in a town that had scarcely a dozen Sephardic families just two decades ago, how would the treasured Sephardic customs and traditions be transmitted to the next generation?
Eleven years ago, Rabbi Mordechai Dabbah rose to the occasion along with Mr. Ezra Erani and filled this gaping hole in the Jewish educational system in Lakewood, establishing Yeshivat Keter Torah, the town’s first Sephardic yeshiva for boys. Although Lakewood was already home to many fine yeshivot which did an excellent job of instilling yirat shamayim (fear of Heaven) and teaching Torah at very high standards, these were entirely Ashkenazic institutions and Lakewood’s Sephardic children had no opportunity to taste the special flavor of their unique mesorah, or to see Sephardic role models to whom they could relate, and feel a sense of belonging and pride in their family heritage. When Tradition Takes Priority The importance of Keter Torah’s mission to educate Sephardic students according to their family tradition goes far beyond simple community pride. Keter Torah was established with the philosophy that pure tradition is the backbone of our nation’s spiritual survival. Mesorah means passing on our customs, beliefs and lifestyle to the next generation. Each generation learns from the previous one, maintaining an unbroken chain that extends all the way back to Matan Torah. Although many varying customs have emerged among different communities due to the vicissitudes of exile, each community is obligated to maintain and observe its particular traditions precisely as they were in previous generations. Jewish law treats this subject so seriously that an established custom is afforded greater halachic weight than even the strongest halachic proofs, as the Sages comment, “Minhag avotenu Torah – The customs of our fathers is [the true] Torah.” Both the parents and the educators at Keter Torah take this goal, of accurately transmitting the Sephardic tradition,very seriously. Jewish education entails not only conveying general Torah knowledge that is taught in all yeshivot, but also emphasizing the specific mesorah of the community each school represents, the customs and practices of past generations which we must instruct our children to follow. Beginning as an elementary school, Keter Torah answered this call. With the tireless efforts of Mr Ronnie Safdieh, President of Keter Torah in Lakewood, the yeshiva grew gradually, year by year. Eventually Rabbi Dabbah opened the Keter Torah Metivta High School to meet the educational needs of the expanding number of teenage boys in Lakewood’s Sephardic community. Amazingly, in a town full of outstanding yeshivot, Rabbi Dabbah succeeded in building an institution that is now considered to be among Lakewood’s finest – a reputation acquired through its comprehensive curriculum and professional, devoted educational staff. “It is a bastion of Torah in Lakewood for the Sephardic boys, and they can proudly carry the torch of their family forward,” explained Mrs. Laurie Abady, a mother in the school. A Sense of Belonging Aside from the mandate to educate students according to their mesorah, Keter Torah empowers students to excel in an environment where they feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. This feature is precisely what has drawn so many families to Keter Torah. “Children – especially in their formidable teen and preteen years – develop in a healthier manner when it’s their place, their home, when they don’t feel self conscious about somehow being different,” Rabbi Dabbah explains. Many of the parents described the special unity the boys feel toward each other, even among varying age groups. “There is a nice sense of camaraderie between the boys, being that it is the only Syrian school in Lakewood,” observed Mrs. Giordana Shalom, mother of two boys at Keter Torah. Keter Torah is a community school in every sense of the word. It is attended by Sephardic boys and run by professional educators and administrators from the community. Both the students and the parents feel a genuine sense of connection with the school’s staff and leadership, with whom they share a strong communal bond. Dedicated Role Models The extraordinary dedication of the entire administrative staff is also apparent on every level. Rabbi Dabbah himself, despite his busy schedule, makes the time to personally acquaint himself with each and every boy and analyze the best methods to educate him. The yeshiva’s success is also due to the hard work of Executive Director A.J. Gindi. “Three years ago,” Mr. Gindi recalls, “I left my wholesale business to assist Rabbi Dabbah in the yeshiva. That day changed my life. Working hand-in-hand with Rabbi Dabbah on a daily basis is a dream come true. The man is obsessed with the well-being of each and every child. He spends endless hours with the principals, rabbis and teachers discussing strategies of education in order to enhance the learning of the children and help them reach their full potential.” Keter Torah’s staff of rabbis has earned a reputation for exceptional warmth and devotion. They create a “warm and homey” atmosphere that allows the students to thrive and grow. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mrs. Meryl Schmool, the mother of an eighth grade student, enthused. “The rebbeim understand and care for the children in an unusual way. Even the Rosh Yeshiva himself builds a relationship with each and every boy. He avails himself to them and makes it a point to speak with them.” Mrs. Laurie Abady described the atmosphere as, “full of simha (joy) for the learning of Torah,” where students “learn and enjoy it, ensuring that they will enjoy learning for the rest of their lives.” Many of the rabbis themselves hail from the Sephardic community, and thus serve as realistic role models for the boys to follow. The students look to their rabbis with respect and admiration, anxious to emulate them and grow in Torah and yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven) in accordance with Sephardic tradition. The rabbis’ Sephardic background also enables them to relate to and keenly understand the community dynamics, giving them an accurate sense of the students’ needs, concerns and culture-related difficulties. “They understand the children much better,” Mrs. Giordana Shalom commented. “They speak the same lingo and know where they are coming from.” Another mother noted that having been brought up with the same mesorah, the rabbis are able to convey it to their students with greater enthusiasm, zeal and emotion than someone who had simply learned the material from a book. The shared background has also facilitates a special understanding and collaboration between the teachers and parents, who work closely together to achieve the same goals. “Sephardic rebbeim understand the community more – there is simply no comparison,” explains Mrs. Schmool. A Unique Curriculum While Keter Torah’s curriculum generally follows the mainstream yeshivot in Lakewood, incorporating all the standard subjects in both religious and general studies, the method of instruction it employs sets it apart from other institutions. It follows a skill-based approach to education, equipping the students with the tools they need for independent learning in the future. First the basic overview is taught, focusing on comprehension of the ideas and concepts and ensuring a complete grasp of the information. Only afterwards do the students approach the text and then use it as the basis for learning the grammar skills involved. By learning the grammar in context, the students grasp the rules more easily and will be able to apply them to future situations. “The method we use should be followed even when teaching adults,” Rabbi Dabbah contends. “Rabbi Dabbah’s curriculum both Judaic and secular have proven to be outstanding and the community is fortunate to have their children under his capable guidance” Mr. Ike Levy, the dedicated President of the Keter Torah Deal branch emphasizes. “In addition, we are extremely fortunate to have Mrs. Zimmerman join us next year, to even further enhance the secular studies program.” The yeshiva strongly emphasizes the traditional Sephardic practice of teaching students to read all the verses in Humash and Navi with the proper taamim (cantillation notes). The use of musical liturgy aids the learning process, strengthening the students’ memory of the text and assuring a fluency in Sephardic taamim. “The Hebrew curriculum is excellent,” Mrs. Shalam raved. “The boys learn everything by heart and with a tune so they get a really good grasp of each word. As a result, the boys get a very clear sense of what they are learning before they move on.” Keter Torah has also implemented a unique weekly Parasha program to enhance the students’ knowledge of Humash. Each day, the boys read one aliyah from the week’s parasha with the taamim. The parasha is then subdivided into the different topics it covers, and the boys review the material in preparation for a weekly exam. Often, the students are already familiar with the information from their regular Humash classes. “This method benefits students across the spectrum,” Rabbi Dabbah remarked. “Boys in the upper grades review the parasha with taamim and also recall the content and explanations they’ve learned earlier in Humash. Meanwhile, the younger boys enjoy the singing immensely and learn to master the Sephardic taamim as second nature.” By repeating the process each year, students acquire familiarity with the entire Torah and can identify the major topics discussed in each parasha. Extending the Pride to Deal Aside from the 500 or so Sephardic families in Lakewood, Keter Torah has also been busy serving children from surrounding areas, including students transported by bus from Long Branch and Deal. This year, however, Rabbi Dabbah is expanding the yeshiva’s operations, opening an additional branch in Deal, providing the town’s children with a local school that offers a top level curriculum and a strong focus on midot and yirat shamayim, following Sephardic custom and tradition. The new branch will begin with primary through first grade, and already has nearly 50 children registered for the inaugural school year. The yeshiva anticipates adding a grade each year as it continues to grow. Keter Torah has succeeded in securing the future of Sephardic tradition for the children of Lakewood, by providing them with the highest standards of Torah education and a curriculum based upon Sephardic laws and customs. Educated in classrooms with boys from similar backgrounds, by teachers from within the community capable of relating to the unique experience of the Sephardic home, the boys develop a deep-seated sense of pride in their heritage, and thorough knowledge of their family’s mesorah. This experience will certainly help ensure that they will transmit our heritage to their own children, adding yet another link in the golden chain of Torah tradition. The new building in Deal has been dedicated my Max and Natalie Mizrachi and family in memory of their son Abraham Sion Mizrachi. It will be called the Abraham Sion Mizrachi Bet Sefer. The Dedicated Staff of Keter Torah Pre 1A: Rabbi Haim Wadiche, Rabbi Aharon Yannai First Grade: Rabbi Asaf Goldenberg Second Grade: Rabbi Yehezkel Menashe, Rabbi David Franco Third Grade: Rabbi David Dabbah Fourth Grade: Rabbi Shemuel Semah Fifth Grade: Rabbi Yosef Dabbah Sixth Grade: Rabbi Yehezkel Mayer Seventh Grade: Rabbi Yaacov Faham Eighth Grade: Rabbi Moshe Samel Ninth Grade: Rabbi Yonatan Raful Tenth Grade: Rabbi Ari Sutton Eleventh Grade: Rabbi Shlomo Malka Twelfth Grade: Rabbi Moshe Choueka