Rabbi Binny Freedman, The Jewish Star’s Israeli-based inspirational columnist and Rosh Yeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is visiting the Five Towns this week to lead an alumni Shabbaton and recruit new students.
More than half of Orayta’s 70 alumni on the east coast are expected to participate in this weekend’s Shabbaton, on the Kulanu campus in Cedarhurst. On Wednesday, he visited the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway to speak with students about his school.
“I want the boy to fall in love with textual based learning of Gemarah, Chumash, Nach, to fall in love with Judaism and meet proud Jews, develop a comprehensive understanding of what Judaism is all about and develop the tools to continue their journey into adult life,” Freedman told the Star. “We are looking to develop the next generation of Jewish leaders.”
Orayta’s program is actually “a five-year course,” with alumni graduating to such schools as Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Binghamton, University of Texas, Cornell, he said.
The goal is to “prepare for the experience on college campus,” he said. “Someone on campus will ask questions, ‘Why are you learning gemarah, why do you believe in G-d, what is G-d, how can you believe in G-d if you can’t understand what is G-d.’ He has no clue how to answer these questions.”
Freedman said that there is a need for both serious learning and serious dialogue on essential topics of faith and understanding of Judaism. He pointed out that he received 180 applications for 65 spots in the yeshiva and wants to keep it that size, “large enough to offer the experience and yet maintain intimacy and healthy relationships with all the students.”
“I don’t want a kid who is rebelling,” he explained. “There is a very significant pool of students who are not off the derech and not rebelling who slip under the radar. They go to minyan, are in a high shiur but have lots of good questions. [They] don’t want to give up serious learning, but want a deeper understanding of what Judaism is about. “That is the student he is looking to recruit.
Rabbi Freedman lives in Efrat with his wife Doreet, who was the first employee of Nefesh Bnefesh, founded with Rabbi Joshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, where she is director of strategic partnership. Binny and Doreet have four children.
Freedman was born in New York and grew up in Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side, where Riskin “influenced me to go into chinuch (education). “ He also cited Rabbi Chaim Gold of Manhattan Day School as having a “powerful impact” on him and Rabbi Yitzchok Adler’s “serious gemara learning” as the “main reason that I went to Gush (Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel)” to learn after high school.
Freedman was accepted into Columbia University and had planned to study pre-law but when he went to Gush in 1981 he stayed for a second year, and then entered the army in the Hesder program in tanks. As a foreign student he left early to do the officer’s course and finished the army in 1987, returning to Gush and the Herzog school to study education there. He said that learning with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Yehuda Amital, z”l, were “powerful experiences” and “had an enormous impact” on him. He received smicha (rabbinic ordination) in 1991 from the Rabbanut in Israel and returned to the States in the summers to teach at Bnei Akiva’s Camp Moshava and Camp Stone. He currently does reserve duty in the infantry as a company commander.
Freedman became involved with Isralight through Zacharia Baumel, a fellow student at Gush. Baumel, one of the Israeli soldiers still missing after the Battle of Sultan Yakub in Lebanon in 1982, was in the room next to Freedman’s in Gush, sat in front of him in the beit midrash, and “took me under his wing.” After Baumel’s capture, Freedman became active in helping the MIAs. Someone from the MIA organization then invited Freedman to peak at Isralight.
Isralight is an educational program “dedicated to inspiring a worldwide Jewish renaissance through essential and innovative educational solutions that empower Jews to experience the relevance, wisdom, and joy of Jewish living,” according to its website.
“There was a large cohort of students who had been through the yeshiva high school system and could tell you how to make tea on Shabbat but were missing something,” Freedman said. “They had never gotten answers to their questions on Judaism, they were looking for inspiration, meaning. They know how to wear Tefillin not why.” Isralight tried to share content with post high school yeshivot in Israel but saw that it wasn’t going to work so they decided to open Orayta, he said..
Rabbis David Aaron, Moshe Kornblum and Binny Freedman founded Orayta in 2008 with 17 boys and now have 70 students from the U.S., U.K., South Africa, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. Most return to university in their birth countries and get involved in Jewish programs at their colleges. Freedman said that 15 alumni are either in or have gone through the Israeli army.
The yeshiva is housed in a 900 year old Crusader building in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Freedman said he is grateful to the Five Towns community for opening their homes to the students participating in this weekend’s Shabbaton.