A few weeks ago, the Queens Jewish Link featured Rabbi Yossi Blesofsky on its cover, lighting the grand menorah at Queens Borough Hall. This event prompted me to learn more about the work of the rabbi, his influence, and his family. As it turns out, Rabbi Blesofsky is one of the senior Chabad emissaries in the borough. He is the chairman of the Council of Shluchim, where local ambassadors of Chabad Lubavitch report their updates. Nearly three decades ago, the rabbi, his wife Dina, and two children began their work in Bayside at the direction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson zt”l. Three short years later, the Chabad of Northeast Queens (CNEQ) launched an early childhood learning center, and followed 15 years later with their STREAM Academy, a progressive model of education that uniquely combines the joy of Torah learning with a stellar multidimensional, engaging, hands-on approach to general studies programming.
Dina, the Head of School, spent her seminary year teaching in Australia, where she learned about respect for children, and today uses her aptitudes to unite children and allows their potential to shine. With over 25 years of professional teaching under her belt, Dina is eager to continue. “We teach about spreading light and hope in the world through a holiday like Chanukah, and use items like blocks to build on the mathematical skills of the students.”
The STREAM approach is relatively new to the Jewish world of education, but educators are already seeing its subjects thrive. Visitors from leading mainstream yeshivos have taken a tour of CNEQ STREAM Academy and been opened up to a new world of learning experiences. STREAM, a charter school that accepts all types of students, concentrates on using science, technology, reading, religion, engineering, the arts, and mathematics to educate youth. CNEQ strongly believes in the social-emotional development of its students and uses the multi-age approach where students are not categorized into the typical grade and time of life settings of the typical school system with its rigid rules – which has become known as the industrial revolution approach. Rather, they are encouraged to excel in smaller class sizes of children within a couple of years of their age, where their abilities come alive, leadership qualities sparkle, and no child is left behind. Those with gifted minds push forward, while those needing a boost are given that opportunity. “At CNEQ, we mirror the real-life world, teaching with collaboration, deciphering what each student can bring to society,” said Dina. “The foundational work of Chabad philosophy, Tanya, is filled with goal building techniques. Using good midos and academics are where the fundamental goals and capabilities of children shine.”
The ingenuity and risk-taking of a workplace or doctor’s office are part of learning with your own voice at STREAM. I met one young student, Noah, who reflected without any instruction on the ability to safely share and express oneself. Noah and his class were examining shorashim with their rebbe. “Being at Chabad is like looking at a mirror where you see the real you.”
One case in point was my introduction to a towering tin can menorah, clad with wiring and all. This contraption made by the fifth-and-sixth-grade group exemplified the empowering choices, creativity, and involvement of the children. As one walks the hallways, such handiworks litter the hallways, often in ways much more inventive than a typical school bulletin board. This is credited to the material room, where odds and ends are stored for original projects.
During my visit of several hours, I became keenly aware of how the school imbues a Jewish identity in each student by showcasing midos tovos and eliciting an excitement for Israel – as with a wonderful student-drawn canvas map of the Holy Land – displaying unmatched creativity, individualism, and an unbridled goal of reaching the inner academic potential of every child. When you enter, you are greeted with a distinctive sense of calm, void of brash noise and chatter – instead, warmed by the talents of the children on the hallway walls. In one passageway, I found Purim mask artwork reflecting a child’s imagination; one depicted a shopping bag, another a musical scene. At STREAM, the staff replaces the conventional school bells with a recognition and acceptance of a child’s heterogeneous abilities. “We have created a place for Hashem to dwell with kindness in a world of goodness,” noted Dina.
Trips, both live and virtual, take on a new element at CNEQ. The junior high school learns ratios with practical price comparisons with a walkthrough at a local pharmacy. At the height of the pandemic, simulated journeys to Israel were arranged. On adventures like these, mathematical skills are highlighted, taking the numbers from a teaching unit to everyday practice. In general, textbooks are not used by students in STREAM, rather repurposed by the teachers. I met the students of Mrs. Maegan Karas’ class, who were planning different virtual dream vacations to countries around the world. Bookkeeping, budgeting, and money management took center stage as students had to decide who would be joining them and if they would need to downgrade accommodations based on their allotted spending limit of $10,000. For Shimon, who dislikes flying, a special accommodation was made for him to travel by car to Florida. He was hard at work calculating the miles per gallon in his expense report. “I teach a model of coexistence with conservation,” explained the seasoned educator.
Choice, b’chirah, is a reoccurring theme at CNEQ, as a child is given the option to delve into fiction or nonfiction, choose his homework assignments, or choose a leader he would like to research. These same techniques translate into both Hebrew and secular classes; for example, when a child is afforded the opportunity to select Kiddush or Havdalah when learning k’riah. “We integrate our students in a manner that sets them up for a 21st century lifestyle and gives learning meaning by teaching in a relatable fashion,” articulated Mrs. Blesofsky. “When a child refused to wear a mask, we offered him the opportunity to present the pros and cons of a facial guard. Ultimately, the child realized the importance of a mask.” Another student desired for the classroom to have a bunny rabbit. CNEQ encouraged the child to perform five months of research to learn the budget and breed that may work. Eventually, a European Dwarf rabbit became a school fixture. On my tour, I spoke with Sarah, who explained her choice of creating a play that focused on colonialization and the importance of women’s rights.
The registered children’s base runs the gamut of Queens, from Forest Hills/Rego Park, to Kew Gardens Hills, Fresh Meadows/Jamaica Estates, Hollis Hills, and even to Far Rockaway, where parents partner with the yeshivah to offer their youngsters a unique educational experience that brings out the best of a child’s social, physical, intellectual, creative, emotional, and spiritual developmental stages and is a great alternative to the public school system. The parent body also reflects the diversity of Queens Jewry, ranging from unaffiliated to yeshivish to Modern Orthodox and Chabad children. Without fear of failure, the children spend their time probing the answers to their queries, testing options, and drawing new conclusions. Free play in the open-air yard is such an instance where children can safely jump from high places or exhibit resilience by climbing a slide from bottom to top. In the rain or cold, the children learn to adapt to the beauty of the natural outdoors and realize that there is no bad weather. Through innovative pedagogical programs at CNEQ, I witnessed children accessing self-confidence and self-awareness in a way like no other, which allows the students to value themselves and their peers along with each other’s ideas and skills. I saw as they each took on the journey to be a leader by enhancing their academic skills and creative capabilities while building on their individual Jewish identity in a caring environment focused on being prepared to thrive in the 21st century. “We aim to build a wholesome child who is proud of his or her Jewish identity, in an environment of love where mental health is paramount,” expressed Rabbi Blesofsky.
CNEQ uses the HEARTS method and directly associates it with both Judaic and secular studies, where humility, empowerment, aspiration, responsibility, teamwork, and scholarship (“h.e.a.r.t.s.”) are discussed. Dina explained that as a klal we are responsible for helping one another succeed and be recognized, but we must always do so using the lessons of humility from Moshe Rabbeinu. In another classroom, I found Avraham and his classmate, who devised FitBit, a cereal that included colorful fruits and Buzz the Bee, who made the meal tasty with a dose of honey. Of course, there was a maze on the box for kids to teleport to the unknown.
“At the STREAM Academy, we strive to kindle our students’ desire for Torah and secular knowledge,” stated Rabbi Blesofsky. “We encourage students to try things for themselves, to explore and draw conclusions without the anxiety of a disappointment.” Respect is calmly taught in the shadow of V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, that one must appreciate each other, not only adults. Mutual regard is modeled by the instructors, who do not turn to punitive measures. At CNEQ, children will not be sent to the principal’s office; instead, they will own their mistakes and discuss their feelings within the classroom community. This allows a child to grow at school, in lieu of reporting bad behavior to a parent. A working example was when writing was found on an outdoor wall and the students volunteered to clean the graffiti on their own time. One child even requested to join the effort because of his participation in the mishap. A virtual illustration was when a teacher built trust with a child following the use of disturbing language. Once discussed, the parent joined the conversation for a recap. Similarly, linear grades do not appear on report cards; instead, they include a narrative to help empower the child to become a leader. Likewise, student-led conferences replace conventional discussions at PTA meetings.
The joyous ruach at CNEQ is due in part to the nutritious meals, the involvement of Edwin the “Superman” security guard, and the inclusion of a Special Education program that operates on the premises. There, I came upon Sarah, a provider who will be sending her own child to the school. “My husband is in the Chofetz Chaim Kollel, and we have found STREAM to be the right choice for our child, and we are enthusiastic about our child soon joining. You cannot beat the happy, warm, and comfortable environment offered here in Bayside.”
By Shabsie Saphirstein