In just four months, Queens’ Cheder Moshe Rayah Mehemina has changed the landscape of Sephardic Torah in the borough. Their open house and community reception on Sunday, January 9, attracted an impressive dais, including the presence of the Mosholu Rebbe, rabbanim, and roshei yeshivos from the Greater New York area, who all were strengthened by the large representation for the growing Sephardic movement of creating elite Torah scholars as an everlasting proof that we have risen above the sharp decrees of Communism and Socialism to allow Torah to spread with a divine fury.
The open house brought a stream of excited Sephardic families, mainly of Bukharian heritage, to the third floor of the Queens Jewish Center, where the school is centered. The parents and potential talmidim met with the specially selected morahs and administration as they toured the beautifully decorated classrooms. Those in attendance saw the unique projects and array of programming that the current classes of early childhood learners are exposed to. Parents walked the embellished hallway adorned with photos of Sephardic leaders of today and yesteryear, and were greatly encouraged by the exposure to their storied lineage.
“It was a true delight to see our young son gain his first contact to his ancestry at The Cheder,” said one mother. “We did not know what to expect when we saw the event promotions,” confided her doting husband, “but after a conversation with a friend, we opted to take the tour and have become instantly confident that The Cheder is a rising gem for our community.”
Such comments were the general feelings of every parent and grandparent I spoke with. “The administration at The Cheder really understands the core of our Jewish neighborhood and appears poised to build the next generation of Torah leaders, kol ha’kavod,” offered another prospective parent.
From classroom to classroom, parents saw how the sacred Yiddishe ideals are showcased and taught. They were impressed with the interactions of the boys and the yeshivah educators as they played with toys and enjoyed nosh.
For the 2022-2023 school year, The Cheder has almost filled its nursey, kindergarten, Pre-1A, and first grade classes. The administration and its board of directors is thrilled to see how the Sephardic community has embraced the future of Torah.
The impressed parents transitioned from the Torah-filled elements of the open house to a gala community reception like no other, as community rabbanim, leaders, parents, and benefactors joined to hear divrei chizuk as the vision for The Cheder eloquently unfolded. The gathering was nothing other than a great moment for klal Yisrael as the future of Sephardic Torah in Queens took root. Rabbi Yitzchok Bistritzky, founder of Mikvah USA and an early board member of The Cheder, stressed that the holy ancestors of Sephardic Jewry were looking down upon the great assembly with complete joy. “In Eretz Yisrael, the alarm clock started ringing when Chacham Rav Ovadia zt”l built kollelim and yeshivos on the highest level. He made a revolution; now it’s on us – Bukharia Jews here in Queens. In ten to 15 years, we have to see talmidei chachamim muflagim, not by the tens like it is now – by the hundreds, thousands, that we must see yeshivah bachurim walking the streets like in Bnei Brak or Yerushalayim.”
Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, Rosh HaYeshivah of the thousands of lomdim at Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, energized the standing-room-only crowd: “Give your children for Torah. This is deserving of a party and a simchah.” The Rosh HaYeshivah explained that when Avraham Avinu gave over his son Yitzchak to be a korban, he had already made the real sacrifice by giving over Yitzchak to a life of Torah. “The fact that we find parents who know the truth: that by giving over their children to the Torah, their children are going to shine. Chazal tell us that the reward for lomdei tinokos is that the children will shine like a bright star forever and ever.” When Rav Gutfreund invited Rav Kotler to the open house, Rav Kotler expected to come in and greet a few parents, but was overwhelmed to witness g’dolim, admorim, and a vibrant community come out in full participation. “When you teach a child Torah, you are not just teaching one idea; you are igniting his neshamah. You are making him a star that will shine forever. The difference will be in him, in his children, and for all generations to come.”
Rabbi Daniel Cohen, a noted Bukharian visionary, emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Rabbi Cohen remembers well when Torah was forbidden to be learned in his hometown, and so he finds it a privilege to be part of The Cheder. It is with this justification that at an early rabbinic gathering for The Cheder, Rabbi Cohen endorsed its mission, enrolling his son as its first talmid, and went further with a gracious opening contribution of $50,000. The rav expressed: “The fact that we opened here such a holy place for tinokos shel beis rabban – the building of a new generation – is one of the reasons that Hashem did not obliterate Queens from the map, in addition to the talmidei chachamim and kollelim.” In his address, the rav detailed how, at nine years old, his grandmother brought him to his city’s elder rav to teach him lashon ha’kodesh to no avail, as there was still a Stalin-like fear – despite being offered 70 rubles, comparable to a month’s salary.
In the end, the rav allowed his wife to teach the young Daniel Cohen the basics of being a Jew for 80 rubles. “I see my children learning in yeshivah from the age of three and it gives me such inner joy, because I lost those years,” explained the rav. Under Gorbachev, Judaism was no longer suppressed, and Rabbi Cohen, then 16, was amongst the first boys to join a budding yeshivah and gain his first exposure to the Mishnah and the Gemara.
Rabbi Cohen reminded the audience that the Bukharian Jewish community, according to some, dates to the first galus of Bavel when the Jews traveled to Iran, then to Afghanistan, and later to Iraq, before settling in the Bukharian Emirate and, for a time, built Talmudic leaders. The rav particularized the scene as Torah study weakened, until Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai zt”l sent a student to fundraise when he met the holy Bukharian scholar Rav Yosef Maimon zt”l. Eventually, this man married a Bukharian woman and became a great intellect of the area and counted himself amongst the mekubalim. “What we have today is a miracle.” Rabbi Gutfreund gave specific mention to the visionary of the yeshivah, Rabbi Naftali Rosenbaum, and professed his thanks for his relentless devotion, “Rabbi Rosenbaum eats, breathes, and drinks Cheder Moshe Rayah Mehemina day and night.” It is he who, as the son of the Mosholu Rebbe, and grandson of the Kaliver Rebbe, is the ultimate partner in the creation and fruition of every step The Cheder takes.
Rabbi Meir Chaim Gutfreund, menahel of The Cheder, shapes a transformation of Torah in our community by ensuring that each talmid is part of the equation. The rav, who has enrolled 23 boys for the current school year, related, “When I was a child, every year after Yom Kippur in the major newspapers there were pictures of Yidden going to the synagogue in Moscow and in Leningrad. I could never understand it; they would never let you bring a siddur or t’filin into Moscow – they checked your baggage as these items were considered contraband. Yet, here were pictures of Yidden going to shul; they allowed it to happen. If you looked at the pictures, the only ones going into the synagogues were those 60 and older, and the atheist Russian government understood that this will only last another couple of years if the youth do not go to the davening.” The rav made note in the name of the Chofetz Chaim that with our youngsters, they are our ammunition, and am Yisrael has a bright future. “If we have our youth in Queens, we are saving a sheivet in klal Yisrael and we are ensuring the future of our Bukharian community.”
R’ Reuven and R’ Nissan Yusupov are two dedicated brothers who have borne the brunt of the financial burden of The Cheder of Queens. To this end, the yeshivah was named Cheder Moshe Rayah Mehamina, after their parents. “Sometimes in life, Hashem comes in very lividly to a person to make a decision and does the work for him,” depicted R’ Reuven, a talmid of Yeshivah Ohr Yisrael formerly in Forest Hills. “For many years in our community, our focus was helping the children who learn and interact with the goyim. When Rabbi Rosenbaum, R’ Moshe Grunhut and R’ Perelmuter came to me with the plan for The Cheder opening in Queens, I felt that the g’ulah had finally come to our community with these three mal’achim.” R’ Reuven stated that when he was about seven years old, he was a bit of a troublemaker at home. Once, his father brought him to a kollel in Tel Aviv where he learned. His father, a local butcher, offered to the learners, “Whoever studies with my son, I will provide for you all the necessary meats for Shabbos.” Of course, young Reuven was quite young and only wanted to go back outside and play, but he remembers well that when the rabbi asked if he could repeat what they had studied, he replied that he could not. Today, when R’ Ruven learns this same piece of Gemara, the parable of reviewing something 400 times once again comes to light. “The little bit of light and sweetness that you give a child will always be with him. All the children going to this school, you will see 20 years down the line how great they become and how they are the light that changes the situation in Queens,” concluded R’ Reuven.
R’ Moshe Grunhut, another Cheder board member, stood beside the Yusupov brothers with an astounding reveal: “This is only the beginning.” Together with Rabbi Bistritzky, they announced that a comprehensive strategy to also open a high-caliber girls’ school in the coming months is underway.
By Shabsie Saphirstein