We are taught that more than the good student desires to learn, the good teacher desires to teach. The capable mechanech does more than simply give over information. Every lesson taught properly becomes an act of impression. When done correctly, the mind, body, and heart are all engaged. Imagination flows, and abstract concepts are concretized and put into action. As a parent, I often hear about an exceptional teacher or extraordinary rebbi. But it is rare to hear about a school filled with spectacular teachers and rabbanim who utilize every method at their disposal towards a single and sacred goal. Indeed, I have found that The Cheder has a reputation for being more than an educational institution; it is a devoted learning center sparing no expense and ensuring no child is ever left behind. It is therefore a great pleasure to interview the man behind the method, Rabbi Meir Chaim Gutfreund, Founder and Menahel of The Cheder.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in Monsey. At 13, I went to learn in Bais Hatalmud and remained there through my kollel years. As time passed and more opportunities opened, I decided to found a Yeshiva. But it would not be just another institution. I consulted with the best mechanchim in the world and hired a team of experts in order to learn and implement the most successful tactics and methods.
We began with a nursery and kindergarten in Brooklyn called The Cheder. Baruch Hashem, it grew year after year until we finally reached the milestone of a complete Torah school, including an elementary school, mesivta and bais medrash that serve 800 talmidim. The Cheder’s well-known and successful method is the trump card of our program, and we are truly excited to bring our 30 years of experience to Queens.
Can you please explain ‘The Cheder Method’ and why it so uniquely successful?
Our method can be summed up as bringing life to the lesson. As a matter of policy, we don’t believe in teaching subjects dryly. Our rebbeim and morahs face every day with the question, “How do I make this real for my students?” The result is that our parsha classes are often acted out with visual aids, our gemara shiurim are given tangible context, and we strive to integrate sensory learning in the lessons we teach. If you walk down our hallways you will consistently witness our staff of rebbeim and morahs expertly weaving drama into their lessons, creating imaginative scenarios for the children to actively participate in.
As Menahel, I take a personal interest in the daily ins and outs. I make a point of overseeing all the classes directly. Meetings with rebbeim in which we evaluate every talmid’s progress ensure that no child falls through the cracks. Together with our phenomenal rebbeim, I go over the methods of teaching, making sure that the Torah being taught is lifted off the pages and poured into the hearts of the children.
Importantly, our children are also given excellent recreational facilities. We spared no expense in providing state-of-the-art playground structures for the preschool, providing stimulating and sophisticated play. Our elementary school students benefit from a recess coach who ensures that the play remains fair and the social interactions stay friendly. When necessary, he will coach a student on the rules and technique of the sport so that no one is left out. We put appropriate emphasis to this aspect of school because it is an integral part of a healthy learning experience.
In this way, our team of warm, dedicated rebbeim, professional teachers, and highly qualified Resource Room staff has guided thousands of curious children over the years as they developed into well-equipped youngsters with an appetite for learning. The recognizable product of The Cheder is a ben Torah with warmth in his heart and a healthy mindset.
How do you and your mechanchim consistently perform at this very high level of intensity?
Well, our mechanchim consistently perform because they are very high-level; they truly understand the responsibility of transmitting Torah to the talmidim. Our system works because of our selective process for hiring mechanchim and staff, along with constant reevaluation by myself and others. The trademark of our staffing process is to actively seek out rebbeim, morahs and secular studies teachers who are skilled in teaching in the manner we discussed above.
We have other priorities as well. At the end of the day, our goal is to produce true talmidei chachamim. This means wholesome people, people with yirat Shamayim and midot tovot; we therefore make sure that the people we hire are excellent role models. We are looking to develop talmidim who will become a real asset to their communities, so we need to provide exemplary teachers who can model these qualities. This is what the Cheder works with, and this 30-year success story is what we brought to Queens.
Why did you decide to expand into Queens?
I was approached by Rabbi Naftali Rosenbaum and a few baalei batim from Brooklyn who advocate tirelessly on behalf of the Queens Sephardic community. They explained to me that there is a growing body of parents, proactive in their Yahadut, who want to raise proper bnei Torah in the best and most conducive setting possible. Since nothing local met their needs, the students were forced to commute to Brooklyn, Far Rockaway, and Manhattan for their schooling. I was told that there is a real demand for what we bring to the table.
My initial meeting was followed up with an invitation to a community gathering, this time with some of the leading Sephardic Rabbanim. So in early August of this year, I participated in what became a very emotional appeal. It was immediately clear to me that many families in the community thirst for what we have to offer, and I decided to jump in.
We witnessed a lot of siyata d’Shmaya since. The school year was only a month away and with Hashem’s help we were able to meet a very short deadline. As an example, there was a yeshiva in Brooklyn that closed down within our four-week preparation period. They had a well-known preschool morah with an excellent reputation who suddenly became available. A Preschool Director with more than a decade of experience and the rest of the staff followed. I want to stress, however, that we never compromised. Although putting together a team to meet our standards within four weeks seems close to impossible, Hashem made it happen. One thing after another fell into place, and we arrived at the school year with a fully functioning and professional preschool. Who knows how fateful those four weeks will be for Queens?
The feedback from our parents in Queens has been excellent. They see the remarkable level of directed attention and creative interaction we provide. The children are coming home with new knowledge in Yahadut and educational fundamentals. We are also proud of our beautiful premises and we look forward to a bright future.
Are there any last points you would like to make regarding the Cheder in Queens?
Yes, thank you. Though there are many rabbanim and askanim involved in the Queens project who deserve great praise for their efforts, I would like to mention a special yachid who took this upon himself for his community. The name of the Queens Cheder is Cheder Moshe Raya Meihemna, named after Mr. Reuven Yusupov’s father. Reuven is a key supporter in the development of the Queens Cheder. He bent his shoulder to the task and carries a large zechut on behalf of his community.
I’ll conclude with a tefilla that the talmidim we serve now and in the future will bring nachat to their families, their communities and to the Ribono Shel Olam.
The Queens Cheder currently has a Nursery and Kindergarten class, and preparations are underway for UPK and 3K Programs next year. The Cheder also plans to expand next year to include a Pre-1A and First Grade as well. With Hashem’s help, we will add a consecutive grade each year.