In the 1950s, Jeffrey Bienenfeld, a young man from Cedarhurst, traveled to East New York, Brooklyn, to be taught Jewish lessons by Rabbi Binyomin Kamenetzky at Yeshivas Toras Chaim, which was founded by Rabbi Isaac Schmidman in 1927.
When Kamenetzky asked Bienenfeld why he didn’t attend yeshiva in Cedarhurst, Bienenfeld replied that there was none. As a result, Kamenetzky established Yeshiva of South Shore in 1956 in a small building on Oak Street in Woodmere Shore — the first yeshiva on Long Island. Seven years later, the two Jewish schools merged and moved to a new campus on William Street in Hewlett. Its current enrollment is 700 boys, ranging from pre-school to eighth grade.
Bienenfeld died on Sept. 28, at age 73.
“The school is based on accepting all different types of children, all different types of boys,” said Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, the son of Yeshiva of South Shore founder and the school’s dean. “My father never wanted to say no or turn someone away because of tuition.” YOSS, as the community knows the school, has a scholarship program, Kamenetzky added.
Its focus is a love of learning, a passion for Israel and the concept that everyone is deserving of respect. To help infuse the first- through fifth-graders with those values, the school created “Light the Way Day,” when the boys shared classroom learning with their grandparents.
“It’s a way that the boys have a day that they can share with their grandparents, who can see how their grandsons are growing and learning, and are giving joy, nachas,” said Leah Girnun, the first-year elementary school principal, who coordinated the event, along with the PTA and other administrators. Nachas is Yiddish for pride, especially in the achievements of one’s children.
A gymnasium full of grandparents that overflowed into the hallway shared breakfast, then moved to the classrooms where their grandsons are taught. In a second-grade class, Rabbi Menachem Bernstein led a discussion of the biblical conflict between Abraham and Lot. Using worksheets, the boys answered questions, occasionally in song, and showed how they learned new words.
In a classroom that blended Jewish learning with the same educational prompts that they would be seen in a public school, the grandparents watched and, in some cases, encouraged their grandsons to answer the questions.
It took Haim Taboh and his wife, Miriam, nine hours to drive from their native Montreal to the Five Towns to be with their grandson Joshua Meshach. Taboh, sitting at the rabbi’s desk, said he loved the way Bernstein taught the children, and how they responded to his questions. “It’s beautiful, it’s lovely,” Taboh said, to see the children learning. “All the grandparents came here to see all the kids giving happiness to all the grandparents and parents, too. It’s beautiful.”
Joshua hung out with his grandparents when class ended. “It’s very nice, and this is my first time doing it, and I love me grandpa as much as I love Hashem [God],” he said when asked what it meant to him to have his grandparents visit. “I love them so much because they drove for me just to see my school. I love them more anything else in the world,” he added, and then hugged his grandfather.
Instead of Thursday homework from Bernstein, the boys now must call their grandparents. Joshua said he would.
For fourth-grade teacher Stephanie Shilo, YOSS means family: Her three sons — a seventh-grader, a fifth-grader and a kindergartner — attend the school. “My youngest child broke his leg last year, and the minute it happened I got phone calls — ‘What can I do to help,’” Shilo said, adding that the calls came from parents, fellow teachers and rabbis. “Who would think that Rabbi Kamenetzky would be coming to my house to bring my son a gift? It’s a family on all ends. You feel the love here.”
Her students and their grandparents also compared the differences in their school experiences.
Noting that Light the Way Day was one day after the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, the beginning of the Holocaust, and a day before Veterans Day, Kamenetzky connected all three by having Holocaust survivors and military veterans stand to be appreciated by the audience at the closing assembly. “Holocaust survivors and veterans are tied together in rebuilding hope,” he said, adding, “We strive to include in the boys’ education a love of Torah, humanity, charity and justice.”