Jewish Life in Iran
By: David Mizrahi
There is a famous adage that says, “The entire world is a very narrow bridge.” But perhaps at no point in a man’s life is this so literally applicable as during the post-high school years, the period that forms the “bridge” between adolescence and adulthood, between life as a dependent schoolchild and life as a self-supporting family man and productive member of society.
And, it would seem, that at no point in a man’s life is this bridge narrower or more perilous. When a young man leaves the familiar confines of his home, community and day school, he is bound to find himself suddenly bombarded by the lures and spiritually hostile mores of a loose and liberal youth culture. Upon leaving the community’s sphere of influence, he enters a much different sphere – one which exerts its own influences that, more often than not, diametrically oppose the values and lifestyle imbibed during his 12-plus years of traditional religious schooling.
Now, in the 21stcentury, many young men – and their parents – have come to the realization that this bridge to adulthood must, by necessity, include a college education. With a fiercely competitive job market, and constantly evolving and increasingly complex world of modern business, there is a growing understanding that a college degree is among the keys to financial stability. Clearly, the form and substance of college education, and the permissive culture of college campuses, make it especially difficult for a young high school graduate to keep his footing on this narrow bridge to Jewish adulthood. This challenge is confounded for members of the Syrian and Near Easter Jewish community (SYs), whose parents and teachers have tirelessly toiled to impart to them the unique customs and lifestyle of the time-honored traditions of the old country. Somehow, these special traditions must be carried through the years of college education so they can be laid as the foundations of the young man’s home and family.
Yeshivat Tiferet Torah, one of the newest Torah institutions serving the SY community, opened its doors this past fall with the goal of offering a unique, year-round yeshiva experience together with the opportunity to earn a college degree outside the conventional college campus. Its rare combination of high academic standards, diversity, individualized attention, state-of-the-art accommodations and rural setting, as well as the invaluable opportunity to earn a college degree while studying in a full-time yeshiva program, makes Tiferet Torah an attractive – if not ideal – solution for SY high school graduates standing on the precipice of Jewish adulthood.
Scholar, Educator, and Mentor
The yeshiva was founded and is run by its dynamic, multitalented and devoted Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Nissan Hakakian. Rabbi Hakakian was born in Shiraz, Iran, and at the age of ten he fled – without his family – from the oppressive regime of Ayatollah Khomeini through Pakistan. He eventually made his way to Cleveland, Ohio, and went on to study in some of the world’s leading yeshivot, including Yeshivat Beth Moshe of Scranton, the Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn, and Yeshivat Porat Yosef in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Over the years, Rabbi Hakakian has compiled a dazzling résumé of scholarly and educational credentials. He received rabbinical ordination and certification for shehita from Hacham Shalom Massas, z.t.l., the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, and was also ordained by the Mir Yeshiva, under Rabbi Shemuel Birnbaum, z.t.l., and Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz, z.t.l. His other rabbinical mentors include Hacham Shalom Cohen, shelita, andHacham Ben-Sion Abba Shaul, z.t.l., of Yeshivat Porat Yosef, and Rabbi Yaakov Schnaidman, shelita, of Scranton.
Alongside his development into an accomplished, erudite Torah scholar, Rabbi Hakakian pursued higher education at Touro College, where he earned a Master’s Degree in School Psychology. He brings to Tiferet Torah over 15 years of experience in a wide range of educational roles. For many years, Rabbi Hakakian worked with numerous schools throughout the Greater New York area in developing special educational programs, and has written textbooks that are used in special-curricula. Five years ago, he founded the Sephardic Division in Yeshivat Ohr Somayach in Monsey, NY, which he recently established as Yeshivat Tiferet Torah at the beginning of this year.
In addition to his work with the yeshiva, Rabbi Hakakian serves as rabbi of the Sephardic Congregation of South Monsey.
Rabbi Michael Mansour, a faculty member at Tiferet Torah, expressed his awe and admiration for Rabbi Hakakian’s hard work and devotion to his students. “He is dedicated to the boys with all his heart and soul,” Rabbi Mansour marveled. “Rabbi Hakakian and his wife will do anything for any student, any day and anytime.” Rabbi Mansour then quickly added, “And I am not exaggerating.” He emphasized the Rosh Yeshiva’s passionate commitment to imparting genuine Torah hashkafa(outlook) to each and every student, regardless of the student’s background or religious or academic level.
A Yeshiva, A Family
The yeshiva is described as “a family,” a close-knit group of students and faculty in which everybody feels he belongs. Nobody gets lost, and nobody falls through the cracks. In fact, at Tiferet Torah, there are no cracks to fall through. The Rosh Yeshiva and faculty makes themselves available to the students around the clock, and play an active role in working with each student to ensure his success and satisfaction. Close, meaningful relationships are forged among the student body and between students and faculty, ensuring that every student receives the support and guidance he needs during this critical and formative stage of life.
The yeshiva takes pride in what Rabbi Hakakian calls its “non-judgmental” approach to Torah education. Indeed, one needs only to step into the vibrant bet midrashand take a quick look around to see the harmonious diversity that is the hallmark of Yeshivat Tiferet Torah.
“Nobody feels that he is better than the next guy,” he describes. Nobody judges or feels judged. Yeshivat Tiferet Torah sets an inspiring example of ahdut (Jewish unity) by showing how students from diverse religious and educational backgrounds can work together to develop themselves and prepare for a successful future.
Rabbi Hakakian emphasizes that classes at the yeshiva are available for students at any level. Advanced shiurim are offered to students who had spent a year of full-time learning after high school in Israel, at yeshivot such as Lev Aharon, Binyan Av and Mikdash Melech, whereas students who come immediately after high school can choose a more introductory track to hone their skills and work their way to the next rung of the ladder of learning.
The rigorous daily schedule at Tiferet Torah follows the typical yeshiva format, featuring three daily study periods in the morning, afternoon and evening. However, while the curriculum focuses mainly on Talmud study, as in most yeshivot, significant time is devoted also to other subjects, such as Humash, practical halacha according to Sephardic tradition, and Jewish thought. Strong emphasis is placed upon the development of textual and analytical skills to facilitate serious, in-depth learning throughout adulthood. The idea is to not only provide an enriching Torah experience for several years after high school, but also build a solid foundation of learning skills to facilitate further, advanced study later in life.
A brief recess in the morning and a longer break in the afternoon allow students ample time to tend to their other needs. Many students use these periods for optional learning, college coursework, relaxation, or making use of the yeshiva’s ball fields, state-of-the-art exercise rooms and gym. The schedule thus maintains a healthy balance between intensity and comfort, encouraging the students to invest maximum effort in their Torah studies while allowing them ample opportunities for college, rest and recreation.
Developing the Soul – and a Career
The Tiferet Torah experience is ideally-suited for high school graduates wishing to prepare for a successful professional career without forfeiting the opportunity of serious Torah learning. The Yeshiva has reached an exclusive arrangement with Farleigh Dickenson University (FDU), New Jersey’s largest private university, which enables students to take university courses off-campus and earn a Bachelor’s Degree in just two years, or even a year-and-a-half.
Through this arrangement, the students are awarded 72 elective credits for their Torah studies at the yeshiva. The 30 credits in their chosen major – business or pre-med – can be earned through courses taught during the evening hours at a facility in nearby Montvale, which the yeshiva rents specifically for this purpose. FDU professors come to the Montvale location especially to teach these students, and the classes consist of only yeshiva men. This allows the young men to earn a degree without threatening their religious commitment through exposure to the culture of the college campus. Tiferet Torah students are allowed to take 2-3 courses per semester, thus offering them the opportunity to complete the requirements for their major in a year-and-a-half. The remaining 18 credits required for a degree can be earned through the self-study College-Level Examination Program (CLEP).
Students who have already completed their B.A. have the option of studying toward a Master’s Degree in accounting alongside their yeshiva learning.
The arrangement with FDU was made several years ago, and was an instant success. Today, hundreds of yeshiva students from the area, participate in the program and take evening college courses in the Montvale site. Many of the graduates have earned acceptance into Master’s programs in a variety of fields at elite universities, and are enjoying successful and fulfilling careers.
Rabbi Hakakian explained why this kind of arrangement, which allows students to learn in a full-time SY yeshiva while earning a college degree, is so critical for today’s high school graduates. “Our youth’s Jewish and Torah values have been nurtured with great success by our devoted teachers and rabbis. Yet, once our boys and girls leave the spiritually secure atmosphere of their homes and enter college, they are confronted with a spiritual onslaught that fast erodes the rock solid appreciation for our heritage that has been lovingly implanted within them. A year round post high school Torah learning program in North America that restores the glory of Torah and inculcates an appreciation of our Sephardic values is vital to securing the investment that has been made in our youth’s formative years.” The Rosh Yeshiva called this combination of full-time yeshiva study and the pursuit of a college degree “a vital link in the constellation of Sephardic educational programs that are the pride of our community.”
According to Rabbi Michael Mansour, this arrangement reflects the goals of the yeshiva. “The idea is to give these boys a true Torah education together with the opportunity to get settled and deal with the challenges they will have to face; to allow them a full yeshiva experience while preparing for life.”
The SY Solution
From the prayers, the classes, the staff, and down to…the food, Tiferet Torah is, through and through, a genuine SY institution.
“Everything in the yeshiva follows the SY tradition,” Rabbi Hakakian says. The prayers are recited in accordance with the customs of Halab, and the students are treated to traditional Syrian-style meals in the cafeteria. The all-star staff includes exemplary products of the SY community such as Rabbi Eliyahu Kuessous, the son of Rabbi Moshe Kuessous of Deal, Principal of Yeshiva Shaare Torah, and grandson of Rabbi Sion Masalton, who served as the distinguished leader of Ahi Ezer Congregation for four decades. Rabbi Michael Mansour was raised in the SY community in Brooklyn and hails from one of the community’s prominent families. One of the yeshiva’s current students is the son of Hacham Haim Levy, the Chief Rabbi of Panama, and the grandson of Hacham Sion Levy, z.t.l., the revered leader of Panama’s Sephardic community for half a century.
“The yeshiva also presents a wonderful opportunity for SY boys returning from yeshiva study in Israel,” the Rosh Yeshiva says, “offering them high-level shiurim to take them to the next step.” The advanced Talmud classes are taught by Rabbi Chaim Schabes, originally of Mexico City, who also leads Congregation Knesset Yisrael, a prestigious synagogue in Monsey.
Tiferet Torah’s location, in the scenic, rural foothills of the Ramapo Mountains, is ideal for New Yorkers looking for a serene environment that is still close to home. Students can enjoy the quiet, pastoral countryside, which offers beautiful hiking trails and nature reserves, while living just a 30-minute drive north of the city, so they can easily hop home for Shabbat and family events.
Students from the SY community were treated to a small but sensational sample of Tiferet Torah’s unique blend of warmth and energy this past December, when 12thgraders from Yeshiva Shaare Torah assembled at the yeshiva for an exciting and fun-filled weekend retreat. The soon-to-be-graduates were accompanied by their esteemed Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Hillel Haber, and their rebbe, Rabbi Dovid Katzenstein. The delicious meals, soulful pizmonim, Torah classes and special activities combined to provide the young men with an unforgettable experience – and one which was even life-changing.
“Two boys approached me at the end of the Shabbaton,” Rabbi Hakakian recalls, “and said that this experience made them rethink their future.” If a weekend retreat can inject such a large dose of inspiration, one can only imagine the lifelong impact that a year or two of intensive learning at Tiferet Torah can have upon a young man during the most formative period of his life.
Reflecting on the weekend retreat, Rabbi Haber described to Community how his seniors “enjoyed the beautiful, first class facility and the comfortable accommodations,” and how impressed he was with the faculty of Tiferet Torah, “both in their warmth and their scholarship.” The Tiferet Torah arrangement, in Rabbi Haber’s view, is “a great option for that student who wants to achieve both solid Torah studies and a good college education.”
Tiferet Torah has received the emphatic support and endorsement of Maran Hacham Ovadia Yosef, shelita. Last year, together with other leading Torah sages – Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, shelita; Rabbi Yechiel Michel Lefkowitz, shelita; Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, shelita; and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, shelita– Hacham Ovadia signed a letter describing the institution and extolling the credentials of its Rosh Yeshiva. The letter describes Rabbi Hakakian’s successful career in Torah education, and the importance of his latest undertaking. Hacham Ovadia wrote: “In light of this success, the aforementioned rabbi [Rabbi Hakakian] was successful in establishing a sacred yeshiva for Sephardic students that will be called by the name ‘Tiferet Torah’. The prayers are conducted according to their sacred tradition, and the halacha classes are set in accordance with the view of Maran [Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulhan Aruch code of halacha] and leading Sephardic halachic authorities. I have thus come to express my personal delight over this joyous development and to lend the aforementioned rabbi my emphatic support and my warmest blessings that they shall succeed in their sacred work to strengthen the hearts of the youth of Israel to their Father in heaven, in the path that has been transmitted to us throughout the generations.”
On a recent trip to Israel, Rabbi Hakakian visited the Hacham, who inquired about the yeshiva with great interest, expressing his sincere hopes for the institution’s continued success.
Planting the Seeds of Tomorrow’s Community
Tiferet Torah’s mission, in the Rosh Yeshiva’s words, is “to prepare students for a lifetime of Torah commitment while maintaining a loyal and balanced leadership role in their respective communities.” The yeshiva has set for itself the ambitious goal of building not only individuals, but rather a community – a community led by responsible, hard-working, self-sufficient men who are knowledgeable in, and passionately devoted to, the timeless traditions of Sephardic Jewry.
As it turns out, some bridges to adulthood may not be all that perilous after all. With a dynamic, first-rate team of scholars and educators, and a magnificent campus in a perfectly-suited rural setting, students are provided an experience that is at once rigorous and enjoyable, challenging and nurturing, demanding and gratifying. The faculty at Tiferet Torah is committed to making their students’ post-high school journey smooth and successful, accompanying them at every step of the way to ensure that they reach their destination – a life of family, community, Torah, and financial success.
To learn more about Yeshivat Tiferet Torah, or to receive an application, please visit the yeshiva’s website at www.tiferet.us, or contact the yeshiva at 845-531-5416.
Rav Nachman of Breslov (Ukraine April 4, 1772 – October 16, 1810)