HAFTR celebrates 40 years

Five Towns yeshiva grew from two schools


Alana Newhouse, a 1993 graduate of Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway High School, is now the editor of Tablet, an online American Jewish magazine founded in 2009. She vividly remembers two people who got her where she is today.

“Gloria [Becker] ran the student literary magazine [11+], which was different from the student newspaper,” Newhouse recalled. “She took me under her wing, and within a couple of months she said I might actually like being an editor.”

Newhouse, who was the culture editor at The Forward, an influential Jewish magazine, and has written for The New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe, recounted how then HAFTR High Principal Dr. Daniel Vitow prodded her to apply to more prestigious colleges.

“Dr. Vitow pushed me to apply to Barnard in part because of the work I did on the literary magazine,” Newhouse said. It was Thanksgiving of my senior year, and he called me into his office and asked me why I wasn’t applying to more ambitious places for colleges. I was 17. That forced a change in my life. I hadn’t put enough thought into it. I was really very interested in literature and writing, but I wasn’t great in other subjects. I was great in English. I never imagined that could carry me. It’s interesting what insightful educators can see that even you can’t see about yourself.” She graduated from Barnard in 1997.

Now celebrating its 40th year, HAFTR, which includes an early-childhood center, a lower school, a middle school and the high school, will celebrate the milestone anniversary at its annual dinner on Saturday night. Lisa and Arthur Perl will be the guests of honor. Ariella and Ari Gasner will receive the Young Leadership Award, and Phyllis Horowitz will be honored as Educator of the Year.

Establishing HAFTR

Created by a merger of the Hebrew Institute of Long Island and Hillel School in 1978, HAFTR, a modern Orthodox Jewish yeshiva, educates its students following the motto Have a Growth Mindset. HILI was founded in Far Rockaway in 1936, and the Hillel School was established in Lawrence in 1957.

Reuben Maron, who served as executive director for seven and a half years before retiring last month, and was involved with the school for 45 years, said he believed that having both religious and secular curriculums helps prepare students for the world after HAFTR.

“Because of the dual curriculum, the overall day is longer for the children, and it helps develop learning skills they’ll use in college,” Maron said. “It makes college easier. There is a lot to say for a yeshiva with rigorous programming and a school day that is two hours longer.”

Growth also applies to the school’s two campuses. The Lawrence grounds host the younger children through eighth grade, and the high school is in Cedarhurst. After the merger, HAFTR was the only Five Towns yeshiva. In the past five years, it has built two sports complexes, one on each campus; a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, laboratory in the middle school; and a prayer space specifically for girls at the Lawrence campus. Another STEM lab is under construction at the high school.

“In my time, the heyday of the institution, it was known in those days for academic excellence and rigor,” said Vitow, who was at HAFTR from 1984 to 2000. He is now the headmaster of the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck. “There were highly motivated families that favored education, and made it a premier school.”

HAFTR High graduates have attended such universities as Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins, the School of Visual Arts and the Yeshiva University Honors Program.

Maron said that HAFTR hit its “max enrollment” in the early 1990s. “That was before DRS” — Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys — “and Rambam,” he said. “We were the only game in town. We hit our zenith and are now building the enrollment back up.”

Vitow said that when he started, HAFTR High had 96 students, and there were 507 when he left. When the current school year began in September, HAFTR’s overall enrollment was 1,400, including 270 children in the nursery program.

Athletics and the future

Along with academic rigor, there has been athletic success. With the merger, HAFTR gained Hillel’s strong basketball program, when hoops was the only sport played by yeshivas. Now the athletic schedule includes baseball, football, hockey, soccer, softball and volleyball, said Athletic Director Joey Hoenig.

He said the middle school and high school have a total of 350 athletes taking part in 27 leagues. It was difficult for HAFTR to juggle all the sports, because the old Hillel gym was small and the school was not allowed to use it for high school games. Over the years, the HAFTR Flames, now the Hawks, have used the Number One, Two and Six schools in the Lawrence district.

The first sports complex was built in 2012, and five years later the second one was completed. “We’re very proud of our sports programs over the years, and look forward to a bright future,” Hoenig said. Dozens of championship banners are hung in the gyms.

Ari Zoldan, a 1994 HAFTR graduate, is now a technology and business analyst, political correspondent, TV personality and senior correspondent for Talk Radio News Service in Washington, D.C. He said that his “solid early education” was the springboard into a good college (Yeshiva University) and his career. “I can say there wasn’t one teacher that impacted me, as I can recall,” Zoldan said. “It was more of the collective teacher body that made a difference at HAFTR for me.”

Board President Yaron Kornblum said that through the decades, “thousands of graduates have received the highest level of Jewish and secular education.

“Alumni successes in all walks of life are living proof of how special HAFTR has been over the years and continues to be,” he added, noting the number of multigenerational families that have attended the school. “Most importantly, HAFTR’s modern Orthodox values are the same as they were 40 years ago, when the school was founded. We continue to educate our children with the most impressive secular studies and Judaic studies curriculum. and instill in them the appreciation of this great country we live in, in conjunction with a deep love of Israel and Torah.”