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Under One Roof

Shimmy Blum

When the Lakewood Cheder started with ten children in 1966, no one dreamed it would one day become the largest Orthodox elementary school in the world. Today, as it’s consolidating its three locations into one massive campus, this veritable indoor city — with 99 classrooms, 40 resource rooms, two dining rooms, and a wedding hall — is redefining the word “school.”

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How is a former US base of a major German manufacturer being transformed into a historic makom Torah? A walk through the gigantic commercial building at725 Vassar Avenue inLakewood gives its own testimony.

Dozens of workers are on site daily operating tractors, laying bricks, mixing cement, breaking open concrete, welding iron, pulling wires, and more, in order to construct the largest Orthodox Jewish boys’ elementary school in the world.

The noise is loud, the air dusty, and the massive price tag self-evident, but those in charge of the Lakewood Cheder’s new building project mill about the construction site with an aura of serenity and pride. And they’re staying warm. It doesn’t matter what’s falling from the sky or how cold the weather is outside.

“It’s like building an indoor city,” says Rabbi Yosef Posen, executive director of the cheder and its girls’ elementary twin, Bais Faiga.

Rabbi Posen says that $12 million of the $18 million price tag has been raised, and is confident about accessing the rest, planning to have the ground floor completed in time for the 2014 school year. The ever-growingLakewoodcommunity now has approximately 25 Orthodox boys’ elementary schools. Yet the Lakewood Cheder, founded back in 1966 with about ten students, is by far the largest, and remains widely recognized as “the”Lakewoodcheder.

The older grades have eight parallel classes per grade, and the younger ones have ten, but the original plans for the new building to accommodate ten classes per grade were quickly redrawn to accommodate an 11th.

“We have, bli ayin hara, lots of students’ siblings and children of alumni enrolling each year, but also many new parents want to send here,” relates Rabbi Mattis Gelfand, assistant menahel of the cheder’s oldest division.

A single cheder grade has more students than many full-size elementary schools.

Lakewood Cheder students are currently spread out among three locations. The youngest grades are in a decades-old building atNinth StreetandClifton Avenue, in the heart ofLakewood. The next division is onJames Street, on the south side of the lake. The oldest boys learn in the finished portion of the new Vassar Avenue location in Industrial Park, a 3.5-square-mile area of Lakewood devoted to offices, factories, showrooms and, increasingly, Orthodox community schools.

Housing all talmidim in a single custom-built location is a daunting task, but one that has the cheder’s mechanchim energized. Here is Rabbi Moshe Wilhelm, a third-grade rebbi in the mornings and secular studies principal for the oldest division in the afternoons. He’s just made his daily trip fromClifton Avenue to the new building.

“Every morning, I think about what it would mean to teach in this building,” Rabbi Wilhelm says. “This is Gan Eden.”

After a brief tour of the finished portion of the new building, where over 400 cheder boys are already learning, Rabbi Posen and director of development Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Landau open the hallway doors to reveal the future home of the hundreds of talmidim currently scattered in different locations.

 

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