As we enter into the spring of our 15th year at Ben Porat Yosef, we feel it appropriate to revisit the climate, culture and, most importantly, the people who have made the school what it is today. We hope that this interview with Steven Sarao, the visionary and founding president of Ben Porat Yosef, will enrich and enlighten others about the unique circumstances that surrounded the founding of the school as well as highlight the significance of what Ben Porat Yosef contributes to the world of Jewish education today and the implications for the future. This interview is excerpted for the Jewish Link. The full version is available online at http://tinyurl.com/jqdvc79.
Cheryl: What were some of the factors that made you want to start BPY?
Steven: When I was coming back to religious practice and observance, I was learning one-on-one with a very warm, passionate and loving Sephardic rabbi in Chicago. They had a similar—but different—initiative in Chicago. So, my early learning in Jewish thought and practice was juxtaposed with forming a day school. When I subsequently moved back to New York City and began my family life, it was sort of in the back of my mind and in my thinking to create something similar. But, this particular region has many more opportunities within Jewish education because the Jewish community is so large. In coming back and really diving into the issues in Jewish day schools, it became apparent that in addition to beginning a school that would support Sephardic continuity, there were other very specific areas within Jewish education that families were not happy about and that graduates of day schools felt were missing. For me, this was an indication of strong opportunities for growth and improvement within the field of Jewish education.
C: What were the areas that you sought to improve?
S: First and foremost, fluency in Hebrew language—a comfort in Hebrew language, fully and completely. Additionally, there also seemed to be a tremendous amount of conversation about what was a very structured, rigid approach to Jewish education in day schools. Many day school graduates spoke about being forced to participate in tefillah during their educational years and just having no idea where they were in their siddur—what they were doing, what they were saying, why they were saying it.
There seemed to be a very deep disconnect between heart, mind and practice. So, as we began to form and to sift through these ideas of Sephardic continuity, of sincere Hebrew immersion—much of it had to do with doing things in a more heartfelt, honest way than had been done before. It was certainly my goal to bring back to the Jewish community what Rabbi Marc Angel refers to in his books: the concept of the whole man, encouraging and cultivating a fuller range of human attributes—the ideas that Sephardim have traditionally used to try to balance the requirements of observance with the requirements of living in order to achieve a form of religious expression that is both balanced and proportionate. This ideology is a gift, not just for Sephardim but for the entire Jewish community.
C: What is it about the Sephardic continuity that made that a primary focus of the school?
S: I think there were two distinct issues we were grappling with. One was that throughout the U.S., Sephardic kids were being educated in Ashkenazic day schools and for the most part were praying in Ashkenazic synagogues, and many of the parents of older Sephardic children, who had gone through those experiences, had personal experiences where they would go home to their parents or grandparents and their parents or grandparents would do something according to a particular minhag or tradition, and their kids would tell them “you’re not doing that in the right way; we learned in school that that’s not how you say the blessing; you’re not supposed to do it that way.” A disconnect was created between true Sephardic practice and what was being taught in day schools. Although I believe it was unintentional, there was a tremendous historical legacy of the Sephardic community being kept outside of the complete picture of what I would hope would be a more fully developed curriculum that represents a complete Jewish perspective.
I felt that we couldn’t allow the Jewish community to lose something so valuable. The power and perspective of Sephardic thought and practice is important to the entire Jewish community, not just to Sephardic families—it speaks to the diversity of the Jewish people; it speaks to a complete picture of our historical experience; it speaks to us being sent out of a variety of different countries throughout our various periods of history, which has made us who we are as a people. Sephardic continuity, in BPY thinking, was never limited to Sephardic families. Sephardic continuity is beneficial for everybody because it adds to a richness of heritage that is valuable to klal Yisrael.
C: What conversations did you have when you were conceptualizing BPY?
S: At the beginning, I had conversations with anybody who would have a conversation with me. I made attempts to have conversations with Jewish leaders—in Englewood, in New York City, on the university level—with the people who were leading initiatives to train teachers—because I needed resources. I needed subject-matter experts in a variety of different and complex areas.
As I spoke about during BPY’s first 8th grade graduation address in June of 2014, a majority of Jewish leaders at that time were not supportive of our perspectives on Hebrew immersion. They didn’t feel that it was something that could be accomplished, mostly because for the first time we were having a discussion about what the true challenges were with Hebrew immersion and observance and religious life. At that particular time in history, in the Jewish world in this particular geographic area, at least according to these Jewish leaders, the majority of the people who had the skillset to teach Hebrew immersion were not the same people who had the skillset in terms of religious thought or religious practice. And, the people who had subject-matter expertise in religious thought and religious practice were generally not fluent in Hebrew. So, according to the leadership that existed in the tri-state area, BPY’s vision in terms of Hebrew immersion was not achievable.
Ultimately, however, our advocacy on Hebrew immersion provided a tremendous amount of traction for us and positioned us as both an innovator and disruptor in the field, carving out a market for parents looking for improved Jewish education. I would later learn that established institutions often subscribe to a philosophy that Clayton Christensen describes as “‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ while not really questioning whether ‘it’ is ‘broke.’” I believe that in many ways we were challenging traditional thinking and suggesting that some things were broken. BPY was suggesting that it could be done better—that parents wanted it better, that students wanted it better, and even that educators wanted it better.
C: You have spoken before about a Sephardic approach to the world and education—what do you see in BPY today that speaks to the founding approach?
S: There is an aspect of BPY that is extremely tolerant and accepting of individual differences. There is a quality of the BPY family that embraces the unique—the individual journey. And for me, looking back historically over the experiences of the Sephardic community—in the 14th and 15th centuries—this was a community that was side by side with Christians, with Muslims, and even internally within its own community there were families who were on a variety of different religious levels. Diversity has been a reality within the Sephardic community since its inception.
Part of this approach is to pray with conviction and passion, to be accepting of all Jews, to understand that Judaism is to make our lives happier and better, not more confining. It was always an approach that was accepting of one’s neighbor. We shouldn’t constantly have to divide ourselves. We should be open and allow a tolerant, accepting, possibly “Sephardic” mindset—a Sephardic umbrella—to be warm and welcoming towards anybody who wants to be with us.
So, to me, BPY truly speaks to that in a very sincere way, and can provide a framework for a much more tolerant, much more accepting way of living our life within a Jewish framework.
Cheryl Rosenberg grew up in York, PA, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2003 with a degree in communications and commerce. Currently, Cheryl lives in Englewood, NJ, with her husband and her four children who attend Ben Porat Yosef. Cheryl has been serving as the president of the board of trustees of Ben Porat Yosef since 2014. She is in Cohort 4 of the Berrie Fellows leadership program and serves on the executive committee of the TeachNJS initiative.
Steven Sarao is the visionary and founding president of Ben Porat Yosef (BPY), a Jewish day school in Paramus, New Jersey. Steven has been employed by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) since 2003 and is currently a lieutenant assigned to the Office of Management Analysis and Planning (OMAP) where he develops and manages public policy. Steven holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and most recently completed a masters in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Steven serves on the Board of Bronx Community Board 8 and is a member of its economic development, land use, and traffic & transportation committees. Sarao’s published works have appeared in Harvard’s Public Policy Journal, Harvard Africa Policy Journal and American Police Beat magazine. Steven resides in Riverdale, NY, with his three children who attend BPY and the Ramaz Upper School.
By Cheryl Rosenberg,
President of Ben Porat Yosef,
and Steven Sarao, Visionary and Founding President of Ben Porat Yosef