Night Seder America began as a small endeavor by a rebbe yearning to educate his talmidim, and soon evolved into a riveting nightly display of a remarkable kiddush Hashem. As the reality of the restrictions of the global pandemic set in, parents of elementary yeshivah boys in grades 6 through 8 sought an outlet to entertain their children in a manner that upholds their family values and maintains the fire of Torah. Night Seder America, NSA for short, led by Rabbi Ari Schonfeld, started on Thursday evening, March 19, by just word of mouth, and continues to shine as an innovative resource that has stepped up to bring 45 minutes of unique kosher content on a nightly basis via the Zoom videoconferencing platform.
Rabbi Schonfeld was raised in Kew Gardens Hills by his illustrious parents, Rabbi Yoel and Rebbetzin Peri Schonfeld, attending Yeshivas Ohr Yisroel in Forest Hills and later Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah-Grodno in Kew Gardens.
In the marketing efforts for NSA, national organizations, including Agudath Israel and Torah Umesorah, lent a helping hand. The interactive program is accessible both via video and telephone, allowing all to partake. The massive success of the program, currently boasting over 1,600 participants each night from as far away as Australia and Canada to American cities like Cleveland, Chicago, Memphis, Miami, and Portland, has prompted the need for a second Zoom meeting ID to be incorporated into the program.
Rabbi Schonfeld teaches the youth Gemara in an exciting fashion for a half hour, and the group then enjoys a fascinating prerecorded ten-minute message from a popular guest speaker. The program is currently learning the third perek of Maseches Rosh HaShanah after a very successful pre-Pesach siyum on Maseches Tamid. The agenda also includes thought-provoking trivia questions, entertaining competitions, and of course electrifying raffles with marvelous prizes. The program begins with the encouragement of the practice of chazarah, where the boys review what they have learned and are awarded raffles for correct responses. The concept of Y’dios Klaliyos is also taught, providing a deeper understanding to basic Torah knowledge.
Rabbi Schonfeld incorporated his creative educational talents as an eighth grade rebbe at Passaic’s Yeshiva Bais Hillel and as director of Camp Eeshay in Clifton to bring meaningful structure and something to look forward to each night in quarantine for his talmidim. Although there is no formal tally of the many yeshivos recognized within the confines of NSA, locally talmidim represent the current eighth grades at both Yeshiva Tiferes Moshe and Yeshiva Ketana of Queens. “It has been awe-inspiring to see children of my chavrusos from over 20 years ago send their kids to share in my program,” exclaimed Rabbi Schonfeld.
Each evening brings a new Jewish personality or gadol b’Torah to inspire and uplift the participants. Guests were delighted to share their powerful messages, and nobody has yet refused the offer. Past speakers included, amongst many others, Rav Elya Brudny, Rav Eytan Feiner, “Rav Gav” Friedman, Rav Yoel Gold, Rav Paysach Krohn, Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum, Rav Yisrael Reisman, Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Ephraim Eliyahu Shapiro, music sensations Avraham Fried, Eitan Katz, and Baruch Levine, as well as Rav Yoel Schonfeld, the mara d’asra of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, and Rav Fabian Schonfeld, the shul’s rabbi emeritus (the host’s own father and grandfather, respectively). “It was simply an awesome feeling to have my own revered father and saintly grandfather – both tremendous talmidei chachamim in their own right – grace a program I devised, and share their words of encouragement to its young membership,” explained Rabbi Schonfeld.
This past week, Rabbi Schonfeld invited his own rosh yeshivah, Rav Kalman Epstein of Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah in Kew Gardens, to motivate the boys. On Wednesday evenings, the decorated speaker is one of the participants scheduled to become a bar mitzvah. On that prestigious evening, he dons his bar mitzvah suit and hat and delivers his “pshetel” to over 1,600 guests, creating a festive venue for his great milestone even during these restrictive times.
This past Mother’s Day, May 10, the Schonfelds ventured back to their hometown of Kew Gardens Hills to visit family in a socially-distanced manner. Although having no connection to conventional teaching methods in the neighborhood, one student from NSA caught the eye of Rabbi Schonfeld as he approached the home of his in-laws, Dr. and Mrs. Zev Maybruch. “A new reality set in as I heard a talmid call out ‘Hey, I know you from NSA, you are Rabbi Schonfeld!’” proclaimed the program’s founder. “New emotions come to light when you finally meet the students you interact with each night face-to-face.”
One of the guest lecturers was Rabbi Yaakov Bender, the rosh ha’yeshivah of Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway. In the message, as delivered, the rav placed a call to action for the boys to pen actual letters and mail them to significant individuals in their lives who are trapped in lockdown. A unique contest was then planned for the children to write a letter and in turn be presented with a letter in the form of a raffle for a beautiful Megillas Esther scroll or a grand prize of a Segway personal vehicle on Lag BaOmer. One bachur, a prodigy of the Jurkowitz family from Kew Gardens, chose to write one of his letters to a prominent Queens community rebbetzin and mother of the program’s creator, Rebbetzin Peri Schonfeld. “My mother was extremely touched by this special gesture from a boy who never even met her,” explained Rabbi Schonfeld. Mi k’amcha Yisrael!
Another pioneering aspect of NSA is the trivia game show ‘That’s My Psak,’ where the boys are tested on geography and various elements of Torah wisdom and can achieve prizes on a scale, with some worth upwards of $500. Students have a chance to use lifelines like asking a friend for advice or polling the participants. “One of the program’s highlights is watching as the boys eagerly strive to participate in the program and be called upon to display their knowledge,” notes Rabbi Schonfeld.
Rabbi Schonfeld credits his sister Malki Goldberg, in Baltimore, for running logistics, and his brood of capable sons who monitor the raffles along with his devoted eishes chayil, Esti, who allows him to give of his time each night and prepare each day to stimulate the students.
By Shabsie Saphirstein with