Tucked away on the corner of Daniels Road in Briarwood, Yeshiva Etzion fills with young men arriving for night learning with Rabbi Avraham Gaon.  Twenty years ago, Rabbi Gaon began the yeshiva as a place for anyone who wanted to learn and grow in their Judaism.  Today, two decades later, its original mission statement of “No Jew Left Behind” hasn’t changed; their purpose is to inject of love of Torah and learning into everyone not in yeshiva - yet.   “I meet people where they are,” Rabbi Gaon explains.  “So, the yeshiva doesn’t give a bechina (entrance exam) as a prerequisite of entry. Coming every day to learn, coming on time, that’s the bechina.”

The yeshiva has moved around a bit from its 2003 origins in Kew Gardens Hills to a 15-year relocation in Fresh Meadows before arriving at its present home of Young Israel of Briarwood for the past two years. The focus on developing each young man’s potential as a ben Torah, however, has not fluctuated since the yeshiva’s inception.  The schedule has remained the same with parallel morning and night programs so students with varying college and work routines can still have consistent learning times that work with their schedules.  Through the years, there have been more people attending morning seder than night but, post-Covid, Rabbi Gaon says that most people attend at night.

“There are more people going to school and working during the day, so they come to me at night.”

Seder begins with Rabbi Gaon giving a short shiur that’s either in direct response to a question one of the students ask or focused on halachah (Jewish law).  “I always try to begin with something that reflects their needs.  That first initial shiur is where the connection is made.  I want them to know that if they have a question, I’m here to answer and not brush things aside.” Then, they move on to learning halacha and, as the seder progresses, the boys spend the rest of the time learning gemarah.  Different mesechtot (tractates of the Talmud) are learned for day and night seder times and Rabbi Gaon makes sure that students who want to learn both but are confined to one or the other times can still learn as expansively as possible.  He sees his role as that of a public servant answering to the needs of his talmidim, students, and building their learning skills in tandem with answering their personal halachic and hashkafic (philosophical) questions.

Upon entering, Rabbi Gaon’s shiur is heard punctuated with student arguments permeating the yeshiva with debate-style rapport. That same enthusiasm is reflected throughout chavruta (paired) learning and chaburot (small group learning) throughout the day. When I arrive, young men are eager to share their stories of how they came to learn in the yeshiva and how Rabbi Gaon and his learning has transformed their lives.  Zalman Katanov, working on his doctorate in clinical psychology, explains that the yeshiva is geared to students who otherwise would not have an in-depth learning experience because they’re too busy working or in college.  Rabbi Gaon created a yeshiva for those students who never had a chance to learn and saw themselves as having missed the boat in gemarah and advanced Judaic studies.  Eytan Grossman, who launched his own tech start-up, talked about Rabbi Gaon’s interpersonal relationship with the boys and what “meeting them where they are...” really means.

“He has a lot of secular knowledge because, ultimately, he wants to be able to know about what we care about. He really tries to inspire and push everyone outside their comfort zones not just in learning but in whatever they’re into also.”  Josh Benshimon, physics teacher and law student discussed his perspective of the Rosh Yeshiva (head of the yeshiva).  “He’s not just a regular white-shirt Rabbi.  He has a special kesher (connection) with everyone and we all feel like he has just one student and not thirty.”

When asked to explain how he sees his yeshiva, Rabbi Gaon talked about reading The Mission, the Men and Me written by a Delta Force operator years ago that delineated how the authors perceived their missions as split into three parts of graduating importance.  “They talked about the mission as being the most important, then the safety of the men and last, is the leader and that’s pretty much my model for how I run the yeshiva.  I concentrate on the mission as top priority, then come the guys and last, comes me.  And the mission is JSAR -Jewish Search and Rescue, because that’s what we do; we make sure everyone feels like they have a place in Am Yisrael (The Jewish people).”

That fundamental mission is also what enables Rabbi Gaon to do what he considers most important: being mekarev (bringing back to Judaism) young Jewish men and their families throughout the years and the nachat (joy) of seeing their young frum families growing over the years.  When asked how he initiates change in people he replied simply that he uses the Yaakov going to meet Eisav model on which to build his relationship with his talmidim and does what he can to make them feel like an essential part of the Jewish community.  “I help them discover their unique talents and abilities because that’s what’s going to make them feel like they’re a part of the Jewish community.  They need to develop themselves in school or in a trade or wherever and see Torah as a part of that journey and not an obstacle to it.”

Rabbi Gaon remembers taking his students on hikes where they used to stop at waterfalls or other picturesque spots and give shiur right there.  He wanted them to understand that an appreciation of Hashem’s world was congruous with a Torah perspective and that the same way we appreciated G-d’s creations surrounding us, we could also appreciate the gifts He put within us.  “I’m trying to find the individual in the person and make them a contributor to the community, trying to shine their (inner) facets to make them shine for their benefit and for the benefit of the klal.”  It’s in that process of connecting the inner, personal journey to Torah learning that Yeshiva Eitzion talmidim are transformed and solidified into the next generation of frum Jews.

By Shoshanna Friedman