As a resident of Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, I see them quite often. They are led into the local batei medrash or shul by religious yeshiva students dedicated to sharing the gifts they were granted. They sit down at the tables and learn Hashem’s Torah. They thirstily drink in the ways of Hashem which they were never privileged to learn in their childhood homes.
They are the Netzach teens.
Netzach, which means forever, is a kiruv organization based in Queens, New York. It was founded by Rabbi Yoav Babakhanov, a rabbi trained and ordained by the Chofetz Chaim yeshiva network. While JEP (Jewish Education Program) is famous for reaching elementary school age children, Netzach picks up the gauntlet where JEP leaves off. In their classic large-scale style, Netzach works with hundreds of less-affiliated Jewish teens every year. I was privileged to secure a meeting with Rabbi Babakhanov to get an insider’s view of the work they have been doing for almost eighteen years.
Rabbi Babakhanov reports: “We used to only focus on yeshiva placement. We would arrange meetings with parents of hundreds of Jewish public school children every year. The first step was to convince them to send their child to a yeshiva. If they would consider it, we would drive them down to all the different yeshivas and arrange for interviews. We have connections with all types of mainstream yeshivos as well as with all the kiruv ones, and we would work with the families to find the best choice for their child. It’s not easy to find the perfect fit. And even once the parents would be interested and we’d find the right match, there would often be a financial issue. So we would help out with scholarships, sometimes partial and sometimes full.”
“Did you find that you and your team were successful in this line of work?” I ask.
Rabbi Babakhanov answers, “Well, yes. We saw a lot of success – with around thirty new enrollments in the yeshivos each year. But that wasn’t enough for us. We were dealing with close to two hundred families a year; thirty successes meant that one hundred and seventy Jews were still cut off from their heritage. That’s when we really started expanding. We decided that we would have to create new learning programs for those who were still in public school and simply teach them ourselves.”
And that’s exactly what they have been doing for many years. Fortunately, Queens has many strong yeshivos with budding rabbinical students who are up to the task, and the Netzach staff is consequently multiplying quite rapidly. Netzach hires local teachers to join their kiruv team from Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, Ohr Hachaim, and Landers. And as the staff list grows, so does the budget. While many yeshiva students are willing to do kiruv work for free, Netzach’s administration feels strongly that a paid staff produces more. They invest more heavily in the students, and the results are quite real. The paid teachers stay on the Netzach team for years and form lasting relationships with their charges, guiding them from stage to stage.
With at least four programs running a day and a total of twenty-four a week, Netzach presently boasts six different locations in Queens alone. From Jamaica Estates to Rego Park, to Fresh Meadows and Forest Hills, plus two separate locations in Kew Gardens Hills, each location draws dozens of teenagers who come in during the after-school hours to learn how to be a Jew. Some groups study Alef-Beis while others learn parsha. Some talk hashkafa, and others are already learning Gemara.
I wondered what would draw high school age students to come to these programs after a full day of school.
Rabbi Babakhanov explains, “Well, first of all, they enjoy the learning. But it can be difficult for them, so we invest in making the program attractive. For example, not all our learning is done in the beis medrash. Once a week we have a Carlos & Gabby’s learning night. They get to order whatever they want (within reason) and we learn in the restaurant. Also, we have incentivized tests. The boys in the Intensive Program can take optional Gemara tests and earn up to $120 a test! Incidentally, this can end up being quite expensive for us at times. If they all take the tests, it can cost us $5,000 a month just on this Gemara program. But we’re glad to do it.”
Of course, attracting the girls requires a different set of programming. The teenage girls have their own hired women teachers (either those recently back from seminary or kollel wives) who learn with them in their own separate locations. Rabbi Babakhanov tells me with a smile, “Boys often come for the food, but the girls view their programs as a social opportunity. They get to learn and spend time with friends; it’s a great combo!”
I ask Rabbi Babakhanov, “What else do you do with the students other than learning?”
His response is brief but eloquent: “Nothing! It’s all about learning Torah! I mean, we do provide food at every location, and we do make restaurant nights like I mentioned earlier, but the way we bring them close is through Torah. That’s what works.” Then, as an afterthought, he adds, “Oh, actually, we do play basketball with them once in a while. It’s important for them to have that type of relationship with their teachers as well.”
“Would you say that Netzach is primarily a learning organization?”
Rabbi Babakhanov responds “Yes, but we still do yeshiva placement just like we’ve always done. That becomes a big focus in these months of June, July, and August. Although Netzach has evolved over the years to focus primarily on teaching one-on-one, we still work every summer to send as many of our students as we can to yeshivos. That’s always a gratifying accomplishment.”
So there you have it, folks. This is a glimpse of Netzach Outreach. They’ve been around for almost eighteen years now, steadily bringing our brothers and sisters back into the fold. A kiruv group that’s always expanding, growing, improving, and finding ways to make the Torah way of life imprinted on the neshamos of the Jewish People la’Netzach – Forever.
To contact Netzach Outreach, please call 718-600-4652 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.