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Released Time Bolsters Jewish Identity of NY Public School Students

By , Brooklyn, NY

( Every Wednesday during the past year, 230 Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students instructed more than 1,110 students from 114 public schools across New York City in Jewish education.

Since its founding in 1940, the Released Time Program of Greater New York, under the auspices of the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education, has reached out to more than 250,000 Jewish children.

Released Time is part of a public initiative guaranteeing the right of public school children to an hour of religious instruction each week, off school premises but during school time. The program launched in 1916, and has been growing ever since across the United States.

Chabad’s Released Time program was established by the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, who arrived to America from war-torn Europe in 1940.  While Europe was up in flames, assimilation among American Jews was rising steadily. For the Rebbe, providing young American Jews with a meaningful Jewish education became an urgent and immediate priority.  

Rabbi Faivel Rimler, today, rabbi of the New Brighton Jewish Center in Brighton Beach, fondly recalls his experience as a Released Time instructor in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and East New York in the early 1950s. Together with his colleagues, the young Rabbi Rimler would pick up students after school let out and take them to a local Jewish center or synagogue. There, they would introduce the students to “as much substantive and meaningful Judaic content as possible in an hour.”

In 1956, the then 23-year old was appointed director of the fledgling organization.

“It is a tremendous outreach program that inculcates Jewish values in thousands of students,” says Rabbi Rimler, who today serves as NCFJE’s Director of Development. “When the instructor puts his heart and soul into it, the children see the enthusiasm, feel the inspiration. It makes a great impact on them.”

As director, Rabbi Rimler recruited teachers from local yeshivas, assigned them to specific districts, and provided them with teaching materials. “The goal of Released Time is to teach the children about Judaism and create the desire for them to enroll in a Jewish day school,” he explains. Help is provided to match students with appropriate yeshivas and scholarships are available.

In the past year alone, 50 New York City students switched to Jewish schools.

Today Rabbi Dr. H. Zecharia Senter is founder and CEO of KOF-K Kosher Supervision, a leading kosher supervisory agency based in Teaneck, New Jersey. In 1947, he was an elementary student at P.S. 202 in the East New York section of Brooklyn.

Senter, already a student at the local afternoon Hebrew school, joined the Released Time program at the synagogue directly across from his public school.

“I was profoundly influenced by Rabbi Jacob J. Hecht,” he says, referring to NCFJE’s late executive vice-president. “He was a very charismatic, warm, and caring individual. I can still picture in my mind when he said to me, ‘you don’t belong here Harvey, you belong in yeshiva.”

With Rabbi Hecht’s encouragement and his parents’ blessing and financial support, Senter switched to Yeshiva Rabbi David Leibowitz in seventh grade. He continued on to yeshiva high school and Yeshiva University, where he earned his rabbinical ordination as well as several advanced degrees in mathematics. Before founding the Kof-K, Senter taught mathematics at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

That one hour of Jewish learning a week not only changed his own life, but continues to impact the many thousands of people who benefit from Senter’s contributions to contemporary Jewish life.

While the Supreme Court guarantees the right of every child to an hour of religious instruction, the dedicated team of Released Time instructors makes one hour stretch much longer. Before every holiday instructors visit families offering items to help them celebrate, such as menorahs for Chanukah, matzah for Passover, and more. When school is not in session, they coordinate camps and programs the children.

“Consider. About 90 percent of the children attending the Religious Release Hour belong to a category of Jewish children who come from an environment where Jewish education is unfortunately practically unknown,” wrote Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson in 1949. “Thanks to the Religious Release Hour, however, they have developed an attachment to Jewish education…This goes to show that given the proper initiative and approach, every Jewish child responds quickly and most heartily to Jewish education by reason of his or her own innate natural love for it.”

By now, a quarter of a million children have been given the tools to help them develop precisely that kind of strong Jewish pride and awareness. But for the directors of Released Time, there is always more work to be done, and this year, they intend to up the numbers and reach 1,350 children from 134 local public schools.


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