Yotzer Ohr Academy of Torah & Art in South Florida Breaks the School Mold, Brings Out the Best in It
Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Stepping through the doors of Yotzer Ohr Academy of Torah & Art is an other-worldly experience. The front door is hand-painted beautiful shades of blue. Eye-popping student artwork adorns every nook and cranny.
After three years, the out-of-the-box school has continued to grow each year, serving nearly 40 Jewish girls in grades six through twelve. Each girl comes for a different reason, from escaping bullying and finding a loving environment, to super-talented artists and musicians who want the chance to spread their wings. Some excel at Calculus, others at writing or art or photography. One recent graduate received a full scholarship to the college of her choice.
“Yotzer Ohr is a dream come true,” says parent Chalva Cohen. “From the principal and teachers to the curriculum, everything is planned in regard to a proper Jewish education, life, identity, and personal development. We love that every girl feels nurtured there and can develop her artistic abilities as well as follow a rigorous kodesh and chol program.”
The school environment is focused on bringing out the best of each girl, and then allowing her to blossom in her own, unique way.
“It’s a literal butterfly transformation, from girls who were broken from being bullied,” says Nietzah Benbenisti, the school’s founder and principal, who cares deeply for their academic, spiritual and emotional needs. “It is a bully-free zone,” she adds. “Our focus is Ahavas Yisrael.”
During one recent afternoon visit, before schools around the country closed, giggling girls streamed up and down the curved staircase. Others gathered in the kitchen to cook. A group sat together on the deck having a discussion with their teacher.
Between classes, one student bemoans the smartphone policy -- a common occurrence at many schools -- and requests to use hers to call a family member. The conversation remains respectful and ends with a hug and compromise. Indeed, the school is run on a system of mutual respect.
“It’s an awesome staff that genuinely cares about the well being of the students,” says Simcha, a student at Yotzer Ohr.
Judaics isn’t sequestered to the usual half-day regimen of chumash, Navi and other typical day school dual-curriculum courses. Jewish subjects come alive through projects and heart-felt discussions, and creative expression is infused into everything.
“Because that’s how people learn best -- when the subjects are hands-on, and when there is an emotional connection to the content,” explains Nietzah. “We focus on more than academics; we are focused on souls and people.”
An accomplished artist and longtime professional educator, Nietzah’s love for the students -- her girls -- is evident in every interaction and in the way she dotes on them, sometimes running home or to the store to pick up something they need.
One student spoke recently at the open house about the importance of the relationship building the school instills. If something happens between the girls, she said, such as an argument, they are encouraged and guided as they work it out. “In a day where there's so much to do, we took the time to focus on that,” she said.
Rather than seeing the world separated into art and music on one hand and Torah on the other, the total educational experience at Yotzer Ohr unites these two worlds. Throughout the year, electives include video production, photography, painting and graphic design, but art and personal expression are infused into all the learning.
“Some students find particular moments of inspiration in their art or music. We want that inspiration to fill their religious world as well,” says teacher Elisheva Goldsmith, who is certified to teach a unique, customized art-infused Torah program. “Our projects help Torah themes live and breathe through the students’ artistic and musical creations.”
Since some of the secular subjects were already done online, the school was poised to continue without much disruption, despite the pandemic. And the mood of the students and teachers remains positive.
“I’m so happy to be in Yotzer Ohr. I get all the help I need, I have the most amazing teachers and principal, I’m surrounded by the best students, and I learn so many new and useful things that most schools don’t teach,” said Rivka, a student at Yotzer Ohr.
As enrollment runs throughout the summer, the school continues to receive inquiries from throughout South Florida, as well as other communities. While a few girls do board with families, most students are local.
“They are beautiful, wholesome girls who are getting the chance to shine,” says Nietzah. “We understand that every girl is equipped with specific God-given talents, and our goal is to help guide each one to maximize her potential and fulfill her mission in this world.”
“B’ezrat Hashem, with a strong foundation of Torah and a rabbinical panel guiding us, our girls graduate with a deep and meaningful understanding of how to effectively run a Jewish home,” she adds. “Plus, they will feel pride in themselves and have a world of creative and educational options available.”
Words that come from the heart enter the heart, and it’s obvious as you walk through the lively, welcoming school that the teachers and staff believe passionately in what they’re doing and want the girls to grow.
“Yotzer Ohr is not a regular school, it’s so much bigger than that,” says parent Dalia Berman. “It’s a safe, nurturing, accepting place, a place where they grow spiritually, artistically as well as academically. It’s truly the best place on earth for a girl to go to school. I feel so blessed to have sent my daughter there.”
To learn more about Yotzer Ohr for the upcoming school year, visit yomiami.org or call 786-290-0216.
Mindy Rubenstein is a freelance journalist and founding editor of Nishei, a quarterly magazine for Jewish women and teen girls (www.Nishei.org). She lives in Florida with her husband and four children.