From Mesivta 404 to Lamplighters Mesivta: A Real-World Journey (Mesivta 404 2.0)

By: Rabbi Yehuda Fenton, Rivkah Schack
from Lamplighters Yeshivah Mesivta

Interdisciplinary Integration

Subject(s) of entry:
Philosophy/ Values/ Ethics/ Hashkafa, Social and Emotional Learning, Technology

Blended Learning, Constructivist, Design-Thinking Model, Social and Emotional Learning

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
9, 10, 11, 12, High school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
9, 10, 11, 12, High school

Stop. Push your mental reset button. You might think this entry will be about a unit plan, an initiative or a school program with a real-world application. But actually, this entry is school as the real world application. Students and teachers at Lamplighters Mesivta are founding school together. Read about why and how...

Entry Narrative

“We did something that’s unthinkable—we did something that defied all odds and we did something that changed the lives of kids in our school and the people around us.  It wouldn’t be possible without the compromises we make, the challenges we face and the commitments to self-betterment it requires from us all.” —Meir Schack, Lamplighters Mesivta student


Real World Learning


Our Story

Three years ago, a group of six boys founded a mesivta by “squatting” in a few rooms of an empty building at Lamplighters Yeshivah.  They had arranged to be taught by a Rabbi in Chicago on a computer and had enrolled in an online program for secular studies in the afternoon. As they were boys who had dropped out of other yeshivos, their main hope was to be able to learn in a way that would simply not be like what they had left.  Yet, predictably, they had difficulty staying focused and ended up spending most of their day playing video games and having a good time.


As the end of the year approached something transformative happened.  They approached our Lamplighters staff and invited us to a design meeting.  They wanted to dream about what it might be like to found a mesivta–one that they would want to attend, one where they could be successful.  At this pivotal moment, the likely thing would have been for the adults to tell them how hard it is to start a school. We could have explained that there would have to be money to be raised, policies to be formed, people to recruit, teachers to hire.  But we didn’t. Maybe something in us knew that their desire to reclaim their lives and be something was enough.  Maybe we were just inspired by them.  We decided to take a risk and dream with them.

Rabbi Fenton joined the staff and, together with the boys and Morah Rivkah as a second teacher and advisor, we worked to create a school that would form a new spirit and vision for mesivta–one completely different than our community norms. This mesivta would be a real-world project because the design process of creating it would affect the actual lives of the boys who were part of the team doing the creating.  Over that year we kept working on this prototype, nicknamed Mesivta 404 for its “out of the box” structure, tweaking and changing our learning models, transforming our schedule, and working tirelessly to achieve equilibrium.  


In 5778, we entered the Kohelet Prize with an ebook of our first-year journey, “Mesivta 404: Risk, Failure, Opportunity.” This was an especially hard year.  Most of the boy’s parents were not supportive of their participation in the school.  Lamplighters Yeshivah parents and school board questioned the program, worried the boys were a potentially “bad influence” on the younger middle schoolers.  Their former mesivtas and teachers rejected the boys and judged the mesivta as “dangerous.” As there was hardly any tuition coming in, the school faced serious obstacles, including a lack of teachers–Rabbi Fenton and Morah Rivkah Schack had to teach every subject.


Yet, when we finished our first year and reflected on our accomplishments and challenges we realized two things: In a very real sense we had accomplished more than anyone would have imagined or predicted, and we had transformed into a group that was ready to start mapping out the trajectory of our future.  In a second historic design meeting, Mesivta 404 petitioned Lamplighters to officially join the school, as a “real” mesivta. Having identified certain aspects of the school that would need to be tightened to operate under Lamplighters Yeshivah’s auspices, again the boys inspired both the Board and the LL school leadership to be part of the dream.


This year, in 5779, we were ready to “up” our game. By joining the Altschool Cohort, with a generous grant from the Kohelet Foundation, we converted our entire curriculum to an online work plan. We expanded the number of students and the physical space of the school.  We added content teachers to the roster from the general LL teaching staff (although Rabbi Fenton and Morah Rivkah still remain the cornerstone teachers and co-designers). We started a LL Community Shul, a project that finally brought the boys into a positive light for the rest of the Lamplighters parents.


But most importantly, we did all of this with a completely co-designed model between teachers and students.  The students are truly the founders of Lamplighters Mesivta because it remains their vision, while we as the adults provide guidance, resources and structure.  Working with us to accomplish this project has transformed their lives. It will be a source of know-how, confidence, connection to their Jewish identity and sense of social action for the rest of their lives.  


And for us as teachers?  We believe we have been given a unique gift.  We have been allowed to gain true insight into the inner world of our students and to be able to use that insight to become better teachers and mentors.  And we hope to continue to share this both inwardly and outwardly for many years to come.


We have created a second ebook to chronicle our first official year as Lamplighters Mesivta.  To view this year’s 5779 Prize entry ebook CLICK HERE.  Make sure to click on the youtube icons on each page to view teacher and student video.  Of course you are also welcome to enjoy the ebook in it’s print form below, but you will not be able to access the videos.


Here are some “Real World” highlights of our model, presented in the ebook:


Personalized Curriculum


The mesivta years are crucial for academic success.  For many boys, these years will prepare them for their next stage—zal or college.  For others, these will be the last years of formal schooling before they enter the job world.  There always seems to be a tension between fully investing and focusing on the learning for now and also looking ahead at what will come next.


This is compounded at our mesivta by the wide range of academic needs of our students—some of whom have never formally learned the subjects of math and language, science and history before joining us.  Still, others find it a real struggle to learn Chumash and Gemara independently. In a school of twelve, there are literally twelve levels and beyond! In order to “up our game” of academics, we chose to leverage technology this year by joining the cohort of schools who are using the Altschool platform to personalize learning.  It has TRANSFORMED our school in many positive ways.


BUT…not without kinks.  With the uptick in productivity, comes more pressure for academic performance.  With the increased emphasis on academic achievement comes a need for balance to make sure that the warm and loving nature of Lamplighters remains.  Many group and individual meetings this year have focused on how to build rigor in our learning while not sacrificing student agency. We needed to make a firm decision on the place of computers and technology in our school.  We had to fail a lot before realizing people and learning always come first. Tech is only there as a tool toward this end.


Throughout our day, our environment helps us explore the ways in which we can be successful in the modern world. When the boys first sit down at school they look through their Altschool playlist and design their own day. For one boy, that could be playing an hour of guitar before he learns Gemara, and for another boy that could mean doing his math work first thing in the morning. They have their own space that they designed together where they figure out how to share a workspace and respectfully state their needs and expectations. For all of the boys, the changes made to the curriculum have allowed them to learn how to work under pressure, and how to manage the many facets of life.


Open Work Plan: Discovering Healthy Work Habits & Time Management


Our school is founded on the vision of a school that will model the boys future. We have used a number of tools to help us reach that goal:

  • Design Meetings: An essential tool towards living a healthy adult life is having the ability to reflect on one’s successes and failures, and to be able to map out strategies for growth. With this in mind, we have frequent design meetings where we urge the boys to reflect on both their personal work and their shared environment. After we have amassed a list of all of their ideas, we model methods of producing concrete plans for future success
  • Finding Balance: With the freedom of the open work, plan comes the distinct danger of losing control. At first, the students used their freedom to do whatever came to their minds, whether it was playing music and video games or playing basketball outside. However, the students quickly discovered the profound principle that control of their time ultimately must come from themselves. When they returned to their work plan and are confronted by all of their unfinished works, the consequences of their actions become self-evident. This has led to the boys beginning to discover the methods that they can use to make themselves successful, whether that is finding a quiet place to work or putting aside their phones while they work.
  • Academic Pressure: One of the most interesting components of this year has been the fact that the workload has grown considerably. Boys who would learn for maybe an hour or two are now staying after school to finish all of their work. With that, however, has come the need to learn how to adapt to a high-pressure situation. In the beginning, this was an extremely difficult task for them, but as we continue to progress, we find each boy amassing life techniques to be able to continue working under pressure.


Interactions within the Community: Learning to Find Your Place in the Larger Community

While diverse, the Crown Heights community is structured on an extremely narrow vision of what Yeshiva student should like, and what an Orthodox Jew should look like. In their personal journeys, many of our boys have found their own path, be it in the manner of dress or haircut, or the way that they can Daven successfully. Unfortunately, this had led to the boys being treated with scorn among some in the community, and judged by many. This was a tension that we did not manage to resolve last year, and our journey towards “acceptance” remained unfulfilled.


This year we started our own Shul, and the change has been incredible. When people come to our Shul and see the boys Davening and reading the Torah, or even setting up the Kiddush, they begin to see our perspective. As a school, this has allowed us to explore the question of exactly what our place is and will be in the Chabad community. By making them active participants in the conversation, we have noticed the boys gathering the tools that they will need as adults to live within their community.


The Students Legacy


Perhaps the most incredible evolution of our journey has been the boys legacy in the future of our school. Recently, one of our students reflected on that fact that the trajectory of education is leading towards a widespread realization that the only method of successfully educating teenagers is to allow them to be active participants in the design process. He then wondered, what would have happened if my friends and I had not started this school? Where all of the students that attend our school in the future have gone? Would they have simply been lost?


As our school grows and our successes become more tangible, the boys have begun to see themselves not only for the present existence and past mistakes, but for the immeasurable impact that they will have on the future. We have created an environment where the boys see themselves in the broader context of their future. They have all begun to learn that their decisions have an incalculable on the future of our community.


This is our Real-World Mesivta project. CLICK HERE to read our E-Book and get to know the boys that are changing the future of Jewish education.


Here are some of our original founders, as they have grown this year:

To view the original 5778 Prize entry ebook CLICK HERE.

To view this year’s 5779 Prize entry ebook CLICK HERE.


Entrant Bio(s)

Rivkah Schack is currently the Head of School at Lamplighters Yeshivah, a school that serves 152 children, ages 3 through high school. The school melds traditional Chassidic education and values with a customized Montessori-like lab environment for its students. As head of school, Rivkah is responsible for visioning, leading and designing the education model, including curriculum development, teacher training/mentoring, parent education and classroom supervision and instruction. She is also a co-founder and English teacher of the Lamplighters Yeshivah Mesivta program.

Yehuda Fenton has been involved in the world of Jewish education for the past six years. He began to work with teenagers as a Shliach in Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon, and then as a teacher teaching both secular and Hebrew subjects in two Lubavitch Mesivtas. For the past year and a half, he has worked as the Head of Lamplighters Mesivta, teaching Gemara, Chassidus, and Halacha.