March 2, 2023
From Class Clown to Entertainer of Thousands
I meet Yoel Ferber in the Voice’s office at the end of a long day teaching, but for him, he’s just getting started. He’s come to record for the Loop as their mascot—the one and only Sir Conference.
Ari Berkowitz, publisher of the Voice, pokes his head through the door as the interview starts. “You’re interviewing him for the Purim issue? But he’s not funny!”
Rabbi Yoel Ferber is known for being a rebbi, but he’s better known for his sidesplitting CDs that keep kids and their parents entertained for hours.
He eyes my laptop as we sit down. “So, how does this work? You’re just going to sit here and type frantically as I talk?”
That is precisely what I do.
As I quickly discover, although Rabbi Ferber is a household name, the journey it took to get there was unexpected, full of turns that no one, least of all Rabbi Ferber himself, could have foreseen.
A class clown?
Rabbi Ferber grew up in Boro Park, attending the same yeshivah through 11th grade. The school was known for its rigorous academic program and its high emphasis on discipline and structure.
“I wasn’t a good student,” he says. “Not that I misbehaved, but I wasn’t considered a top student at all.”
When I ask him if any hint of his future career made itself known in school, he shakes his head.
“Nothing. You know that kid who sits in class and counts the light bulbs? That was me. I still remember the pictures on the wall in my fourth-grade classroom because that was all I looked at. It scares me, actually. It makes me wonder how many students today get overlooked.”
Today, that thought is the main driver of Rabbi Ferber’s passion for teaching Torah with geshmak to all types of children, both inside and outside the classroom. But at the time, school was not his place, and his talents lay dormant. And although his knack with children was already apparent as a teenager, being that counselor that kids adored, no one ever thought he was funny.
A new outlook
It was a change of yeshivos that started unearthing those abilities.
“When I went to Telz yeshivah in 12th grade, I thought, Best-case scenario, I’m going to be a truck driver. The perspective I grew up with was that if you weren’t sitting and learning every moment, then you would never amount to anything.”
But in Telz, his outlook shifted. He saw the world and himself differently.
It was there, in Cleveland, that one of the most fundamental lessons in teaching was driven home to Rabbi Ferber: Learning doesn’t happen when you beat kids over the head. It needs to be modeled.
And the role models in Telz were incredible.
Rabbi Ferber developed a close relationship with Rav Dovid Barkin and Rav Shloime Eisenberger. “R’ Dovid was a tzaddik yesod olam, a flame. He lived and breathed Torah. He was an incredible role model. Plus, he had a knack for making people feel good about themselves.
“But Rav Shloime Eisenberger had the greatest impact of all. He was a social worker before the term existed. He was just so normal, accessible, sensible, and wise.”
The close proximity of the Gifters was another benefit.
“In Telz, I was a somebody. I found out that I knew how to sing when I davened for the amud there. A few friends and I would go there for shalosh seudos, and I became very close with Rebbetzin Gifter.”
A mentor was also helpful. Telz’s unofficial policy in which older bachurim mentor the high school boys helped crystallize the young Yoel Ferber’s choices.
“At the time, if you would have asked me straight, ‘Do you want to sit and learn your whole life?’ I would have said no. But when you sit with a bachur for hours, you realize, Hey I want to be part of this, too. It puts you in tune with what you really want.”
He was there for four years, but in development it felt much longer. “I was a whole different person when I left, clearer on where I was headed.”
Becoming an educator
After leaving Telz Yeshivah, Rabbi Ferber spent some time in Eretz Yisrael before getting married and settling down in Lakewood. The personality he’d only recently discovered he possessed was finally starting to earn some acclaim, and he worked as the head counselor in Camp Yachad. But he still never dreamed he would go into chinuch. The title “Rabbi” seemed completely out of reach.
“When someone told me that I would make a great rebbi, I looked at him like he was crazy. Me? Impossible.”
Except that after hearing the same comment from multiple observers, he caved in and signed up for Aish Dos, a rebbi-training program. There too, events took an unexpected turn.
Rabbi Ferber was happily learning, blissfully unaware that the stage was being set for the next step in his career—a career that would mesmerize and entertain thousands of children. Then, in February, he received a call from the program with a piece of sad news: There was a rebbi in Brooklyn who had just been diagnosed with a serious illness. The school was looking for someone who could be in the classroom and take over when he wasn’t up to teaching, and Aish Dos had suggested Rabbi Ferber for the job.
“It was incredible, but it was nuts! I was really just a sub, so when the rebbi stepped out, it was wow—bedlam! On the other hand, I got what almost no other teacher gets—firsthand experience and critique. I would teach and he would sit there watching me, giving me tips, telling me where to improve.”
Rabbi Ferber did this for a year before eventually taking over the job completely, and for the last 15 years, he has been a fourth-grade rebbi in Yeshiva Tiferes Yisroel.
Between camp and school, Rabbi Ferber has taught thousands of kids, and I ask him to share some thoughts on his teaching career.
“I had a huge chip on my shoulder when I started teaching,” he says candidly. Generally, teachers can be split into two groups: those who loved school and those who struggled through it. The ones who loved it want to replicate their success, and the ones who didn’t want to fix all the mistakes they saw in their classroom and give kids the experience they never had.
Rabbi Ferber is a poster child for the second category. “I think the fact that I had trouble in school is what helps me relate to the kids I teach. Hardship is good for kids. I had a star student recently who got in trouble for something, and he was crushed. I told him that it’s so good that he got in trouble. You can do something wrong and still survive.”
Do his students pump his for details about his CDs?
“Nah. In the classroom I’m first and foremost a rebbi, not a storyteller. In the Lakewood groceries, on the other hand…”
Besides the energy and dynamism he brings into his classroom, Rabb Ferber attributes his success to much simpler tools.
“I think routine is so important for kids. They need structure. I recently took my class on a trip, and I prepared them down to the last detail. We had a great time. Another rebbi confided in me later that his trip had been a disaster. Why? He hadn’t prepared his students!”
Another incredibly important tool? Slowing down.
“When chutzpah comes up in your classroom, don’t react right away out of impulse and emotion. Deal with it when you can react calmly.”
A mesorah of storytelling
His teaching is intertwined with his storytelling, and the conversation drifts there.
Rabbi Ferber ran a Pirchei group for a few years, and just as with being an educator, he had never thought the storyteller hat applied to him.
“I was living in Coventry at the time, and my friend Shia Feinzeig asked me to run a Pirchei group. For some reason, I agreed, but I never thought I could tell a story. I was sure I was crazy! The first time I told a story, I was too embarrassed to even switch my voice. But I started slowly until I did it without thinking.
“One summer, I had a few free weeks, and my wife called up some camps offering my services as a storyteller.” At that point Rabbi Ferber had long realized he had a talent for storytelling, but no one besides his own talmidim knew about it. “I got a few bookings here and there, nothing too jaw dropping, and then I got a booking at an Avos Ubanim event in Brooklyn.”
Rabbi Ferber took a little MP3 with him and recorded the story as he told it. That story was an early version of the wildly popular Lessons Learned in Moscow.
A short while later, the Choftez Chaim Heritage Foundation, upon hearing about the new talent on the scene, reached out and asked him for a sample, and he sent them the unedited file on the MP3.
“I sent it as it was—no fancy sounds, nothing professionally arranged.”
But the kids listening to it didn’t think it was missing anything. They loved it.
“The story was sent out everywhere. Thousands of people heard it. And then, one day, I got a phone call from Yitzy Erps.
Yitzy Erps had heard his story and was convinced that the style was an offshoot of his own. “‘You must have heard me tell stories,’ he told me. But I really hadn’t! Eventually we figured out that I was in camp with Rabbi Fischel Schachter, who had been in Yitzy Erps’s Pirchei group.” And that engaging style had been handed down, storyteller to storyteller.
Yitzy Erps was impressed with Rabbi Ferber’s potential, and he started sending him bookings. “He legitimized me. With his haskamah, I started getting tons of bookings.”
What makes Rabbi Ferber’s style unique?
“To me, Shmuel Kunda is the grandfather of all storytellers, and I try to copy his style. As a kid, I once heard him tell a story, and I was floored by the way he acted it out on stage—he was basically a one-man show. He was acting out a robber trying to open a window, and he literally stretched out his arm and you could see him straining that window open, making those noises of a window squeaking open. That’s the model I try to follow.”
Another fact listeners may not know is that much of his repertoire is developed on the spot. “When I’m telling a story about Chaim, I become Chaim, and I do whatever feels right at that moment. It might be the hundredth time I’m telling a story, but there will still be new material and new jokes I stick in right then.”
A legacy in the making
Although Rabbi Ferber’s popularity soared, it was a long while before he was ready to put out an album.
“I was back and forth for a long time. I didn’t want to become a public person. Finally, I asked my rav, Rabbi Menachem Mintz, and he told me that if I have the ability to provide kosher entertainment for children, I should go for it.”
With his rav’s encouragement and the help of Rabbi Avraham Niman, head counselor of Camp Agudah, who reviewed the script, Rabbi Ferber’s first CD, Itzikel, set in Volzhin, was put out—to universal acclaim.
“I was shocked. I knew kids loved it, but I never dreamed it would be so successful.”
Next came Lessons Learned in Moscow, which was based on a compilation of true experiences, and then the second Itzikel. In 2018, he put out a second Lessons Learned in Moscow followed by The Steve Story in 2019 and The Bomb That Went Boom in 2020.
“I’m exactly the opposite of a singer,” Rabbi Ferber says with a laugh. When he sings at weddings, people want to hear familiar songs, so he sings the songs that were on his album. But when the albums come out, the songs need to be new. “I’ll tell a story dozens of times before putting it on a CD, but once it’s out, no one ever wants to hear it again.”
Recently, Rabbi Ferber expanded his audience by taking his stories over to the Loop. “It’s a lot of fun. I have a great group that I work with. I actually have a skeleton script, and then I stand there and record; most of the jokes are totally unplanned.”
Has he gotten used to his status as a famous storyteller?
“I never saw myself as a public person. When kids come over to me in the supermarket, I say hello, say a funny line to make them happy, and then go running off to hide in another aisle. I’m still not comfortable with it.”
A story unfolding
With Purim on its way, I get to experience a small taste of Rabbi Ferber’s inimitable style as he leaves me with a Purim thought.
“I love teaching about Purim because I think it’s the Yom Tov that connects to us the most. Just like they were in galus, so are we. What’s more, we’re also living in a time of hester Panim. We’re not looking at major miracles; there’s no Krias Yam Suf or stopping the sun.
“It’s a tremendous chizuk for us that when the world seems so out of control, Hashem is really guiding everything. I’ve seen this in my own life, and I try to incorporate it in my stories as well. And just like the Yidden experienced a gevaldige geulah so many years ago, we’ll also experience a gevaldige geulah, very soon.
Most popular CD: “Itzikel.”
Greatest irony: “Most people assume that Itzikel is true and Lessons Learned in Moscow is made up. Its actually exactly the opposite.”
Most surprising fact: “If you give me a pen and paper, I wouldn’t come up with a single joke. I have to do it live.”
Funniest story: “I bumped into my second-grade English teacher one Chol Hamo’ed and he asked me where I got The Steve Story from. I told him what I tell everyone else—that I heard it as a kid but don’t remember. And he told me, ‘You got it from me!’”
Best storytelling tip: “Know your audience. If the parents start schmoozing, you’re dead. So, I mix in a lot of things—comedy for adults, silly voices for the three-year-olds, lots of action for grade schoolers—to keep everyone’s interest.”
Most unusual complaint: “People complained that in The Bomb That Went Boom, the story doesn’t involve Jews until the very end. The lesson was davka the opposite!”
Funniest blooper: “When I recorded Itzikel, I threw out my hands for a dramatic gesture and I knocked over a mic. I had this $2,000 mic lying on the floor. Baruch Hashem, no harm was done, but the bang that was created we left in!”
Dream collaboration: “Obviously, Rabbi Shmuel Kunda. He’s the great-grandfather of all storytellers. He was the first one to invent the concept of using different voices.”
Most rewarding experience: Hearing from rebbe’im that kids know about Rav Chaim from Itzikel. More, hearing that they have a she’ifah because they heard about it on the CD.”
Favorite part of being a storyteller: “Giving kids safe, kosher, fun entertainment. I’m happy I can have a part in that.”