Yeshiva of Waterbury campus

170 Students Without A Yeshiva

Jewish communal leaders arriving for a visit to the Yeshiva of Waterbury

By Yochanan Gordon

After a long summer–including two weeks between the end of camp and the start of the new school year, which felt longer than all the rest–parents are relieved to see their children, backpacks in tow, heading back to school and resuming a normal schedule.

But some parents of teenagers, who perhaps most need the return to structure and normalcy, are not so fortunate. In what could be dubbed breaking news, the Five Towns Jewish Times learned late last night that the Mesivta of Waterbury would not be able to open its doors in time for the 2017—2018 school year.

Despite the great public relations and political connections it has engendered, the yeshiva, which has an unfinished kitchen and dining facility as well as a dormitory which requires upgrades to bring it up to safety code standards, was not issued the permits it needs to open its doors.

Anyone who has been attentive to the Jewish media over the last year has undoubtedly seen videos of various Jewish leaders being flown by helicopter to the sprawling new 55-acre campus in Durham, Conn., that houses the Mesivta of Waterbury. Rav Yaakov Hillel, Rav Binyomin Eisenberger, and Rav Reuven Feinstein, as well as leaders of the Agudah and Torah Umesorah, have made the trip to witness for themselves the great work that the mesivta, under the auspices of Rabbi Doniel Kalish, has done with a group of students that, sadly, no other yeshiva would even consider working with.

We are talking about 170 high-school students with no place to go. And while every child needs a yeshiva and structure, these students are not necessarily self-motivated learners who will check themselves into a local beis midrash with a chavrusa and make sure not to waste time during the month of Elul if they have no yeshiva to learn in. This is a situation that demands the attention of Jewish activists and philanthropists who can put together the $800,000 to $1 million needed to finish the work, pay the contractors that have committed their time and resources, and give these children a chance to succeed, despite the odds stacked against them.

The opening Rashi in this week’s parashah, Ki Savo, states, “It will be when you come into the land.” The Torah is telling us that the settlers are not obligated to bring the first fruits until the entire land is conquered and apportioned. For 14 years–the time it took for all members of the Jewish people to settle upon their own land–the mitzvos of the land were not observed, particularly because we cannot express joy over our lot as long as there is even one member of our people who feels unsettled.

We read last week in Parashas Ki Seitzei, “You shall not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying and ignore them. Rather, you shall return them to your brother. But if your brother is not near you, or if you do not know him, you shall bring it into your house, and it shall be with you until your brother seeks it out, whereupon you shall return it to him. So shall you do with his donkey, and so shall you do with his garment, and so shall you do with any lost article of your brother which he has lost and you have found. You shall not ignore it.”

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh cites the Gemara in Sanhedrin which states, “If this is the law regarding material possessions, how much more so is this applicable with lives.” On the words “You shall surely return them to your brother,” he writes, “HaKadosh Baruch Hu waits longingly, with every passing minute, hoping that his cherished lost children will return to Him, those children who turned askew from the path of Torah and mitzvos.”

The open-door policy which the Mesivta of Waterbury is known for, as they work with students who have not succeeded in other learning institutions, presents an obligation that we must all engage in. According to the Ohr HaChaim it is a mitzvah d’Oraysa, a fulfillment of the injunction “Return them to your brother . . . you shall not ignore it.” If for whatever reason you cannot personally fulfill it, you can at least help facilitate the success of those who have been doing the work and succeeding at it.

The desperation of this matter doesn’t allow for beating around the bush. If the yeshiva in such a position of need were among the “elite” yeshivas, I assume that the issue would be resolved before even making it into the press. The fact that you’re reading about it here means that the initial appeal was made and the response was lackluster at best.

It seems counterintuitive, but the truth is that if you’re looking to preserve the preeminence of yeshivas such as Lakewood, Riverdale, Philadelphia, etc., it behooves you to help the Mesivta of Waterbury out of its financial doldrums. It’s only the existence of a Waterbury Mesivta that allows these other yeshivos to retain their elite reputations. It’s no coincidence that the Torah refers to the shevet of Dan, which was seen as the most spiritually vulnerable, as the “me’asef l’chol ha’machanos.”

This is a situation that requires activism. There is no need for any words of solace or empowerment, but rather we must facilitate a solution to this pressing problem. Now 170 teenage boys are without a yeshiva, and it’s the responsibility of all of us, especially in this month of Elul. The time to act is now!

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