Yeshiva students may soon have the option to continue their Jewish studies with a few job skills thrown in.
Chabad-Lubavitch, the Hasidic sect, and International Bramson ORT, a not-for-profit Jewish organization that promotes vocational training, are teaming up to start a school in which ultra-Orthodox students will study Talmud in the morning and learn computer programming, small motor repair or office management in the afternoon. They will come out of the program with a GED, if they do not already have a high-school diploma, and with an associate of arts degree.
“In a traditional yeshiva, there’s a traditional program and the students need to meet the needs of the program,” said Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, director of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, Chabad’s educational arm. “This will be the reverse.”
The new, as yet unnamed school, which plans to open in September on the grounds of Bramson ORT College in Brooklyn, will be geared toward boys of ages 16 to 20 for whom the traditional yeshiva system is not working out for any number of reasons: They may have difficulty focusing on Talmud for hours a day, they may want marketable skills or, as Kaplan put it, they may just “think out of the box.”
The yeshiva system was not originally intended to be for everyone, another educator pointed out.
“A hundred years ago in Europe, if someone didn’t make it in yeshiva, he became a tailor, a shoemaker, a water carrier. You wouldn’t lose standing in the community,” said Rabbi Rephael Skaist, principal of the junior high division of Yeshiva Darchei Torah in the Far Rockaway section of Queens. “Whereas here, it’s become a social expectation that everyone should fit this framework.”
The problem is compounded when students who don’t fit into the yeshiva system find themselves without the skills to succeed in the secular world.
“They fall through the cracks,” said Ephraim Bukhs, director of Bramson ORT College and, along with Kaplan, initiator of the Chabad-ORT school. “They do not graduate from yeshivot, they have no high-school diploma, they cannot get jobs in the competitive workplace environment.”
The school will not be the first of its kind, but its founders believe that they will succeed where others failed. Previous attempts have been foiled by skepticism within the Haredi community and by a lack of funding.
Kaplan and Bukhs believe that the particular combination of their two organizations will assuage these concerns. Chabad has the resources and commands the respect to convince Orthodox parents that their children will still be getting a yeshiva-quality Jewish education. The Jewish curriculum will include, along with Talmud, lessons on Halacha (Jewish law) and Jewish history, subjects that, according to Kaplan, are sometimes lacking in the yeshivas.
ORT, for its part, has had success with Haredi students in the past at its E-Learning Center, also on the Bramson ORT College campus. The center prepares students for degrees or jobs outside of the Orthodox world. Bukhs expects that many students who enroll in the Chabad-ORT school, like those who attend the E-Learning Center, will enter lacking basic skills.
“Many of the kids have to be trained to behave, how to dress in the open society, how to be on schedule,” Bukhs said. “We also need to help them with English and math. Many of them probably cannot multiply or divide, and do not know how to spell well.”
There is cautious enthusiasm for the new program among some Chabad-affiliated parents who have heard about it. Mendel Ciment, who has five children still living at home in Brooklyn, told the Forward that he would entertain the idea of sending the kids to the Chabad-ORT school.
“I’m interested in any well-structured approach in education for my kids,” Ciment said, adding that he thought it would appeal to students who had succeeded in the traditional yeshiva system but were “hungry for even more.”