Torah learning chavrusa style? The New Rochelle Kollel, which opened in late 2016, is becoming a popular choice for people in the area. The kollel offers nightly learning from Sunday to Thursday nights from 8:30 until 10 p.m. and is currently running in the MP2 room on the upper level of the Young Israel of New Rochelle.
The kollel was spearheaded by visionary Rav Etan Epstein, a New Rochelle native, who got married and learned in kollel for seven years in Israel before returning to the United States to see how to replicate the same learning opportunities he had seen from abroad. Inspired by another program in NY run by Rav Yossi Oratz that attracted local New Rochelle residents, Rav Epstein decided to look into ways to bring the educational opportunities even closer to home. Thus became the New Rochelle Kollel.
“I was struck by the idea that although they have New Rochelle people, how nice would it be to bring it directly to the community,” he said. Initially, the kollel was run out of the Quaker Ridge shopping center, which is located just a few minutes’ walk from Young Israel of New Rochelle, but Rav Epstein “wanted more exposure and face time with people in our shul. I wanted home court advantage. People should feel like this is their project, it’s their place.”
It’s taking off. Thanks to Rabbi Reuven Fink, YINR leaders Mark Semer and Joey Bernstein as well as the community at large, it was decided in late January that the kollel be moved into the shul building. In a statement issued by the board, YINR acknowledged that it “is committed to ensuring that YINR provides ample and attractive learning opportunities for our community.” This includes allowing people to engage in chavrusa learning on all levels, creating a “ruach of Torah within the community,” Rav Epstein said. The “constant Torah study in the ... shul ... is meritorious for the community in and of itself.”
The kollel has a commitment by 11 men who travel to New Rochelle nightly from Monsey. They are part of the chavrusa-style learning, giving those from New Rochelle the opportunity to learn as well whenever they are able. The main body of the kollel, however, comes from beyond the community so as not to make it fully dependent upon community participation. “We create chavrusas based on when people come and it takes on a life of its own,” Rav Epstein said. Allowing those to learn at their own educational level and their own pace gives them the opportunity to learn within a comfort zone that makes them come back time and time again. The program is interactive and tailored to their needs, wants and schedules; while not everyone can commit daily or come all the time, they have the flexibility in the kollel to continue where they left off.
“I compare it to a custom suit versus buying one off the rack,” Rav Epstein said. “A custom suit allows for the flexibility to cater to your needs, fits and wants. So too chavrusa learning can be adjusted based on preference and needs of those studying. If you want to learn slower, faster, more in depth or to focus on a specific topic, this can be done when you learn one-on-one.” Rav Epstein reassures the community that unlike a custom made suit, the kollel is a free program, just with a premium experience. Beyond regular one-on-one learning, there is also a Thursday night parsha shiur at 9:30 p.m. with cholent where anyone interested can sit and learn in an informal setting.
The shul, Rav Epstein says, has been very accommodating to the kollel’s needs. The room where the kollel is being held is fit for their needs with bookshelves, tables and anything necessary for limud within the kollel itself. While it caters primarily to the New Rochelle community at this time, Rav Epstein is hopeful that people from other communities will come join and learn, be it from White Plains, Scarsdale, Mount Vernon or Riverdale. Right now, however, he’s happy with the growth to date. Less than one month in its new home, “there’s excitement. There’s a buzz in the air,” he said. “There’s a sense that a good thing is happening.”
As Rafi Jacobs, a New Rochelle kollel regular, says, “I hope it will be a great opportunity for the community to have a consistent outlet for engaging in Torah learning. Personally, I enjoy being able to incorporate chavrusa learning into my daily routine, and the kollel provides the structure to make that happen.”
By Tamar Weinberg