School offers hope to potential US yeshiva dropouts

Students will emerge with a GED or with a certificate in their chosen area of concentration.

haredi children (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi children
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A new partnership between the educational arm of Chabad and a technical training college will give haredi youth in New York who are at risk of dropping out of yeshiva an alternative course of study where they can learn a trade within an Orthodox environment. Starting this fall, the new Jewish vocational training school - a partnership between Chabad and International Bramson ORT - will offer boys aged 16-20 looking for an alternative to the traditional yeshiva education a morning curriculum of yeshiva studies and afternoon vocational training. Students who do not have a high-school diploma will emerge with a GED (general equivalency diploma), and all students will earn a certificate in their chosen area of concentration and an associate of arts degree. Students will be trained in high-demand fields such as accounting, computer graphics and medical assistant positions. ORT's job placement department will work to place students upon graduation. 'For the last five years, I've been looking for ways to help students who are not naturally suited for a yeshiva program," said Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Education Office of Merkos L'inyonei Chinuch. "The haredi community needs an alternative for people who think differently, we are not made from a cookie cutter. A youngster struggling to fully understand Talmudic logic, the basis of all yeshivot, does he deserve to be penalized?" Programs that combine vocational training and Torah study required intensive care and financial wherewithal to survive, said Kaplan. Analyzing the weaknesses of past programs for this population has shaped and strengthened the new venture, according to Merkos and ORT. Past attempts at vocational training failed in part because of parents' reluctance to entrust their children's education to groups that had little experience creating an environment suitable for yeshiva students. Chabad will maintain complete authority over the Jewish studies, and will ensure that ORT's trainers are sensitive to the needs of Orthodox Jews. "There are many programs for students who excel, and lately many creeping up for learning disabled, those totally fallen between the cracks, but there's nothing now for a decent student who doesn't fit the mold," said Rabbi Avraham Wolovik, assistant principle for Cheder Chabad in Monsey. "There are students who don't have the ability to dedicate the entire day to studying Torah, and for that there is nothing out there." Wolovik, who previously taught in a yeshiva, said that over the years he had witnessed many disgruntled students. "A lot of the issues we've been dealing with would have been helped if they had some satisfaction with their work, something more than learning," he said. Today, Wolovik said, a certain percentage were dropping out of high school. Some find jobs, others go "way off yiddishkeit," and others go on to yeshiva and are struggling. Though the school is a Chabad initiative, it is intended to serve the entire haredi spectrum. "We not selling any particular brand, the need is acute and every segment in the haredi community is looking for this," said Kaplan. "We expect there will be some who question how the yeshiva functions, but not a lot; everybody is looking for this." A Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty study found that the 30% of Jews living at or near the poverty level in New York City are largely immigrants, elderly and Orthodox. "We thought it was very appropriate for us to start a program to try to make a change in this situation," said Dr. Ephraim Buhks, director of Bramson ORT College and US ORT operations. Yeshiva dropouts who are not given alternative training are at greater risk for financial instability. 'Today the dropout rate is astounding," said Buhks. "In the past no one wanted to admit it, now there is more realization and acceptance that those students need to be prepared for the future; families with many children will be at a level of poverty and there is no other way." The two leaders, Kaplan and Buhks, agreed they had enough in common to make this collaboration work. 'Over the course of many months we hammered out an agreement that made sense for him, for us and the Jewish community at large," Buhks said. Established more than 125 years ago in St. Petersburg, Russia, ORT began as an organization to help Jews living in the Pale of Settlement to acquire skills to move to cities and get jobs. Since then it has grown to become one of the largest tech training organizations in the world, with roughly 300,000 students spread over 30 countries. Currently, ORT Operations USA directs Bramson ORT, a two-year college with facilities in Brooklyn and Queens, as well as post-secondary technical schools in Chicago and Los Angeles. It also maintains computer centers in Miami, Cleveland, and Atlanta. "The ORT mission continues to be to help low-income people, so it is quite natural for us to move into this area and address the needs of the Orthodox community," said Buhks. "We as ORT will try to stay away from differences among the Orthodox communities. We won't be involved in religious or ideological disputes, we want to help the entire community and everybody is welcome." But Buhks is well aware of the challenge at hand. He expects that most of the students who enroll will have "weak" academic skills. "We will have to provide continuous tutorial services," said Buhks. To do so, the school will make use of the ORT E-Learning Center, which currently helps yeshiva children with after-school tutorials in a range of subjects, including math, Hebrew, biology and standardized testing. 'I was concerned that Chabad wouldn't like students learning regular courses like history, but Rabbi Kaplan thought it was necessary to open students to the society they will work in and didn't insist on isolation," said Buhks. "The most important thing for us is to help as many Orthodox as possible, but we can't satisfy everyone."