Home sweet home. It’s the place where a person feels loved, safe, and comfortable. Yet for some 180 talmidim of Yeshiva Ateres Shmuel of Waterbury, the past few weeks have been tinged with a longing to return to the place they call “home” in Durham, Connecticut. For these boys, their relationship with their Rebbeim and friends is like a family bond, and being away from their dorm and beis medrash felt foreign. Now, through the extensive efforts of the dedicated Rosh Yeshivah, rebbeim, administration and a group of heroic lay leaders, the yeshivah is headed back once again … to the place they call home.
For 19 years, under the leadership of Harav Aharon Kaufman, Yeshiva of Waterbury has produced a unique brand of talmid. Many of the incoming talmidim had not yet tasted the sweetness of Torah, and they found their way to Waterbury in search of a yeshivah that would nurture them as individuals. They came searching for direction, for companionship, and most of all for acceptance. Rav Kaufman, with his staff of patient and devoted mechanchim, provided them with all that and more.
“If I had to describe our mission,” says Rav Aharon, “I would say that I am trying to return to the days before Rabi Yehoshua ben Gamla. The Gemara in Bava Basra (21a) tells us that the primary way Torah was supposed to be transmitted was from father to son — v’shinantam l’vanecha. When that didn’t always work, they moved the Torah education to Yerushalayim. Eventually, Yehoshua ben Gamla organized an institutional method of yeshivos to ensure that every child would get a Torah education, even those whose fathers were unable to provide it in their home towns. But this was a substitute for the original intent of the Torah being transmitted from father to son.
“A father knows the individual character of each of his children, and tailors his guidance accordingly. Here in Yeshiva of Waterbury, we created a model of returning the teaching of Torah to the family model. We try to provide each talmid with his own individual space and style, so he can develop his skills and talents, and perform at his peak. They truly feel part of a family, and they call the yeshivah their home. Over the years, this model has proven very successful, as hundreds of talmidim have discovered their own niche here. They were able to build their character and carve out a path in life which enabled them to become bnei Torah and establish beautiful Yiddishe homes.”
This very innovative approach created its own set of issues. The state authorities in Connecticut are accustomed to two types of facilities: boarding schools and inpatient facilities. The yeshivah was not in compliance with either of these, and had been granted an exemption. Under pressure from local authorities, the hanhalah decided to close the yeshivah until an acceptable plan was put in place.
All eyes turned to Rabbi Shimon Yanofsky, an experienced mechanech and talented coordinator, who was drafted by the administration to restructure the yeshivah to conform to regulations. It was a daunting task, working with state regulators, distraught parents and displaced teenagers. Yet Rabbi Yanofsky is a man who does not know the meaning of the word “impossible.”
In a discussion with Hamodia, Rabbi Yanofsky explained his thoughts when Rabbi Avraham Fruchthandler and Reb Yisroel Rabinowitz approached him to accept the task. “Reb Avraham explained the challenges we faced. To the boys, the yeshivah is their lifeline, their chance at leading successful, productive lives. My parents, who collectively have 80 years of experience as principals of mosdos, ingrained in me the sense of achrayus to Klal Yisrael. I just couldn’t turn my back on them, and I began working on solutions. My goal is to work with Rabbi Kalish, Rabbi Brownstein, the Rebbeim and the administration to help get the yeshivah past this crisis and put it on a solid foundation going forward.
“We did not fit comfortably into either of the two categories set by the state, since we are designed to replicate the home environment rather than an institution. The Department of Education wanted to know: If we were a school, what was our curriculum, when were tests administered, and how were the students graded? The Department of Family Services insisted that if we were an inpatient facility, we had to provide services and staffing which would make the costs prohibitive.”
While the process of reorganizing began, the students were sent back to their parents’ homes. Daily get-togethers, which included a shiur, lunch and activities, were arranged in several locations (Monsey, Brooklyn, Five Towns/Far Rockaway, etc.). Each day, several members of the faculty attended each gathering to be mechazek the talmidim, and reassured them that with siyatta diShmaya, they would soon be returning to Durham.
Mr. Aryeh Weiss, one of the dedicated baalei batim involved in the yeshivah, described the atmosphere during the past few weeks. “While the yeshivah was in galus, I was able to connect with the boys and see their tremendous sincerity. Rav Hutner, zt”l, once said that a bachur out of yeshivah is like a pot that was removed from the stove. While it is on the stove, it is bubbling and giving off steam, which makes it hard to see what’s inside the pot. When it’s removed from the stove, the froth subsides, and you can see what is really inside the pot. When a bachur is within the walls of the yeshivah, his true essence is sometimes obstructed by the trappings of the yeshivah. When he leaves, you can see what he is all about. During the past few weeks, I had an unobstructed view of their penimius. Knowing this, I am sure they will see even greater success with all the improvements that are planned.”
As the needs of the students were being attended to, Rabbi Yanofsky was working feverishly to set up a program which would be accepted by the authorities and still be beneficial to the bachurim. “These boys needed a skills-based program in addition to their academic one. To supplement our GED preparation courses, we are designing several options of courses and activities which will provide the students with proficiency in areas which they will be able to use in the future.”
The list is impressive for its originality and how it is tailored for the clientele it is serving. Rabbi Yanofsky contacted V.E.I., a company that helps develop merchandise and client services from start to finish, and is working with them to design a program which will train the boys to create and market new products. The yeshivah is working with Agudath Yisrael’s PCS to procure a grant which will prepare some students for associate degrees in several disciplines, including junior accounting, cybersecurity, coding and networking.
Tapping into his “out-of-the-box” thinking, Rabbi Yanofsky is implementing courses which will help these students both in the immediate as well as the more distant future. One issue which arises each summer is placement of the talmidim in environments where they will continue the growth that they experienced during the zman. By providing an EMT course as well as a course in lifeguarding, the boys will be better equipped to secure fulfilling positions in the summer. One of the most innovative ideas involves teaming up with a kosher culinary school to train some talmidim in the art of cooking, baking and garnishing, to fill the need for professional chefs in the kosher catering business, including placement in Pesach and summer programs.
These and other improvements in the program were presented to the authorities, and permission was granted to reopen the campus on Tuesday, January 15. The joy of the talmidim was palpable as they met for orientation in Monsey and Flatbush. Parents and talmidim gathered to listen as Rabbi Kaufman, Rabbi Kalish and Rabbi Yanofsky addressed them as to how the schedule would precede, and to hear about the plans for the future.
They heard about plans, they heard about rules, but most of all they heard that they were going home. “No matter where I go in life, whether in Eretz Yisrael, vacation or even when I’ll be working, Yeshiva of Waterbury is the place I call home,” said Chaim. “The yeshivah is the place where I learned to live, and to love to live.” Others, like Shalom Moshe, waxed philosophical about the yeshivah. “The yeshivah gave me back what I had lost. It gave me the freedom to be myself.”
Before the orientation ended, a group of boys gathered together for a few songs, highlighting for the parents their yearning to return to yeshivah. “Singing is an important component of helping the boys connect,” said Rabbi Daniel Kalish, Menahel of the high school. “They unite with their friends, and get in touch with their inner selves.” Over the last few years, the talmidim have produced several CDs of original songs in which they express their newfound commitment to Torah and its ideals.
“One of the projects which we are working on is for the boys to use their abundant talents to prepare productions in which they can perform during bein hazmanim,” said Rabbi Yanofsky. “They will be trained in lighting, sound, marketing and event planning, which will supply them both with a sense of accomplishment and useful skills for the future.”
A few parents shared their thoughts about how the yeshivah helped turn their sons around. Mrs. G., a mother with one son in 12th grade and one who graduated, sent her sons to Waterbury where they were finally able to thrive. “The love, the hadrachah, the profound caring and the constant support helped my sons recapture their spiritual and emotional balance. They are provided with all the amenities they need for growth, and to perform at their peak. In this way, I believe the Yeshiva of Waterbury is unparalleled.”
Although Mrs. D. lives in Telz Stone, Eretz Yisrael, she sent two of her sons to the Yeshiva of Waterbury. “For them, the yeshivah is life. The love and warmth they receive is incredible. They began to love Yiddishkeit once again, and their entire learning is different. No day goes by without me hearing them mentioning the name of one of their Rebbeim, and some pesukim or some concept which they learned about. They never have a negative thing to say about the yeshivah, and they are filled with a sense of simchah. They sing and dance by kabbalas Shabbos, they thoroughly enjoy the beauty of being a Yid. My hakaras hatov to Rabbi Kalish and the rest of the staff is unending.”
Rabbi Kalish described the feelings of the talmidim as they anticipate their return. “The boys are truly excited to return to Durham. For them, it is the place where they feel most comfortable, and where they can grow the most in life and in ruchniyus. I’m sure the simchah will bubble over, and I will enjoy the party, too. But personally, I am looking forward to Thursday, when things settle down and we return to our usual schedule. I want to see a bachur as he sits in the dining room with his Rebbi and they have a dialogue, as they develop a meaningful, long-term relationship. Because that is what the success of the yeshivah is built on.”
In the course of the negotiations with the authorities, Rabbi Yanofsky had to assure them that there will be ample supervision going forward. Although there were always dorm counselors on site, the need to increase the quality and quantity of the staff was necessary. The dorm counselors will now be more involved with the daily routine, spending more time learning and mentoring the boys outside of the scheduled sedarim. Despite the prohibitive costs, additional staffing was added, which will complement the current personnel as they go forward.
All this, along with restoring and maintaining a scenic campus which spans 55 acres and consists of 17 buildings, is a massive strain on the administration. Rabbi Eli Elephant, who acts as Executive Director in addition to learning with the bachurim during second seder, explained the need to spend six hundred thousand dollars to finish the construction. “We have tremendous overhead, which includes the special programs and trips which we provide for the talmidim. Our Rebbi-talmid ratio is low, and many of the parents cannot afford to cover the costs. But we are dealing with hatzalas nefashos, and we must soldier on. Some generous baalei batim are matching the funds that we raise, and we hope to complete this phase in the near future.”
In the meantime, the boys returned to the Durham campus on Tuesday, January 15th. They danced with the sefer Torah as if it were Simchas Torah and rejoiced with their Rebbeim. And the next morning, the boys began the rest of their zman, once again ensconced in their dormitory and beis medrash as before.