Friday, December 06, 2013

Tribute to a Kollel

Rav Shneur Kolter during his years studying in Jerusalem
The Chicago Community Kollel is one of the greatest assets Chicago has. This Kollel  - led by two ‘overachievers’ Rabbis David Zucker and Moshe Francis - came into town back in 1980 to much concern over about how they would affect our limited financial resources. 

The fear was that a Kollel of young men with growing families would be a burden to an already over-taxed community of families struggling just meet the tuition obligations for their children. I recall that even Telshe was opposed to the idea claiming that Chicago didn’t need a new Kollel (and the increased financial burden they would bring with it) since they (Telshe) already had a Kollel open to anyone who wanted to take advantage of it.

But there was one individual who wanted to make it happen in spite of the resistance to it. Rabbi Morris Esformes was determined to bring them in. So determined was he that he promised to fund their payroll for the entire first year out of his own pocket. Which he did.

So with the help of this Kipa Seruga wearing philanthropist and the encouragement of Lakewood Rosh HaYeshiva Rav Shneur Kotler and one of my heroes Torah VoDaath Rosh HaYeshiva Rav Yaakov Kamentsky, ‘The Kollel’ was established. As a condition for financial support Rabbi Esformes insisted that only the cream of the crop in Lakewood be considered as an Avreich (Kollel member). And so it was.

The pioneering Avreichim of the first year (and many years after) are today a ‘whos who’ of principals, Mechnchim, Rabbonim, Menahalim, Roshei Yeshiva, and outreach. Many of them populate our day schools, high schools, Yeshivos, co-ed schools and girls schools as Rebbeim as do many of their wives. Some of them have also gone on to successful business careers and careers in the professions. I can quickly think of at least 3 who have become professionals, One an MD, another a PhD in psychology, and another who is a PsyD.

The Kollel revolutionized Chicago. They changed the way Judaism was practiced. Not by being preachy. Not by dictating standards. But by being warm and inclusive; open and honest; and exemplary role models of their Hashkafos.

From the moment they came to town, people started studying Torah like they never had before. The Kollel influence spread far and wide in this town as they drew Baalei Batim (house-holders) from  across the Hashkafic spectrum into their Beis HaMedrash. Whether it was with Chavrusos (study partners) or by attending Shiurim given by either of the 2 Roshei Kollel or by any one of the many popular Avreichim.

Early on a popular Daf Yomi Shiur was established at the request of the newly inspired Baalei Batim. It was given the first  7 and a half year cycle by Rabbi Francis. This phenomenon became so widespread that other Shuls started giving their own Daf Yomi.  The publication of the ‘ArtScroll Shas’ was added  into the mix and now the Daf Yomi has exploded. It can be found in just about every Shul and Beis Hamedrash.

The Kollel’s influence dfid not stop there. They inspired other Kollelim to open up and flourish as well. We now have at least 7 fully paid Kollelim in the greater Chicago area. One of them is the YU Kollel Torah MiTziyon. And there are even more partially funded ones.

There is so much more to say about the positive influence this Kollel has had in Chicago that I could probably write a book about it.

All this came at a price. The Kollel has influenced Chicago to the right. The Lakewood/Agudah Hashkafa has become pretty much mainstream now. So that things like mixed seating at weddings is a much rarer occurrence these days than it was before they came. Former Religious Zionists (Mizrachi) have become very active in Agudah. Mizrachi – once a powerhouse in Chicago- barely exists these days while Agudah is exploding in popularity. (Chicago used to be the Religious Zionist capital of America!)  While the Kollel is not entirely responsible for that, they certainly played a major role in influencing people in this direction.

There is still a vibrant Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. But they have gone from being the majority to being a minority and are mostly located in the suburb of Skokie. (There is still one very large MO Shul in Chicago proper located just a couple of blocks from the Kollel. It housed 2 additional Minyanim: Agudah and Bnei Akiva. What is nice about Chicago is that this MO Shul is used by all Hashkafos when large gatherings are called for.)

But that is a small price to pay for the kind of ‘in-reach’ the Kollel has been so successful at. And even though my Hashkafos are different than those of the Kollel I am a fan of what they have accomplished and continue to accomplish.  My hat (Kipa Seruga?) is off to them.

What about the increased financial burden to the community? In my view – whatever the cost of the Kollel is, it is well worth it. Money well spent.