Monday, July 18, 2022

The Kollel

Rabbi Moshe Francis and Rabbi Dovid Zucker (Mishpacha)
I was pleased to see a picture on the cover of last week’s Mishpacha Magazine, two of my favorite people: Rabbi Dovid Zucker and Rabbi Moshe Francis. These two leaders are perhaps the most significant contributors to the state of Judaism in Chicago as it exists today. I have nothing but pure admiration for what they have accomplished in the 40 years since their arrival as the Roshei Kollel of The Chicago Community Kollel (CCK). Most of us just call it 'The Kollel' even though there are now dozens of Kollelim here in the greater Chicago area.

Although Mishpacha justifiably credited the late Rosh HaYeshiva of BMG (Lakewood) R’ Shneur Kotler, as the moving force behind the Kollel’s establishment, much of its success is due to his choice as to who would lead it. He could not have made a better choice. But there is a lot more to the story then what was in Mishpacha.

There were some other key players aside from R’ Shneur. One of whom was R’ Yaakov Kamentsky. He who was very involved in its establishment.  But there was another individual – without which the Kollel would have never happened: A Modern Orthodox high school freind and classmate of mine (Class of 64). Philanthropist Rabbi Morrie Esformes. 

It was not smooth sailing at first. There was a lot of resistance to the Kollel  - even from the right. One of the opponents was a prominent Rosh Yeshiva who claimed that Chicago didn’t need a Kolllel because his Yeshiva already that had been established about 20 years earlier.

A lot of Baalei Batim opposed it because they believed it would be a drain on community funds that were sorely needed for existing Yeshivos, days schools, and other religious institutions. Along came my philanthropist friend and personally guaranteed the entire Kollel budget for a full year. I believe I can honestly say that he that he was as much responsible for the Kollel’s success as anyone else. The Kollel would have never gotten off the ground without his generosity. It did not take long for other generous Orthodox Chicago philanthropists to join in that support. 

There  was one very important condition attached to that financial guarantee. The insistence that Lakewood send the cream of its crop as the first ten Avreichim. The first group of these young men made a huge impact on virtually all segments of the Orthodox Jewish community.  Chicago was hooked.  Many of those first  ten Avreichm and many others that followed have become part and parcel of the fabric of Chicago. As Mishpacha correctly pointed out, just about every school has Mechanchim who were first members of the Kollel. 

The schools were not the only beneficiary of the Kollel. Some of the Avreichm are involved in Kiruv. Some have become businessmen and professionals after leaving the Kollel and settled in Chicago. 

Before the CCK, Chicago’s religious character was mostly reflected by my alma mater, HTC.  A school that identified as Mizrachi (Religious Zionist). Students were encouraged to join Mizrachi's youth group, Bnei Akiva - and were sent to Camp Moshava, a coed RZ summer camp.  Board members were mostly Modern Orthodox Jews. Some of them were rabbis ordained by HTC whose Traditional Shuls had no Mechitza.  Although personally fully observant many of their Shul members were not fully observant. 

Those rabbis were advised to take those shuls by their mentor, Rav Chaim Dovid Regensburg, who felt that if they didn’t take those pulpits, they would have been given to Conservative rabbis. By taking them, the shuls would retain as much of their Orthodox character as possible albeit without Mechitzos. 

Those rabbis would also be able to guide the children of those members into Orthodox schools like the coed Ida Crown Jewish Academy. Which those rabbis were successful doing in many cases. But Rav Regensburg's  decision was rejected and bitterly opposed by virtually every other Posek for reasons beyond the scope of this post.. 

The point is that Chicago was about as far away from a Lakewood Hashkafa they could be and still be called Orthodox.

The Kollel changed everything. Their Avrechim were so successful integratang into the Chicago Jewish community that today there is hardly a religious institution in Chicago that does not have at least one former CCK Avrecih.  Including HTC.  

What this Kollel accomplished went far beyond their contributions to Chicago’s schools and shuls. They made regular Torah study by Baalei Batim popular.  some people who once virtually cursed the idea of a Kollel had become its biggest supporter having themselves established regular times for Torah study there. Whether through the variety of classes offered or via being set up with a Chavrusa (Torah study partner). 

It was the Kollel that had the first widely attended Daf Yomi Shiur. That Shiur that spurred many other Daf Yomi shiurim in Chicago. It’s true that ArtScroll’s magnum opus, the elucidation of the entire Shas Bavli  was a major  perhaps even the chief reason for the wide spread study of Daf Yomi. But there is not a doubt in mind that the Kollel was a major accelerant here in Chicago. It was in fact the Kollel in large part that inspired me to do it. (I am now in my 5th cycle.)

Another reason for their success is that the Roshei Kollel and the Avreichim were not judgmental.  They didn’t care what kind of Kipa one wore.  Or which school you sent your kids to.  All were warmly welcomed.

But that kind of success comes with a price. The Chicago of today is no longer anywhere near a the Mizrachi town it once was. It has become an Agudah town. There are a variety of reasons for that. But one of the primary ones is the influence of the Kollel. They brought Lakewood values to town and a lot of people adopted them.

As a card carrying Centrist, this aspect of their influence is not something I would normally support. My Hashkafos are not Lakewood Hashkafos. Chicago has moved significantly more to the right than I would have liked. A lot of innovations have taken place here because of the Kollel’s influence. Just to take one example, there was a time where mixed seating at a banquet or even a wedding was the norm. Even for a Charedi Yeshiva like Telshe. Today one will find separate seating at almost all such events.

But considering their massive contributions to the city of Chicago, it is well worth the pricee. No one is forced to adopt Lakewood’s Hashkafos. Certainly not me. My four children were given the type of weddings they desired. 2 chose separate seating and 2 chose mixed. All in all, I could not be prouder of how my city has developed - thanks in large part to these two Roshei Kollel and their 40 year contribution to Chicago.