Chabad to Make L.A. a Yeshiva City

On Waring Avenue, west of La Brea Avenue, Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad is undergoing a $5 million expansion. Under construction is 35,000 square feet of dormitories and study rooms, including a light and airy beis midrash (study hall) that will double as a synagogue.

The yeshiva — the largest and oldest on the West Coast — currently accommodates about 80 male students at the high school level and another 60 in a three-year post-high school program, in which students study Torah more than 12 hours a day. Most of the students are from California, but the school receives and turns down scores of requests from out-of-state students who want to study there. Once renovations are complete, the yeshiva is expected to double its student capacity.

In a city like Los Angeles, where the Orthodox community grows exponentially each year, Ohr Elchonon’s success as an institution of learning should be de rigueur. It is expected that young Orthodox men will spend at least one year after high school bolstering their Jewish knowledge by intensely studying Torah in a yeshiva.

Many of those further to the right eschew secular colleges and following a centuries-old tradition, spending all their years after high school — until marriage — studying Talmud in a yeshiva. Given Los Angeles’ population, it would seem that yeshivas should thrive in the city.

While Los Angeles has a good number of kollels (full-time yeshivas for married men), which draw from throughout the United States, the Chabad yeshiva is the only one in the city that has taken off.

The respected yeshiva world remains centered on the East Coast, where institutions like Ner Yisroel in Baltimore or Beth Medrash in Lakewood, N.J., are overflowing with hundreds of students and have achieved international reputations for their Torah scholarship.

In Los Angeles, both Yeshiva Gedola and Valley Torah’s Ner Aryeh program have in the past few years instituted post-high school learning. Both are ultra-Orthodox boys high schools and both have instituted these programs to provide role models for the younger students, however, neither program has achieved any renown in the Torah world.

"I don’t know if [those places] will be able to duplicate what they have on the East Coast, because initially, those places [in the East] developed around a personality," said Rabbi Yaakov Krause, principal of Yeshiva Rav Isaacsohn Toras Emes. "People basically traveled there to sit at the feet of great sages like Rabbi Kotler in Lakewood, and once they were established, other people aspired to go there, because they want to be part of where the action is.

"Los Angeles is late in becoming a city of Torah, and we have fine talmudic scholars here and teachers and heads of high schools, but in terms of the elderly sages who are sitting at the heads of schools that they have back East, we don’t have that yet here," he explained.

Krause thinks that it is unlikely that a Los Angeles post-high school program would attract many local students. "Frankly speaking, for the boys of Los Angeles, once they have been through 12 years of school here, they like to spread their wings and have the Israel yeshiva experience or go to the Ivy League yeshivas back East," he said.

Others think that Los Angeles is not the right locale for a serious yeshiva, because it is an innately materialistic city.

"Los Angeles is too warm and cuddly and cozy and materialistic, and people want their sons away from the glitter of our comfortable L.A. life and in an atmosphere that is a little more spiritually oriented," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Project Next Step, who has had five sons attend yeshivas on the East Coast or in Israel. "I think one of the reasons the [non-Chabad] community has been reluctant to have a yeshiva here is because the goals that we have for our kids in learning is such that they require a sea change in atmosphere. You can’t really grow in learning if you are being coddled at home."

However, Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad has managed to thrive in Los Angeles on the strength of its reputation. Fifty years ago, Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, son of the famous pre-World War II Talmudic scholar Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, opened the Yeshiva as a West Coast version of Lakewood.

The yeshiva never attracted a large number of students. In 1977, rather than close it, he handed over control to Chabad on the stipulation that the yeshiva stay in the building it was in and continue to bear his father’s name. Chabad appointed Rabbi Ezra Schochet to be the rosh yeshiva (spritual head of the school) and imported a number of students from New York to liven up the atmosphere. As a result, the yeshiva started to grow.

"Rabbi Shochet is dynamic and known throughout the world for his scholarship; he was considered the No. 1 student in whatever yeshiva he went to," said Rabbi Mendel Spalter, the school’s administrator. "Once we bought him out here, it was never a question that he was going to be able to attract students."

In order to keep the students from finding life in Los Angeles too attractive, Ohr Elchonon has very strict rules about what the students are allowed to do. Classes start at 7 a.m. and finish at 10 p.m.

The school has a strict dress code of a white shirt and dark suit, and the boys can’t have anything that might distract them from their studies, like newspapers, radios, televisions, videos or DVDs. They are also not allowed to go to theaters or eat in restaurants, unless they are with family members.

Ohr Elchonon provides its graduates with a state-accredited bachelor of rabbinic studies, but it does not offer rabbinic ordination. The students are expected to learn the Torah lishmah (for its own sake). Most of its graduates seek rabbinic ordination from other institutions and go on to take rabbinical or other positions of communal service. Currently, 47 alumni of the yeshiva are serving in rabbinical positions in California.

"The basic philosophy of the yeshiva is to give every student the essence of Judaism," Schochet said. "They should know what it is about. The only way you can learn what Judaism is about is by learning the Torah."