Where Chabad’s lost boys go to find themselves

The Bais Menachem Youth Development program in this northeastern Pennsylvania city is no typical Chabad yeshiva.

The students wear flip-flops and T-shirts, not the typical black-and-white of Hasidic seminaries. In addition to Jewish law and Bible study, the curriculum includes improv nights, poetry slams and screenings of National Geographic nature shows. The students take taekwondo classes, skiing lessons and canoe trips down the Delaware River. There’s even a house band.

Welcome to the yeshiva for wayward Chabad youths.

“A couple of years ago I was coming out of a very dark time in my life,” said a 17-year-old named Levi who grew up in the Chabad-Lubavitch stronghold of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “I used to party and smoke marijuana and hang out with very bad people.”

At the yeshiva in Wilkes-Barre, Levi said, he finally found what he needed.

“Instead of just kicking me out for my issues, they looked past them,” he said. “They didn’t look at me as someone who would ruin the school but as someone who needed help. They brought me back to my roots. Other yeshivas treated me like a child, not like an equal. They treated me like a human being.”

In the rule-bound world of haredi Orthodoxy, there’s not much room for boys who don’t conform to the norms of yeshiva life: day-to-night Torah study, adherence to a stringent dress code and strict self-discipline, especially when it comes to foregoing secular pleasures. Those who can’t cope often are rejected and end up leaving the Orthodox fold.

Many years ago, Rabbi Uri Perlman, now 37, was one of those “at-risk” teenagers. But with a little help at a yeshiva in Melbourne, Australia, Perlman managed to turn things around. Today he sports the trademark hat and beard of Chabad Hasidim everywhere.

His experience motivated Perlman to start the Bais Menachem yeshiva in 1999 to give Chabad kids who don’t fit into the typical mold the space to figure out who they are as people and as Jews.

“In the frum community, if you don’t make it in yeshiva, you’re a failure. And when that happens, there’s really no place to turn but down or out,” said Perlman, a native of Wilkes-Barre, where his father is the longtime shaliach, or outreach emissary.

“Nothing is swept under the rug here,” he said. “Our No. 1 goal is they should be happy, healthy people who know who they are. Then work on the Yiddishkeit and on their career.”

The 25 or so boys at this in-residence yeshiva in a dilapidated building adjacent to the leafy campus of Wilkes University have problems ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to pornography addictions. But many are simply kids uninterested in Orthodox Jewish observance or have interests that are frowned upon in the yeshiva world, such as art or popular music.

Bais Menachem has Talmud classes, courses in Jewish philosophy and mandatory prayer services. But the approach is much more laid back, tolerant and individualized than at a typical Chabad yeshiva. If a student doesn’t show up for class, he’s sought out and counseled, not chastised. Those struggling with their faith don’t have to hide it: The teachers are open to discussions about God and doubt. Much of the learning is done one on one or in small groups.

“If anyone had doubts about their service to God or maybe feels a little cold toward Judaism, this is a place that can help warm you up,” said Menachem Gudelsky, an 18-year-old from Johannesburg, South Africa. “It’s a place where questions are answered. It’s very tailored to your needs — with a lot of love.”

Gudelsky says the school helped him get through a lot of “humps,” including quitting smoking.

“The goal of the curriculum is for the kids to get an appreciation for Judaism and life,” said Yossi Schulman, a teacher at Bais Menachem. In addition to organizing the curriculum, Schulman helps lead extracurricular vocational training and secures federal E-rate technology funding for the school. Tuition, room and board is about $10,000 per student per year.

In the Chabad world, it’s common for families to ship teenagers to in-residence yeshivas beginning at age 14 or 15. But Bais Menachem is the only Chabad yeshiva in the United States targeting this population and using this kind of approach, according to the school’s administrators and a Chabad spokesman in New York.

Ranging in age from their mid-teens to their early 20s, Chabadniks come to Wilkes-Barre from as far away as England, Australia and South Africa. Some hail from families who are relatively new to the Chabad movement, but many also come from longtime Chabad-Lubavitch families.

Much of the program is non-academic. A smoking-cessation counselor visits from time to time. Students who might benefit from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are encouraged to attend. On breaks, some of the students smoke on the yeshiva’s front steps or retreat to the adjacent dormitory, where some have decorated their rooms with soccer- and music-related items.

Students are encouraged to volunteer in the community — visiting senior centers, mowing lawns, marching with flags at the Veteran’s Day parade. Because many of the youths are high school dropouts, the yeshiva also offers GED tutoring.

“I never really thought I was going to go back to yeshiva,” said Ari Kasowitz, 21, a native of St. Paul, Minn., who felt he had to hide his secular books and movies when he was enrolled at a standard Chabad yeshiva in Morristown, N.J. “I was done with that. But then a friend invited me here for a Shabbos. I loved it.”

There’s plenty of recreation, from pickup basketball to workouts in the dank basement weight room to skiing and swimming at a local pool. Unusual for an Orthodox yeshiva, the administrators encourage but do not insist on gender-separate swimming.

“We’re not really enforcing everything that their parents enforce or that we believe in,” Perlman said. “We’re enforcing the fundamentals of Judaism, and we want the rest to be something the students respect and eventually take on. So everybody is asked to put on tefillin, but some kids put it on for just 30 seconds. Nobody gets in trouble for that.”

The average duration of a stay at the yeshiva is two years. Afterward, the students move on to other yeshivas, college or vocational school, or work, according to Perlman. About 25 alumni have gone on to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

None of the teachers at the yeshiva have any specialized training to deal with at-risk youths, but Perlman says he and the other staffers have learned the skills they need on the job. When needed, the yeshiva brings in psychologists, art therapists and the like.

Eitan Binstok, a 19-year-old from Los Angeles in his third year at the yeshiva, says the school helped him turn his life around.

“There are no facades here,” said Binstok, who is studying the laws of Sabbath for his rabbinical ordination and hopes to begin training soon to be an electrician. “I always thought nobody understands me, that no one has ever been like me before. But coming here you realize there are a lot of people with troubles. And having people you can turn to allows you to grow. The people here actually care.”

While the yeshiva initially encountered much skepticism in Chabad circles, Perlman says the results have changed that.

“A lot of our boys have turned their lives around,” he said. “We’re not trying to create rabbis or shluchim or anything in particular. We’re trying to give the people who come here whatever they need for who they want to be, but without any of the good Jewish things left behind.”


In fading Pennsylvania city, Jews bet on $11 million hub to save community

There once was a time when the Jewish community in this Pennsylvania city just west of the Pocono Mountains was thriving.

That much is clear from a quick tour. The sanctuary at the local Orthodox synagogue, Ohav Zedek, seats nearly 1,000. Temple Israel, the Conservative shul, has two huge buildings — a hulking sanctuary and a three-story school. There’s a Jewish day school, a JCC with its own bowling alley and a Reform synagogue with multiple sanctuaries.

But there’s also ample evidence that the Jewish heyday is long gone.

At the JCC, the six-lane basement bowling alley went dark years ago, shoes and balls sitting in their places as if frozen in time. Mold is growing on the ceiling at the four-lane indoor pool, and though there’s a lifeguard and it’s mid-afternoon, nobody is swimming.

The day school, United Hebrew Institute, left its 17,000-square-foot building in 2010 for a smaller space in the JCC. Now down to just six students and with its endowment gone, the school will cease operations later this month.

Most Saturdays, fewer than 20 of Ohav Zedek’s 940 seats are occupied. At the Conservative synagogue, the daily minyan has been trimmed to three days a week; the average congregant is over age 60.

Home decades ago to an estimated 6,000-7,000 Jews, Wilkes-Barre today has fewer than 1,800 Jews left.

Yet the Jewish federation here is about to launch an audacious new fundraising campaign to raise $6 million for the construction of an $11 million Jewish community campus.

The planned Center for Jewish Life, located about a mile away from the JCC and just across the Susquehanna River in Kingston, will house a new JCC, the federation and Temple Israel’s offices and congregational school — to start. The hope is that other local Jewish institutions eventually will move in, too, making the consolidated site the hub of the Jewish community in Luzerne County.

This old mining city nestled in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley is hardly the only shrinking Jewish community in America trying to figure out how to survive. But its plan for warding off its demise is quite unusual.

“It’s a very exciting project,” said Chuck Cohen, a dental products manufacturer who is a main backer along with local businessmen Paul Lantz and Rob Friedman. The three purchased the 13-acre property on Third Avenue in Kingston several years ago after a Price Chopper supermarket there closed down and the site went into bankruptcy.

In their view, the new campus is a one-size-fits-all solution. The old JCC is expensive to maintain, lacks ample parking and a regulation-size pool, and would cost $4 million to upgrade. A new JCC, they say, can attract and retain new members.

Other Jewish institutions in town — notably, the synagogues — also are in aging structures that are expensive to maintain and ill suited to the diminished size of their constituencies, the project’s backers say. Putting those institutions into smaller spaces in a modern facility would reduce maintenance costs and make more sense in the long term, they argue.

“We think it works if the community gets smaller or gets larger,” Lantz said. “Putting in more money will help us operate more profitably and attract people into town. And even if we continue to shrink for a while, it will be more affordable to the community.”

But not everyone in town thinks it’s a good idea to spend millions building a new Jewish campus for a shrinking community.

“What do we need a new one for?” said Shirley Schoenholtz, a longtime community member who works at the JCC. “We got a pool, we have a gym. It’s perfectly fine. I’m happy here.”

Rabbi Raphael Nemetsky, Ohav Zedek’s departing rabbi, says the notion that a new facility will help draw Jews to town is far-fetched.

“It’s hard for me to see how it’s going to work,” Nemetsky said. “Outside of a temporary blip, sustainability is not dependent on how nice the facility is and how much programming there is. I don’t think that’s the staying power of the Jewish community.”

It would be better to spend money to help attract businesses to the area that would employ Jews, he said.

Cohen acknowledges that even if the Jewish campus is a success, Wilkes-Barre Jewry is unlikely to grow. But he’s not only thinking about serving Wilkes-Barre’s Jews.

“The model we’re pursuing is the Hebrew National model: We’ve got kosher hot dogs, but not all our members purchasing hot dogs are Jewish,” Cohen said. “I think it will always be a JCC with Jewish programs, but it will also attract people from outside the community.”

The planners envision remodeling the old Price Chopper building into a JCC and adding a swimming pool and basketball courts. The offices of the federation and Jewish Family Services, which formally merged with the JCC in January 2013 to become the Jewish Community Alliance of Northeastern Pennsylvania, will be onsite. Chabad’s growing cheder school, currently a tenant of the JCC, will move to the new site, too.

The architectural plans, which are not yet finalized, are designed to leave flexibility so other institutions can join (and build at their own expense) later. So the day when Temple Israel decides it cannot afford to keep its 525-seat sanctuary, for example, the shul can sell its building and build a smaller sanctuary on the campus. Because it will be attached to the JCC, there won’t be a need to build supplementary facilities such as bathrooms, a kitchen or meeting rooms.

“We’re not a growing community. We’re vibrant, we’re engaged, but we’re an aging community with aging infrastructure and an aging population,” Cohen said. “The question is, how can we build an infrastructure for the community to thrive? We believe this could be a model for many communities going forward.”

Temple Israel is the only other institution that has committed to join the new site. And even Temple Israel is moving only its administrative offices and twice-a-week Hebrew school, not the synagogue itself, and the move is being done on a three-year trial basis.

“At this point, we’re going to see how things go in the new setting; we’re not going to sell the school building,” said Rabbi Larry Kaplan of Temple Israel. “And we’re going to keep our davening in the sanctuary of our historic building in Wilkes-Barre.”

But Rosemary Chromey, the synagogue’s president, suggested that the day might come when a diminished congregation would move, too.

“Temple Israel as a congregation will be around hopefully forever, but maybe not at the current location,” she said. “There’s always the possibility that you need to downsize 50 years from now if the community shrinks.”

With an eye toward that same fate, even the leaders of the other Jewish institutions in town that have rejected the move for now aren’t ruling it out for the future.

“Right now we really like our building,” said Rabbi Roger Lerner of Temple B’nai B’rith, a 168-year-old Reform congregation in Kingston. But, he added, “if we need to move in 20 or 30 or 40 years, it’ll be there.”

Jews aren’t the only demographic struggling in Wilkes-Barre. The city’s population is less than half what it was in the 1930s, the population of Luzerne County is in decline and the unemployment rate in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area is roughly 15 percent above the national average — and the highest among Pennsylvania’s 14 largest markets.

The city’s most severe blow came in 1972, when Hurricane Agnes caused the Susquehanna to overflow, flooding Wilkes-Barre’s downtown in 9 feet of water and damaging or destroying 25,000 homes and businesses. Like many other structures in the city, Jewish institutions were renovated after the flood and in many cases updated since — making it more difficult to convince them to abandon their current locations and join the new campus.

When Temple B’nai B’rith informally surveyed its 150 families to gauge interest, the building’s good condition and the synagogue’s healthy finances convinced members to stay put.

“For me what’s really important is being able to keep your identity and not lose it in another institution,” Lerner said. “As nice as it would be to join the campus, I think for us here it’s important to have a little separation.”

Ohav Zedek is the more likely candidate for a move. Most of its regulars already live in Kingston and hold a Shabbat minyan in a private home there because it’s too far to walk to Ohav Zedek in Wilkes-Barre. Talks are serious enough that the two sides have discussed design specifications that would enable Orthodox Jews coming to pray on Shabbat to avoid having to walk past a parking lot in use for the JCC, which is expected to be open on Saturdays.

The new campus is still not a done deal. The sponsors say they need to raise 80 percent of its $6 million fundraising goal before starting construction. That’s a tall order in a town where the federation’s annual campaign typically brings in about $500,000.

The balance of the $11 million or so (precise costs have yet to be finalized) will come at no cost to the community: The three families that purchased the new site, now valued at $2 million, will donate it, more than $1 million in state gambling funds has been secured, and an additional $1 million is expected from the sale of the current JCC building. Parts of the new campus may also be rented out to other tenants or sold off.

If Wilkes-Barre’s Jews don’t get started on the project now, Temple Israel’s Kaplan says, they won’t be able to build it later.

“This is clearly the last opportunity for our community as its structured now to do this,” Kaplan said. “We do anticipate a further decline in our demographics. If we don’t do this now, it’s not going to be able to happen in 10 years – not just because there won’t be as many people, but because there won’t be as many givers.”

Cohen says the new campus is a matter of survival.

“We’ve looked at the models of communities that go out of business,” Cohen said. “We do not want to be a community that dies off.”

The Diaspora may be moving, but it isn’t going away any time soon

When Howard Grossman moved to the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Wilkes-Barre 35 years ago, it was a thriving industrial city with a substantial, long-established Jewish community. Today, anyone who visits Wilkes-Barre cannot help but come away with the impression that this town of 43,000 has seen better days, and will perhaps see not too grand a future.

Along with the decline of the city’s industry, there’s been another loss: a massive reduction in its Jewish population. The community that numbered some 8,000 Jews in the 1920s has now shrunk to barely 2,100, a far more precipitous drop than the 40 percent decline experienced by the city at large.

Wilkes-Barre Jews, Grossman recalls, were prominent among the store owners of its bright and busy shops. But hard times for everyone had an even greater effect on the Jewish community. Today many Wilkes-Barre stores are empty while others have been replaced by low-end retail chains. The children of the original store owners, and of local garment manufacturers, teachers and professionals have, for the most part, decamped.

“It’s a shame,” Grossman says. “This is a town where they had a strong commitment.”

That commitment, Grossman insists, is still there. He estimates that 80 percent of Wilkes-Barre’s Jews are affiliated with a synagogue, a percentage far higher than in most places. Yet the depth of commitment doesn’t reduce the prospect that the community could eventually fade away.

The Protean Diaspora

The trajectory of this Pennsylvania city is nothing new — not in today’s United States, and not throughout the two-millennium-long history of the Diaspora. Jewish communities like the one in Wilkes-Barre have grown to prominence, only to decline over time into insignificance or even oblivion.

“The reality of Jewish life remains complex and protean,” Israeli historian David Vital suggests. “Jewry has no formal boundaries; its informal boundaries are subject to constant movement, change and debate.”

This has also been the history of the Jewish homeland itself: a bright period of ascendancy, followed by a stretch of desolation, and finally, today’s emerging reality, where Israel stands at the brink of becoming, for the first time since the heyday of the ancient state, the home of the largest Jewish community in the world.

Yet through history it has been the Diaspora, for all the contempt felt for it by some in Israel, that has dominated the “protean” history of our people, and marked what Martin Buber once called our “vocation of uniqueness.” Even when the old kingdom still existed in Palestine, Jews thrived mostly in “exile.” As early as 500 B.C.E., Jews established communities from Persia to North Africa. By the time of Jesus, when Hebrews accounted for roughly one in 11 residents of the Roman-dominated Mediterranean, nearly two-thirds lived outside Palestine, with roughly 1 million in Egypt alone.

Over the ensuing centuries these populations were constantly in flux, waxing and waning as economic, political and theocratic fashions forced migrations. Communities rose and then fell. At various times, Jews gathered in Antioch, Alexandria, Trier and, of course, the Eternal City itself. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Jewish fortunes shifted towards the Eastern Empire; later, to Islamic-dominated lands from Spain to Persia.

The Diaspora reached in all directions. Intolerant rulers spurred Jewish colonies to spread northward to The Netherlands and westward to England.

A different movement led eastward, this one from Germany and Central Europe to the vast, under-populated and economically backward lands of Poland and Russia. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, it was there that the largest concentration of Jews, more than 5 million, came to live.

Meanwhile, as Britain, Holland and other European powers stretched their influence around the world, Jews followed. The Diaspora spread as far as India and China, to the “new world” of Australia, and, most portentously, to the Americas.

The Reshuffled Diaspora

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, poverty and growing anti-Semitic pogroms led to the movement of 1.8 million predominately Eastern European Jews to the United States, transforming America into the leading center of Diaspora life.

Then, two inextricably related events further shattered the archipelago of historic Jewish communities: the rise of Nazism and the establishment of the State of Israel.

The first event all but wiped out the great Jewish communities of continental Europe.

The second event, the establishment of the State of Israel, was, of course, a blessing to the notion of global Jewish survival. But it also signaled the end of many of the world’s oldest Jewish enclaves. Muslim reaction against the state led to the virtual elimination of long-thriving Jewish communities in Egypt, Iraq and North Africa. Most of their members sought safety either in Israel, or in the United States, Canada, Australia or France.

This process of consolidation has now accelerated. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a large population — roughly 1 million at least — out of a traditional center of Jewish life, and in to Israel, the United States and the remaining handful of countries willing to receive it, including, ironically, post-war democratic Germany.

The trend is continuing under the current Russian regime, which, although not openly anti-Semitic, follows an authoritarian, nationalistic bent uncomfortable for many Jews. Perhaps slightly more than 250,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to the United States since the collapse of the communist regime.

Most recently, new developments have enhanced the global concentration of Jews. Rising anti-Semitism and hard economic times, for example, brought many Mexican, Argentine and other South American Jews to Israel and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. And the rise of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez — a man deeply influenced by the Argentine anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole — seems likely to accelerate the diminution of yet another small (roughly 15,000) but well-established Latin American community.

Also significant has been the rise of Islamist Iran, a country closely allied to its fellow oil producer Venezuela, and arguably the leading center of anti-Jewish agitation in the world today. Since the 1979 revolution, about 80 percent of Persian Jewry have left. More than half — at least 50,000 — have relocated to the United States, mostly to Los Angeles and to Long Island, N.Y.