Building for the Future Talmudical Academy Turns 100, Starts Its Expansion

Talmudical Academy starts its expansion. (Photo by David Stuck)

“In rural history, 100 years is not long, but in American Jewish history, it is an incredibly long time,” Rabbi Yaacov Cohen, executive director of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim — Talmudical Academy (TA), proclaimed proudly. “To have a Jewish day school around for 100 years is historic.”

Cohen cannot stop raving about the monumental anniversary that one of Baltimore’s staple schools for Torah learning is celebrating this year.

Talmudical Academy is marking its centennial with a much-needed expansion of its campus, which remains largely unchanged since it was first built. The buildings were meant to serve a population of 450 students. Today, however, that space and more than a dozen portable trailers house more than 1,000 students.

Although construction has started, the school will hold a groundbreaking ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 10:15 a.m. at its campus, 4445 Old Court Road.

Founded in 1917 by Rabbi Avraham Nachman Schwartz, Talmudical Academy was only the third Jewish day school in the United States and the first outside of New York City. The school has been located on Old Court Road since 1967 after a devastating 1964 fire eventually caused the school to move from its Cottage Avenue campus. One hundred years ago, Schwartz’s Hebrew Parochial School was housed in a Baltimore City apartment, and the school had just four students in that first year.

“We have a tremendous number of proud alumni,” said Cohen. “The legacy is what people are so proud of. We have over 50 students documented who are third-generation TA, some students who are fourth generation. That just doesn’t happen in other schools. You have families that are a part of the Baltimore community and just intricately woven into the history of TA, families that have watched us grow and flourish and have been a part of it.”

The expansion will grow the campus from 9½ acres to 11½ acres and will include new buildings for an early childhood center and a high school building, adding a total of 70,000 square feet of educational space. The expansion will provide the school with a total of 70 classrooms, doubling available learning space.

Digital rendering of the new campus (Provided)

According to the school’s building campaign, the expanded space will feature state-of-the-art facilities including a beit midrash, a large cafeteria, multipurpose rooms, “technological aids in every classroom,” therapy and resource rooms, new playgrounds and fields and a new gymnasium.

Currently, preschoolers and kindergarteners share a building with the elementary school, while the middle and high schools share a separate space. The expansion will provide each division of the school with its own building.

“An alumnus told me the other day [that] normally when you make an addition to a building it is more of a luxury, something nice,” said Rabbi Yaakov Lefkovitz, TA’s director of development. “This is not a luxury. This is a necessity to build. We were cramped when we were here, and future generations shouldn’t have to be like that.”

The $22 million campaign has been in the works for about five years.

“I think it’s really cool,” said seventh-grader Eli Friedman. “A long time ago, they said they would do it, but everybody in the school wasn’t certain if it was going to happen. It’s going to look really good.”

The groundbreaking ceremony is primarily for the community, which has strongly supported TA since its move to the Scott’s Hill neighborhood.

From left: Rabbi Yaakov Lefkovitz, Rabbi Yehuda Lefkovitz and Rabbi Yaacov Cohen (Photo by Rabbi Elchanan Ciment)

“As we have been preparing [to expand], we have seen a demonstration of pure love and support for our school,” said Rabbi Yehuda Lefkovitz, who is celebrating his 30th year as president of TA. “People have not even begun to see the development, yet we have been successful in raising substantial dollars toward this campaign. The Scott’s Hill community at large, the neighbors that we have here are very supportive. We want to express our sincere appreciation. We really want this to be an opportunity where we can say, ‘Thank you.’”

In celebration of the expansion, the Krupp and Ray families are dedicating a new Torah scroll as a part of the project. The first word of the new scroll will be written at the groundbreaking.

The idea was proposed by Ari and Shoshana Krupp, Talmudical Academy parents and active members of the school community. Ari is a former chairman of the TA executive board, and Shoshana is a former co-president of the Parent-Teacher Association. The couple first had the idea of producing a new Torah scroll to celebrate the school’s milestone at the 99th anniversary dinner last year.

“We were excited to participate in the physical building of the next 100 years while also participating in the next 100 years of spiritual Torah learning for the yeshiva as well,” said Ari. “A Jewish education is the fundamental component of the future of the Jewish people. It is our responsibility to give our children the best education possible. It is something that we consider personally to be very meaningful. Ultimately, that is what the school does. We are teaching the Torah, and to participate in this way with the physical growth of the school is awesome.”

The Ray family, Shoshana’s parents, have taken part in the writing of several Torahs in the last decade, according to Ari. The new scroll for Talmudical will be written by a sofer, Rabbi Heshy Pincus.

“We are starting to write the new scroll with the construction of the building, and we will finish it and bring it in as the new building is completed,” said Cohen. “It’s the essence of what the whole school is about. It revolves around Torah study.”

“There is a beautiful connection,” affirmed Yehuda Lefkovitz. “We are building these buildings to celebrate our role in teaching Torah for 100 years in this community, so that linkage is wonderful.”

As an additional element of the centennial celebration, Rabbi Yechiel Spero, an eighth-grade teacher at TA, is authoring a book — to be presented at this year’s annual banquet — that will tell the history of the school and share stories from alumni.

“We would love for people to come back and tell their stories,” said Cohen. “There are alumni all over Baltimore who we don’t know about. Many of them are elderly. This is the year we need them back. We want them to meet our kids. Imagine if someone who was here in the 1930s or ’40s came and told their stories to these kids. We want to find these people.”

TA students catch a glimpse of construction. (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Tali Strum, a parent of TA students and a member of the school’s executive board, explained that he can’t go a few weeks without bumping into someone with a connection to Talmudical Academy. He said that although TA primarily serves the Orthodox community, he runs into alumni in nearly all of his interactions, “be it academic, Jewish and local leadership, legal, medical, academia.”

“It is uncanny the reach of the school,” Strum added. “Understanding a little history and how much the world in general and Baltimore itself have changed, it is incredible to realize that this institution has managed to change and grow and stay crucial and relevant to these new generations.”

Strum says TA’s mission is “to produce boys who are not only motivated and driven, but equipped to exhibit and expect excellence from themselves in three areas: religious study and observance; secular studies and involvement in the professional and business world; and a commitment to personal growth and interpersonal relationships.”

Although for now, students learn in classes the size of closets, Strum says “the boys are still happy and smiling and learning, but it is not as comfortable as it should be.”

Students already are feeling the excitement.

“People are eager to see what is going on outside,” said eighth-grader Mordechai Michael, “but it hasn’t interrupted our daily schedules.”

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com

Too Many Lines Being Drawn

One of us is Orthodox; the other Reform.

One of us is active in J Street and the other is a member of the Zionist Organization of America.

On matters relating to peace and security in Israel, our perspectives are vastly different.

What draws the two of us together is recognition that we are each deeply committed to the State of Israel, if in entirely different ways. We are also bound by a common concern over the shrillness of the Israel debate.

Also of deep concern is the readiness of too many in our community to demonize and assume the worst in those with whom we disagree.

These danger signs hit home for us over the past few weeks in a direct and personal way.

We are both members of Woodmont Country Club who were disappointed and alarmed by the stridency of opinion surrounding President Obama’s supposed interest in becoming a member of the club.

Despite having profound differences on the former president’s record on Israel, the two of us relished the idea of having the Obama family join the ranks of our club, and we encouraged the club leadership to consider the high personal standards Barack Obama exemplified in office, as well as his numerous endeavors on behalf of the Jewish community.

Most of the members with whom we broached the subject strongly agreed and felt it would be a great honor to welcome any former president. To our mutual chagrin, a vocal minority within the club turned this matter into a referendum on Israel.

We are both saddened and concerned, both for what it means for our club and what it says about our community. It’s troublesome and sadly ironic that a club created as a haven for Jews who couldn’t play golf elsewhere may have effectively turned away the nation’s first black president.

We also worry that admission to our social club has become politicized and a forum for members to advocate their individual views toward Israel, an increasingly fraught topic across the Jewish community.

At a time when Americans are splintered into self-reinforcing bubbles, our community is too often guilty of the same thing. And Israel seems to be the epicenter of these dangerous fault lines.

The Jewish community is multifaceted and diverse. Let’s find neutral space and common ground where we can. Let’s not allow politics to infuse our leisure activities and dominate our social interactions.

Adam August is a Potomac resident and Daniel Kohl is a Bethesda resident. Their views do not express the official view of Woodmont Country Club or its leadership.

‘These Are God’s Kids, Too’

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Rabbi Moshe Zeivald, shown here in the Kfar Zoharim greenhouse, says the village offers young men “a healthy alternative so they don’t end up again on the street.”
(Maayan Jaffe)

They are hiding in the darkness of midnight on Jerusalem’s streets. They are in the clubs, on the corners, smoking weed, drinking alcohol. Lost.

Once upright, observant boys from good families. Lost.

That is, until Rabbi Moshe Zeivald finds them and brings them to Kfar Zoharim in central Israel. The kfar (“village” in English) is just several miles from Washington, D.C.’s sister city of Beit Shemesh. Less than three years ago, this village was nothing but a dream for Rabbi Zeivald. A-year-and-a-half ago, it became a reality.

Rabbi Zeivald was working for the outreach organization P’eylim/Lev L’achim, helping to bring secular Jews back to a Torah lifestyle, when he discovered that in his own community, in the Haredi community, there were thousands of young men who themselves were struggling, were searching.

“The Haredi world is built on young men who learn in yeshiva,” Rabbi Zeivald explained. “If you are not in yeshiva, you are no one. There is nowhere for you to go. And this causes tension in the home. For the parents, all their hopes for [this child] are killed.”

Most Haredi families, he said, are embarrassed by a child who cannot learn. They cut him off. And when he is cut off from his family, he is cut off from this community; in shul, no one will let their children sit with him — he might be a bad influence.

“No yeshiva. No home. No community. You are on the streets,” said Rabbi Zeivald.

When the rabbi approached his supervisors, they said, “You are dreaming.” But Rabbi Zeivald believed, like Theodore Herzl, that if he willed it, it would become a reality. So he approached more rabbinic leaders. Finally Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Grossman of the organization Migdal Ohr listened. He charged Rabbi Zeivald to prove to him that this problem was as acute as Rabbi Zeivald described. Overnight, Rabbi Zeivald recruited and brought a busload of young men — good kids who hadn’t smiled in months (some, years) — to Rabbi Grossman. These were boys from frum families who were now promiscuous and who were starving — both literally and for love.

“He didn’t believe me,” recalled Rabbi Zeivald, smiling to himself. “He interviewed each one of them.”

By the end of the day, Rabbi Grossman was committed to the idea of Kfar Zoharim. Just over one year later, the village was born.

“The parents sit shiva for these kids. We give them life,” said Rabbi Zeivald.

On a November afternoon, Kfar Zoharim is beautiful. A blue skyline tops the newly built cabins, a stable, a greenhouse, a wood shop and, of course, classrooms so the boys can study for their matriculation exams, go to the army, get into college and lead successful lives. If they return to a traditional Torah lifestyle, “Wow!” said Rabbi Zeivald, that’s icing on the cake. He is not out to put the boys back in yeshiva; his goal, he said, is to give the 80 boys who now live in Kfar Zoharim “a healthy alternative so they don’t end up again on the street. Most of all, it is about giving them love. Without love, you can’t [impact any kid].”

But it is not a free-for-all. The boys work hard. At Kfar Zoharim, the residents take command of their environment. If they want a walking path between their rooms and their classroom, they make it with their own hands, learning basic construction skills, how to lay concrete and position stones and tiles. They engage in charity work, trained by Jewish National Fund to build benches and picnic tables that are donated to JNF forests. They are offered music classes and science classes so they can discover what they are good at and share their talents with their peers and, ultimately, with the State of Israel.

While the boys are building their community, the counselors and other staff are rebuilding the boys. A staff psychologist is available 24/7, said Rabbi Zeivald; the boys cannot be alone with their own thoughts. Live-in “moms” and “dads” model a healthy family structure, and even the teachers are trained in differentiated instruction to ensure that no child is left behind.

At the same time, Rabbi Zeivald is in constant dialogue with the parents, working with them to accept their sons for who they are and coaching them to open their arms. Rabbi Zeivald said it may seem obvious that parents should unconditionally love and accept their sons, yet he does not blame the parents. He said their reaction is simply a result of societal pressure. He has seen some success on this front, too.

“You need a lot of strength to work with these boys,” he said.

Why do the boys agree to come? They are hungry. Rabbi Zeivald feeds them — literally. Then he offers them food for thought, the idea of a chance to reclaim their lives. And he is honest; he was there once, too. At 14, Rabbi Zeivald was on the street. He had to fight for himself, to reclaim his life. He wants to cushion the path for these children, all between the ages of 14 and 18.

Rabbi Asher Yechiel Castle is one of the campus mentors. Like Rabbi Zeivald, he too took a hard road to get where he is today. He said, “I was where they are. I understand. I met nice people along the way who knew I wasn’t a bad kid, that I had a future. I am that person for these kids.”

Teacher Haggai Avikar speaks similarly. He said he could be a teacher who comes, gives over his Israeli history lesson and leaves, but he doesn’t do that. He builds relationships with his students.

“God loves this place so much,” said Rabbi Zeivald. “These are His kids, too.”

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

What Is Migdal Ohr? >>

School Choice

Yitzchak Oshry is preparing for his sophomore year  at Baltimore Polytechnic  Institute. He and his parents say choosing public school was a tough decision but has been well worth it. (David Stuck)

Yitzchak Oshry is preparing for his sophomore year at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. He and his parents say choosing public school was a tough decision but has been well worth it.
(David Stuck)

“My son is happy for the first time in years — and engaged and intellectually stimulated.”

That is a message that Aleeza Oshry wants parents to hear.

Oshry moved her son, Yitzchak, 14, to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute’s Ingenuity Project for the 2012-2013 school year. She says for the past decade she has been struggling to find him the right environment, a place where he could fit in and also learn material that plays to his strengths.

The problem in the past was that the Oshrys, an Orthodox family, felt obligated to send their child to a Jewish day school. No matter which school they tried, however, there was not a good fit. Oshry sought advice from community leaders, colleagues and friends. The sad part, she says, is that no advice was available.

“We were not given options,” says Oshry. “Actually, we were told we could not choose this for our kid.”

Oshry says that in her more insular Orthodox community, she has been ridiculed and mocked for her decision to move her child to a public school environment, despite the fact that she supplements his secular education with after-school Torah learning and provides a wholesome environment at home.

“The reaction we have gotten from people literally is we are destroying his yiddishkeit,” says Oshry. “The concern is that things from the [Poly] community will rub off on him, things that are not necessarily positive.”

But Oshry decided to gamble. She says Yitzchak, who is not a social sponge but has Asperger’s and is much more focused on his academic pursuits, has thrived at Poly. She can see where some parents might be worried, she says, but she thinks that a parent has to know his or her child and choose a fitting environment.

“We have seen from our side only positive growth,” says Oshry.

Yitzchak smiles broadly when he thinks about his school. He says he made friends, though “I am not a very social person.” He notes how high the expectations are at Poly and how much he enjoys the challenge. The only downside: “I need to make up work for the Jewish holidays I take off.”

Yitzchak says he gets a lot of questions about his religion from his peers. And, “I like answering them.”

Jewish Community Services’ Joan Grayson Cohen says each child’s needs — educational and emotional — need to be taken into account when choosing a school.

“Not every child is a fit for every school,” says Cohen.

She says the family values — such as religious values — should be taken into account when selecting the right school environment. She explains that it can be harder for a child to make friends if he or she is around people with very dissimilar backgrounds. The most important piece is to balance the parents’ needs with the child’s needs and to make sure the child is getting what he or she needs to be successful in the future.

“Just because a child is in a situation that is not ideal,” Cohen cautions, “does not meant there will be permanent repercussions. However, there are things that can cause permanent potential problems, for example, learning issues. If learning issues are not identified, then a child won’t reach his maximum learning potential.”

Additionally, the child may gain a dislike of school and become less engaged from the academic environment, which will affect college choice as well as occupation choice.

Also, if the environment is too challenging, or if a child is bullied, this could have long-term impact on a child’s self-esteem and self-image.

“This can affect the type of relationships they have in the future and how they feel about it themselves,” she says.

For Tanya Ruttenberg, the issues Cohen raised and finances played a factor in sending daughter Yocheved (Kim), 12, to the International baccalaureate program at The Mount Washington School. She says the teachers there have been “amazing.”

She says there have been challenges for her daughter, who has not made a tremendous number of friends in her new school. Yocheved is used to faster-paced environments (she formerly went to Yeshivat Rambam) and finds that some of the children misbehave and waste time. Nonetheless, she says, on the whole the children are good kids, and she thinks it has been a good experience.

Unlike Oshry, Ruttenberg says she didn’t experience the same put-off from the Orthodox community when she made the decision to move her daughter. She says her friends were more like, “do what works for you,” but she knows that may also be because she is a single mother, who, even as a professional, struggles to afford tuitions for three children.

“You have to consider what is important to you,” says Ruttenberg. “You also need your kids to feel comfortable.”

Read more parenting advice from JCS.

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

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