Wrapping tefillin on strangers at the airport, climbing into cherry pickers to scale jumbo menorahs, Chabad’s creative zeal for returning Jews to the fold is legend. Now, with the new Yeshiva High School of the Twin Cities being readied to open after Labor Day in Cottage Grove, MN, Chabad is adding a new wrinkle to keep observant teenagers in touch with their Chassidic upbringing.
Chabad’s phenomenal growth over the past six decades brought exponentially greater numbers of pupils to Lubavitch yeshivas to pore over ancient texts. Traditionally, succeeding in the atmosphere of a large yeshiva requires an aptitude for the parley and thrust of rabbinical thought and the ability to stay put and focused, mastering the texts, over long hours. Chabad’s array of diverse outlets – canvassing streets for Jews distant from their heritage, organizing camps, traveling the world as lamplighters for Jewish teachings – engage most young Chabad Chassidim: brainiacs, Mr. Fixits, social butterflies, and big men on campus alike.
But there are those “need a little bit extra,” said principal of the new high school Rabbi Chayim Friedman. “Too many of them believe if they can’t learn Gemorah it is a measure of their own value.” He and his brother Rabbi Mordechai Friedman along with Rabbi Yosef Eizicovics, respectively the director and administrator of the high school, tweaked the traditional yeshiva format to reinforce the students’ resolve before the bough breaks. “Our intention is to make yeshiva more about living like a mensch than getting A’s on report cards,” said Rabbi Mordechai Friedman.
Yeshiva High School of the Twin Cities, located about 25 miles from the Jewish community in S. Paul, is distinguished by its core student-centric philosophy. “The focus is on making the yeshiva fit the students, not the other way around,” said Rabbi Eizicovics. Shorter class periods – several sessions 45-minutes a piece instead of one chunk several hours long – are one. Inclusion of secular studies by correspondence courses is another. Students will also be actively involved in choosing among Jewish studies electives, and evening lessons in computer graphics, martial arts, and, possibly, culinary arts will allow the young men, 14-17, freedom to explore their interests within a yeshiva environment. Yeshiva High School, under the auspices of Chabad of Minnesota’s senior representative Rabbi Moshe Feller, different, but not dumbed down, said Rabbi Chayim Friedman. “Although the pace is different, the expectations are the same.”
Innovative program options are not for innovation’s sake. They’re ways for students who’ve struggled to taste success. “When good things happen to the boys, it builds their self-image,” said Rabbi Chayim Friedman, explaining his view that a good self-image is like equity, personal capital. “As soon they feel they have enough capital to get involved, to spend on yeshiva studies, they will.”
There’s room for 30 students, and half the spots are filled. The boys are an international crew: English, Canadian, Israeli and American. Yoni Eizicovics of Toronto, Rabbi Eizicovics’s younger brother, will be among them. Their mother, Sorel, said family ties helped but were not the main reason she thought the Cottage Grove school was a good fit for her son. “The Friedman brothers have wonderful personalities, an understanding of the needs of yeshiva boys today, a wonderful sense of humor,” said Eizicovics, a mother of nine. “They recognized what is going on in the world today and led the way for positive change. It is everything I have always wanted for my son in a yeshiva.”