Rabbi Rafael G. Grossman of the Synagogue on the Palisades, is proud of his small Fort Lee congregation.
"Our Shabbat Kollel program is the only such initiative in the United States," he told The Jewish Standard. "I can’t find another one."
Grossman who came to the city four years ago after 30 years as religious leader of the 1,000-member Baron Hirsch Synagogue in Memphis, Tenn., where he is now senior rabbi emeritus says the study program "adds a new dimension to synagogue life."
Traditionally, a kollel is a small, graduate-level rabbinical program where Jewish men, many of them married, engage in the study of Torah and Judaic subjects. In Fort Lee, said synagogue president Bob Oppenheimer, the program, now celebrating its first anniversary, brings a handful of rabbinical students to town "to share the joy of Shabbat and bring us to new levels of Torah and prayer. Shabbat has become a joy for all of us who attend our synagogue services and study programs."
"Someone said it would be nice to have a kollel in Fort Lee," said Grossman, "but a kollel is [generally] an expensive proposition." Here, on the other hand, there are no teachers to be hired and the students do not have to pay tuition.
"We found the students," Grossman stressed, adding that, at first, he had only one student in mind. But soon, with the help of an Internet posting, "it grew from there."
The five kollel students, all from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and all between the ages of ‘0 and ‘3, come to Fort Lee every Friday and are hosted during Shabbat by members of the congregation.
"They’ve really become part of the congregation," said Grossman, noting that "they intermingle beautifully. I wish I had thought of this years ago. They’re accessible to the entire congregation." In addition, he said, "they learn as they teach," noting that students come from communities all over the country.
Grossman is so excited about the success of the congregation’s Shabbat Kollel that he plans to introduce the idea at the May convention of the Rabbinical Council of America, which he formerly headed the only president, he said, who came from outside the New York area. Grossman is also former head of the Beth Din of America and the Religious Zionists of America.
The Fort Lee rabbi, who lectures throughout the country, said he uses many of these speaking opportunities to further "better relations between the Orthodox community and the rest of the community." He serves as dean of the Rabbinical Council International, which, he said, "is a relatively new program that provides rabbis with programs during their sabbaticals and creates study programs and other self-enrichment opportunities for rabbis."
Whether his kollel program can be easily replicated in other synagogues, however, remains to be seen. "It may be more difficult to implement if a synagogue is distant from a rabbinical school," he said.
Still, said Oppenheimer, "our experiment has been most successful and it is our hope that other synagogues will emulate such programs."
"This is a precedent of enormous importance, especially for small communities," said Grossman. "It provides terrific exposure for rabbinical students tremendous real-life experience."