YVA in the News
By ZACHARY REID
© Copyright 2009 Richmond Times Dispatch.
Hands and arms in constant motion, voice rising and falling by the word, Rabbi Yosef Bart engaged his class in an animated discussion on the age-old question of the chicken and the egg.
"Which came first?" he said, lowering his voice and giving a shrug of the shoulders that suggested room for discussion.
Before the four students could say a word, Bart piped in a loud, certain-as-life-itself answer: "The chicken, of course. God said he created birds. He didn't say eggs, he said birds."
So went a minute in the life at the Yeshiva of Virginia, the state's only boarding school for Jewish high school boys. In humble confines in the West End of Richmond, thousands of years of Jewish tradition are meted out to about 30 students in a style that combines a loud, seemingly -- though it's not, in fact -- brash, hands-on teaching with the ease and gentility of Southern charm.
"A lot these boys are from big cities, but they're not big-city boys," said Rabbi Hal Klestzick, principal of the school. "People come here because they like the atmosphere. Richmond is a very accepting community. That's not the case everywhere."
Though religious schools are the norm in some parts of the world -- particularly the Middle East -- they're still a relative novelty in the U.S.
The Web site BoardingSchoolReview.com counts fewer than 90 Christian boarding schools in the country, and it doesn't even have a category for Jewish or Muslim schools. Bart said he thinks there are about 50 schools similar to his nationwide.
The little school on Patterson Avenue -- if not for the blinking sign to slow traffic two blocks east of Three Chopt Road, you'd never know it was there -- is part of the Rudlin Torah Academy. The Orthodox Jewish school has a kindergarten through eighth-grade day program and a high school for girls at its Goochland County campus.
Though the day school has been around since 1966, the boys boarding school -- a relative newcomer at seven years old -- has been the focal point of late because of its recently expanded and renovated home. The building, officially dedicated last Sunday, is school and home for 30 students, 24 of whom live there. The boarders, who pay up to about $17,000 a year to attend the school, come from Colorado, Michigan, Florida, New York and New Jersey, among other places. For the six Richmond-area students at the school, it's almost like home, as the school day stretches from about 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with classes some nights.
The school provides classes in traditional high school fare such as English, history and algebra, but also has students delving into the intellectual side of their faith. Three times a day, they stop for prayers. Then they'll step back and study those prayers.
"One of the things we want to do, we want to inspire the boys to be thinkers," said Klestzick, the principal of all three schools.
The boys certainly seem to have taken to the idea of friendly debate.
From top to bottom -- and that's a haul in a building with five floors -- there's a friendly discussion in nearly every corner. In some places, the talk is strictly religion. In others, it's whatever it is teenage boys discuss.
The family atmosphere and the personal approach make a difference, Klestzick said.
But that's not to imply the school is laid back.
The teaching style is definitely up close and personal. When Bart teaches, he's in motion. But so are his students, each able -- encouraged, in fact -- to rise to their feet and try to match his enthusiasm for the subject matter.
Out of class, the boys' home is just as personal. The boarders live in one of three rooms on the fourth floor, each crammed with bunk beds, dressers, closets and miscellaneous debris. Seniors Moshe Wieder of New York and Avromi Meyer of Denver disassembled their bunk bed and managed to craft a suite out of cardboard boxes, including a working door. The brown walls were pasted with pictures of the favorite basketball players of the two.
A few weeks before the school year ended, in the stairwell separating their quarters from floors containing classrooms, 10th-grader Menachem Samel of Edison, N.J., and 11th-grader Shloime Nemtzov of Monsey, N.Y., took a break from their studies to debate the wisdom of signing on for a stint in the Israeli army.
Menachem, 15, born in Israel but raised in the U.S., said he's looking forward to fulfilling his obligation when he graduates in two years. He said he has no fear about it, no matter the state of political affairs in the Middle East.
"There's always something going on," Menachem said.
"Oh, I don't want to die," said Shloime. "I'm going to business school."
The boys quickly moved on to more traditional ground, including the pursuit of girls (forbidden, by Orthodox teaching and school policy), exercise (the joys of the nearby Weinstein JCC, which has a new, state-of-the-art workout facility) and food (the kitchen is downstairs).
Both boys, and most of the others who were asked, said they chose the school because of its focus on combining traditional studies with traditional religion.
"It's a good place," said Shmuel Mayteles, a senior from Brooklyn known schoolwide for his ability to debate any side of any issue. "Why wouldn't you want to be here?"
Back in class, the boys received all the personal attention they could handle from rabbis in classes with as few as three students per teacher.
"You can't hide here," said Ben Ellis, one of the Richmond-area students at the school. "You have to answer the questions."
With Bart leading the charge, marker in hand and white board at the ready, there really was no debate anyway.
"We keep them engaged," he said.