Come September, several dozen Orthodox Columbia University students, men and women, will be paid to learn Torah near their Upper West Side campus. The yeshiva will be housed at Ramat Ora, a revitalized Orthodox synagogue on West 110th Street, several blocks from the university’s main campus on West 116th Street.
Already, 47 Columbia undergraduates have enrolled for the intensive, 10-hour-a-week program offering classes in Talmud and Torah, in addition to their regular secular studies during the academic year. Men and women will study separately in the program.
Nearly all of the initial group come from a yeshiva high school background, and many are coming off a year studying Torah full-time in Israel, Rabbi Weiss told The Jewish Week: an indication of the growing number of Orthodox Jews who want to continue daily Torah study during their college years.
Some students will be paid stipends of $100 a month to attend the yeshiva, and the rest will attend at no cost, said the rabbi. He called the yeshiva, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale Kollel at Ramat Ora, "one of the most important things I’ve ever done."
A second component of the yeshiva is an all-day kollel, or Torah study course, designed for students who already have rabbinic ordination: as is common in many Orthodox circles. There are about five young men in the program, said Rabbi Weiss, and they will be paid full stipends by the Hebrew Institute and teach Torah classes at Columbia, as will Rabbi Weiss.
Several years ago, the rabbi launched an advanced Torah study program for post-college women, called Torat Miriam, and housed at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. About a dozen students there receive an annual stipend of $5,000.
Rabbi Weiss, who received ordination from Yeshiva University and has taught at its women’s branch, Stern College, for 30 years, is known to believe that Yeshiva has moved uncomfortably rightward over the last 15 or 20 years. While many rabbis at Yeshiva oppose women’s prayer services, for example, he has taken a more open stand and is a rabbinic source for some women’s groups.
He insists, though, that the new yeshiva is not being launched as an alternative to Yeshiva University for Modern Orthodox men and women who see the renowned institution as increasingly fundamentalist.
"I don’t see this as competition or an alternative to YU," Rabbi Weiss said, "but rather the fulfillment of a longtime dream to launch a program that will inspire young Jews to enter the field of Jewish communal service.
"Basically this is an attempt to establish a learning and leadership program near the Columbia and Barnard campus," he said. "Our hope is that this program will serve as a model for similar kinds of campus programs around the country."
He acknowledged, though, that three Yeshiva University rabbinic students have taken a leave of absence to attend the new kollel in September and that he plans to advance what he calls "open Orthodoxy" through an intensive "rebbe-student relationship" and transmitting ahavat Yisrael, or the love of all Jews, regardless of denomination.
The rabbi asserted, though, that the yeshiva is not an ordination-granting program.
"That’s not the purpose now. It’s not in our thinking now," he said.
He said if a student came to him desiring a more rigorous Jewish learning curriculum, he would have no hesitation recommending Stern College for Women. But he did not say the same for Yeshiva University, the men’s division, offering that he was not as familiar with its program.
Rabbi Weiss’ son, Dov, 26, recently ordained at Yeshiva University, will be the yeshiva’s administrator. Rabbi Dov Linzner, 30, a Hebrew Institute staffer and formerly a rosh kollel, or dean, in Boca Raton, Fla., will serve in a similar capacity as the new institute’s rosh yeshiva.
Rabbi Weiss said there is no degree involved with the yeshiva. "It’s learning for learning’s sake," he noted, adding that he hopes to personally inspire leadership qualities in the students through outside activities like Shabbatons and bringing in guest lecturers such as Modern Orthodox leader Rabbi Saul Berman, who is also active at Ramat Ora.
Yeshiva University President Dr. Norman Lamm said the new yeshiva was a wonderful idea, and he saw no competition for YU.
"I wish them a lot of luck," Rabbi Lamm told The Jewish Week. "Young people who go to Columbia should have an opportunity to learn. They should be congratulated."
He pointed out, though, that Yeshiva offers Judaic studies five hours a day, and "no place can equal that."
Rabbi Weiss said he has coordinated efforts for his new yeshiva with Rabbi Charles Sheer, Columbia’s Jewish chaplain. The university’s Jewish Campus Life Fund sponsors dozens of programs on campus.
Ari Goldman, a Columbia journalism professor and board member at Ramat Ora, said the new yeshiva would not clash with already established university Jewish study programs.
"This is a more structured, more formal program," said Goldman, a YU graduate.
Goldman noted the culture shock many Orthodox college students experience in coming to a large secular university after spending a post-high school year or two immersed in Torah study at an Israeli yeshiva.
"Here’s a way to connect in a serious program. You can go to an Ivy League school and still have a serious Torah study program," he said.
The new yeshiva is also a shot in the arm to the rejuvenated Ramat Ora, which has gone from a shul struggling for a Friday night minyan three years ago to a thriving Upper West Side congregation today. Ramat Ora will now be open five days a week, all day, drawing young people and programs, synagogue officials said enthusiastically.
One prominent Orthodox Jewish educator, Marvin Schick, endorsed the concept of the new yeshiva but questioned Rabbi Weiss’ agenda, noting that the rabbi will likely seek to influence the students with his "ideological bent."
Schick, president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, was referring to Rabbi Weiss’ more liberal attitudes. He also suggested that Rabbi Weiss was "overextended" in his activities (he is deeply involved in matters relating to Christian symbols at Auschwitz) and sometimes initiates programs with insufficient follow-through.