A member of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and a resident of Brooklyn’s heavily chasidic Crown Heights neighborhood, Dov Ber Cohen had no diploma and no career goal when he finished his yeshiva high school two years ago.
An indifferent student, by his own description, Cohen thought he would study eventually for his GED high school equivalency degree and work in some business.
Then his father suggested Bramson ORT College.
ORT, a Jewish educational charity founded in Russia in 1880 (the English acronym means Organization for Rehabilitation through Training) to teach agricultural and related skills to poor Jews, which subsequently established a worldwide network of schools, has had a longtime presence in nearby Bensonhurst.
Last fall, Bramson ORT College moved from its previous satellite campus to a new building in the Brooklyn neighborhood, three years after its partnership, initiated by Lubavitch educators, began. The haredi program, with roots at the original Bensonhurst location, where Cohen studied, is now expanding at its new branch.
Geared for young men like Cohen, who had not found success in the standard haredi academic system, the program features small classes, individual attention from teachers and administrators, one-on-one tutoring, and the chance to earn a GED and two-year associate’s degree.
It sounded interesting, Cohen said.
He enrolled in Bramson ORT, took a van five days a week from Crown Heights with other Lubavitch students, and excelled in his studies. His grades for two years: “A’s and B’s,” he said. Today, a graduate of Bramson ORT, he’s studying for his bachelor’s degree at the Borough Park branch of Touro College, an older and larger university-level institution that also serves a largely Orthodox student body.
Cohen, now 20, said he may consider studying for a master’s degree after he graduates from Touro; he wants to become a social worker or special education teacher. “I want a job where I can help people,” Cohen said. “I’m glad I went to Bramson.”
Bramson ORT administrators say most of the several dozen chasidic students who have enrolled in the school in the last three years have similar stories — better grades and greater motivation than they had experienced earlier. While the number of students in the haredi program has remained steady, some 20-30 each semester, the program has emerged as the latest sign of social change in chasidic and so-called yeshivishe circles: a growing acceptance of the need for a post-high school secular education, and a decreased stigma for students who stray from the traditional yeshiva-to-business track.
The success of Bramson ORT’s program can be traced in part to Touro’s; Touro College, which has grown in four decades from a single site to campuses across the United States and Europe, operates under Orthodox auspices, often attracting students less “modern” than those who attend Yeshiva University and Stern College for Women, the Modern Orthodox movement’s flagship institutions.
Now, said Samuel Heilman, professor of sociology at Queens College and author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry” (Schocken Books, 1992), “Everyone wants to have their own program.”
The Bramson ORT program, shaped by Lubavitch input, offers a high degree of individual attention and accepts students who lack a GED degree, Bramson ORT administrators say.
The partnership between ORT and Kfar Chabad in Israel, offering vocational training four decades ago, led Chabad leaders to approach ORT here a few years ago, said Rabbi Levi Kaplan, a veteran Chabad educator. With a growing unemployment rate in haredi circles, both in this country and in Israel, the Bramson ORT program partnership was initiated by Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, Chabad’s educational arm.
The number of students dropping out of the chasidic educational system, and finding themselves unable to support a family, had increased in recent decades, Rabbi Kaplan said. “You’re talking about thousands” of young chasidic men and women. “There are hundreds of kids wandering the streets. People aren’t able to ignore it.”
The Lubavitch community considered college-level courses in areas where jobs are available, said the rabbi, who heads Chabad’s Jewish Technical Vocational School, which provides training courses in Crown Heights on weekday afternoons, after a morning of traditional but abbreviated yeshiva learning.
Students choose to go to Bramson ORT in the afternoon, for its business- and computer-oriented courses. The catalog stresses a practical selection of courses, in fields where there are jobs, such as accounting, computer programming, introduction to electronics, business management, graphic design and medical assistant.
“There has always been a large percentage of the [haredi] community going out to work,” Rabbi Kaplan said. “But now it’s more challenging to do that without qualifications.”
The students on either the vocational or more-academic track have “a chance to succeed while remaining Torah observant and an active participant in the Chabad community,” the rabbi said. “The students are motivated and excited about learning for the first time in many years. They are also gaining the professional skills they will need to earn a living and support their families.
“Ninety-nine percent” of the haredi students who enroll in Bramson ORT’s two-year associate’s degree program stay in until graduation, many then transferring to four-year schools — mostly in the CUNY system, said Yair Rosenrauch, director of the Bensonhurst Extension Center.
“What they’re getting here is confidence so that they can build on their futures,” said Ephraim Buhks, the Kishinev-born director of Bramson ORT College. “This is a game changer. We are changing the culture.
“In outreach to haredi women,” Buhks said, “the [new] Bensonhurst site already offers science classes on Sundays for women interested in occupational therapy.”
The Bramson ORT program is just one part of ORT’s increased outreach to the Orthodox community. The Bensonhurst site will offer night classes, starting next month, for young men from a cross-section of chasidic groups, under the aegis of chasidic attorney Rachel Freier.
Tutorial sessions for students from area day schools and college-level courses are open to students from the Magen David Yeshiva and other yeshivot, and distance-learning courses are available online for students unable to attend in person (bramsonort.edu).
The Bensonhurst building, a state-of-the-art high-tech building located between a doctor’s office and a small Episcopalian church, is a micro United Nations, with students from a few dozen countries. In the cafeteria you’re likely to see African-Americans and Muslim women with their heads covered, Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union, and the chasidic students.
A few young chasidic men were sitting around a table in the cafeteria one recent afternoon, doing their homework assignments on laptop computers and discussing their experiences as college students.
“I couldn’t imagine myself going to college — before he enrolled at Bramson ORT — said Mendel Goodman, 19. His friends at his side shook their heads in agreement. All had learned about the haredi program through the Crown Heights grapevine.
After he finishes Bramson ORT, Goodman said, he’ll probably go for a bachelor’s degree. In some helping profession. “I like working with people.”
All their families support their decision to study at Bramson ORT, Goodman and his friends said.
There is no stigma, they said, in Crown Heights, where the standard educational path leads to advanced Talmudic studies and a career in business.
“No one disapproves” of his studies at Bramson ORT, Dov Ber Cohen said. “Absolutely not.”
Without the haredi program, Rabbi Kaplan said, most of the matriculating students would be doing little with their lives. “They’d still be at home.”