Journalist Steve Lipman observes a small but growing trend among aging Orthodox baby boomers: they are heading back to yeshivah.
An engineer, Yitzchok Klahr found long, empty days stretched out before him and a lifelong goal to fulfill when he retired nearly two years ago. He wanted to do advanced Jewish learning.
His brother had studied at yeshivah decades earlier. So had his sons, in later years.
“I felt that I missed out,” says Klahr, who lives in Brooklyn’s heavily Orthodox Flatbush neighborhood.
“It’s time to learn,” he told himself.
Retired? Let the Torah Learning Begin
As soon as Klahr stopped working, he made up for lost time, joining a four-mornings-a-week educational program near his home. As a member of Agra d’Pirka, a series of classes and lectures offered at Knesses Bais Avigdor, a Flatbush congregation, Klahr studies Talmud and other traditional Jewish texts with scores of other Jewish men, most of them younger than he is.
Klahr is the face of a small but growing trend in the Jewish community—retirees turning to yeshivah-level learning when they leave the workforce.
Like Klahr, many start such advanced Jewish studies for the first time.
Like him, many enjoy the new opportunity to “talk in learning” with children or grandchildren who have spent time in yeshivot or seminaries.
Unlike Klahr, many are taking part in learning programs—often they have the name “kollel”—that are centered around the schedules and Jewish backgrounds of retirees.
These new programs have a less-intensive learning schedule and a less-rigorous pace of study than typically found in standard kollel or yeshivah programs for younger participants.
The new wave of retiree programs, under both Modern Orthodox and Chareidi auspices, however, offers a more consistent learning schedule and more advanced subject matter than the sporadic adult education lectures that many synagogues usually present.
Some are year-round while others take a break during the summer. Most meet right after morning minyan, typically in a beit midrash or library.
Klahr went to several nearby learning programs before he was steered to Agra d’Pirka, a growing network of shiurim founded two years ago by Flatbush attorney Ezra Klein. The other programs weren’t demanding enough, Klahr decided. “I was looking for something a little more strenuous,” he says.
It’s Never too Late to Learn
“People want to learn, no matter their age,” says Louis Kaplan, a regular attendee of the Community Kollel Baal Habatim of Willowbrook at the Young Israel of Staten Island, an OU-member shul. Founded in 1995, it may be the oldest retirees kollel. The Community Kollel, which meets Monday through Thursday, is the creation of Rabbi Moshe Friederwitzer, who subsequently made aliyah.
“Men have told me that the kollel has literally saved their lives and marriages. They were not enjoying their retirement and now they enthusiastically look forward to each new day.”
“It all began in my backyard with six other retirees,” says the rabbi, who at the time had just retired from thirty years as a teacher in New York City’s public school system.
Then the program found a home in the Young Israel.
Over the years, the program’s popularity has spread, drawing “an average pool of forty coming weekly, welcoming the elderly parents of children who live in the neighborhood, and making a siyum two years ago on Masechet Shabbat,” Kaplan says. “We even get college-age kids.” Sometimes, he says, his pre-Bar Mitzvah grandson comes. “He asks pretty good questions.”
“After the kollel was operating successfully for several years, a good friend”—and member of the Young Israel’s board of directors—“told me that when the board approved the kollel’s application for the use [of a room in the building], they were sure that my ‘dream’ wouldn’t last more than a couple of weeks,” Rabbi Friederwitzer says. Now the program is a matter of pride for the shul, attracting some non-observant members of Staten Island’s Jewish community.
A Diverse Student Body
In a regular, homogeneous yeshivah environment, most of the students are on a relatively equal intellectual plane; however, teachers in a retirees kollel must accommodate students whose knowledge and learning skills range from zero to yeshivah graduate.
What some of the senior citizen students lack in advanced Jewish knowledge and ability to sit and learn for hours on end, they compensate for in motivation, says Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, rav of Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, an OU-member shul in Queens which has offered its own five-days-a-week retirees kollel for a decade, established by Rabbi George Rushfield, a member of the congregation.
“It’s not heavy duty,” Rabbi Schonfeld says. “It’s geared for them. It goes at their pace.”
No one knows exactly how many such retirees kollelim are in operation now; there is no official listing or coordinating agency. But rabbis who are active in these intensive educational programs for the retired population estimate the number at a few dozen, most in the Greater New York area, which has the critical mass of observant Jews and trained teachers. There are also a few known programs in Los Angeles, Detroit, Florida and Lakewood.
Most have a community-wide nature, opening their doors to individuals who aren’t members of that synagogue.
Though many of the programs have the title of kollel, they differ from the usual kollel practice of offering stipends to young married families thereby permitting the husbands to learn full-time and sometimes work in outreach activities to the wider Jewish community.
None of the retirees kollelim pay their participants; some of the students, in fact, pay a modest fee, which helps compensate the rabbis who are unable to teach for free.
The Senior Men’s Kollel at Congregation Ahavas Achim, an OU-member shul, in Highland Park, New Jersey, has expanded from a single morning a week and about a dozen students to two mornings and a few dozen students since it began four years ago, says Ed Epstein, a synagogue board member and leader of its retirees kollel since his retirement. “We may [even] add a third day.”
Epstein and other supporters of the program initially contacted every man in the area whom they thought might be interested, and word of mouth sustained it. “It took off,” he says.
As in any yeshivah, there’s give and take between talmid and maggid shiur, Epstein says. “It’s not only a lecture; it’s an exchange.”
“It’s really enriched my life,” he adds. “It’s changing my value system.”
Some kollel programs attract women as well. The Scholars Kollel of Great Neck on Long Island, New York, draws between twenty and thirty participants, including a handful of women who attend on a steady basis.
Giving Meaning to Retirement
Ezra Klein, who founded his Agra d’Pirka kollel-like program in his Flatbush neighborhood (now it has separate branches in Brooklyn’s Boro Park neighborhood and Queens’ Kew Gardens Hills), says his learning programs aren’t strictly for retirees. But they tend to attract a large number of retirees, along with men who are either unemployed or have jobs with flexible schedules. He tells of lives being changed by the experience. One unemployed man, for example, said that the learning saved him from becoming despondent.
“Men have told me that the kollel has literally saved their lives and marriages,” says Rabbi Friederwitzer. “They were not enjoying their retirement and now they enthusiastically look forward to each new day.”
Usually, the incentive is less dramatic.
“The thirst for Jewish knowledge is increasing,” Rabbi Schonfeld says. Many of the students in the retiree programs came of age when there were fewer chances to pursue advanced Jewish learning and their careers took up their time. Now, the rabbi says, “they want to fill that gap. They don’t want to stagnate in their old age. They’re definitely motivated.”
“It beats playing cards,” Rabbi Schonfeld says.
“I don’t want to sit and be entertained,” Klahr says.
His kollel studies are “very hard,” he says. “This is serious Torah leaning.”
Which is how he prefers it.
Steve Lipman is a staff writer for the Jewish Week in New York.