Suburban Renewal


A congregant in Rabbi David Hirsch’s synagogue approached him with a request one recent Shabbat after shacharit services: She wanted a new prayerbook, one with more-extensive commentaries.

Rabbi Hirsch, spiritual leader of the Fleetwood Synagogue in Mount Vernon for four years, was delighted. The veteran member of the congregation was part of the new Fleetwood Kollel, the first community kollel of its kind in Westchester.

In an effort to re-energize a diminishing Jewish community, the synagogue brought four young couples to the northern part of town in September to teach classes and take part in daily minyans.

Rabbi Hirsch, among others, believes the kollel is paying off. He says he has seen an improvement in the quality of davening, an increase in synagogue membership and attendance at Shabbat services, and more interest in Shabbat observance since the kollel began.

Unlike most yeshiva-based kollel programs, where participating men receive a stipend to learn advanced Talmudic studies all day, the Fleetwood Kollel is part-time. The four men — three Yeshiva University rabbinical students and a businessman — participate in morning services at the synagogue, leave for the day and return at night for services and classes.

The synagogue, which raised funds for the program affiliated with YU’s Max Stern Division of Communal Services, is the third in the greater New York area to sponsor its own kollel.

“It was my idea,” says Rabbi Hirsch, an Illinois native who was ordained by Yeshiva University in 1983 and handpicked the kollel members. “I took people who are warm.”

The rabbi pitched his idea to the members of his congregation. “All of the people were on board,” he says. “We’re trying to revitalize the community.”

Two dozen congregants, including the member who asked for an advanced siddur, have participated in the communal and one-on-one classes.

The 42-year-old congregation has about 110 member families. Like Mount Vernon’s Jewish community, it has decreased in size over the last few decades.

“It is very unique for a synagogue our size to have a kollel,” says Rabbi Hirsch, who also serves as a Talmud instructor at Yeshiva University.

He says the kollel is designed with two goals: to raise Jewish knowledge and attract young couples to the area.

The four men and their wives, all of whom have jobs, offer Shabbat invitations to synagogue members and have become involved in community Jewish activities.

“They try to m’chazek [strengthen] the shul,” Rabbi Hirsch says. “It’s a kollel of giving. It’s helping klal Yisrael by strengthening the community.”

David Reich, past president of the Jewish Community Council of Mount Vernon, calls the kollel “fantastic.”

“It’s bringing more young people into the community. It’s bringing a new energy into the Fleetwood Synagogue. It’s only positive,” he says.

A score of men and women, mostly middle-aged and senior citizen members of the synagogue, met in the study hall one recent evening for maariv and individualized classes. At separate tables, the rabbi and the kollel members led discussions on prayer, the weekly Torah portion and a page of Talmud — all instruction is in English. On other nights they may be teaching how to read Hebrew or bar/bat mitzvah lessons.

“It provides a chance to be involved in a Jewish community on a very intimate kind of level,” says Isaac Zimmerman, a 24-year-old graduate of Yeshiva University and native of Edison, N.J.The only non-rabbinical-track member of the kollel program, he works for a computer software firm. “Anyone can serve as a teacher,” Zimmerman says, adding the he “loves” his role in the kollel. “I feel more spiritually fulfilled.”

Beverly Segal, a member of the Fleetwood Synagogue for six years, says the tefila classes have helped her lessons on prayer at SAR Academy in Riverdale, where she is a teacher. One class, she says, “answered something I never knew.”

Some Mount Vernon residents who are unaffiliated or members of non-Orthodox temples attend kollel classes.

“It’s kind of inspiring to see all the people of different backgrounds participating,” Segal says. “It’s inclusive. It helps people feel more comfortable.”

“It’s a tremendous kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name],” Rabbi Hirsch says. “People seem happy.”He bought the siddur for the woman who requested it.

“We’re making inroads,” the rabbi says.