Retiree Men’s Kollels Flourish in Highland Park/Edison

Retiree Men’s Kollel attendees at Ohev Emeth.
The Retiree Men's Kollel at Ahavas Achim.

Retirement can be a real blessing—no more commuting, no more big project deadlines, no more hectic business trips, no more office politics, much less stress! Another potential blessing is the chance to devote significantly more time to intensive Torah study. Luckily for frum men living in Highland Park and Edison, two vibrant options exist to expand their immersion in Torah, while also expanding their social connections—Retiree Men’s Kollels.

At Congregation Ahavas Achim, it all started with a conversation between shul member Edward Epstein and the shul’s rav, Rabbi Steven Miodownik, in September 2008. Ed, a 76-year-old retired court officer in Newark and previously a probation officer in Chicago, was already quite active, yet he wanted to do more.
Rabbi Miodownik and Ed came up with the idea to create a new regular Torah learning option for men in Ed’s age group. Then Ed got to work.

He enlisted volunteer teachers, all rabbonim with considerable experience as teachers or shiur leaders, to lead classes. With help from Rabbi Miodownik, and announcements in the shul’s weekly bulletin, a cadre of participants was recruited as well.

The Kollel at Ahavas Achim offers three one-hour classes—two on Tuesday mornings, 8:30-10:30 a.m., and one on Thursday mornings, 9:30-10:30 a.m. Tuesday morning’s first class is taught by Rabbi Moshe Goldberger, who uses various sources to teach about Mussar, Midot and Emunah. Rabbi Yehoshua Weitzner travels from Lakewood to teach Tuesday morning’s second class. He is the son of Rabbi Avigdor Weitzner, z”tl, a former Rutgers Hillel director. This class focuses on Mishna Sanhedrin.

Thursday morning’s class is led by Rabbi Eli Reisman, an Edison resident who teaches in the afternoons at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn in the Kollel Hora’ah (advanced program for post-seminary students). The learning focuses on Gemara Brochos, while also discussing practical halachot that arise from the discussions in the text.

The Ahavas Achim Kollel regularly involves close to a dozen men. It also periodically attracts younger men whose work or school schedules allow them to attend one of the one-hour classes. Ed has enlisted the participants to each provide light refreshments for the class on different days.

The men involved hold the Kollel in high regard.

Eli Levenstein, a regular participant in the Thursday Kollel class, said, “I’ve made new friendships with shiur attendees and have developed relationships I already had with other members. All the members of the Kollel bring rich and varied background to the learning, both in the questions they ask and answers they offer to the topics discussed. I thoroughly enjoy the shiur.”

“As a newly retired person, I really appreciate the Retirees Kollel,” said Herb Klaver. “The three classes are on a variety of topics, with each session running an hour long—that’s a manageable amount of time. And the subject matter is both interesting and accessible, so we can all benefit from it. I value this opportunity to regularly learn Torah from great teachers and to interact with members of my community.”

Rabbi Miodownik said, “Our Mens’ Retirees Kollel is a beautiful thing to behold, as our older members model for our younger ones the values of consistency and dedication to learning. Our wonderful educators provide profound Torah expertise and a warm and stimulating environment, and we are very proud of this program. There truly is no age limit to Torah growth.”

The community also offers another variety of Retirees’ Kollel, which started with one newcomer’s vision.

Before Rabbi Zvi Hoff and his family had moved from Staten Island to their new home in Highland Park in the summer of 2015, he already knew he wanted to spearhead an intensive Retiree Men’s Kollel that challenged retired men in the community to learn how to learn Gemara.

For Rabbi Hoff, this idea was not entirely new—he had tried it out for a few years in the Retirees Kollel at the Young Israel of Staten Island. The men there responded well to the concept and Rabbi Hoff knew it could work elsewhere.

Rabbi Hoff shared this idea with Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman, rav of Congregation Ohav Emeth. Rabbi Kaufman wholeheartedly supported the concept, offering to host it at Ohav Emeth and to help promote it. Rabbi Kaufman identified likely participants and he, and/or Rabbi Hoff, approached each one. Many of them signed up for the new program.

The Retiree Men’s Kollel at Ohav Emeth started in September 2015 and has been operating ever since. It meets on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, 10:00 a.m.-12:00/12:30 p.m. The group methodically works its way through a section of Gemara each session, with participants reading the Gemara text, then Rashi and Tosafos.

Rabbi Hoff encourages the men to take turns reading on their own as much as possible. At the end of each sugya (subject of a section of the Gemara), Rabbi Hoff will talk about what other commentators, like the Rif and the Ran, say and what practical Halachot result from this section. Rabbi Hoff sees himself as a coach, there to provide support and guidance as needed, while the “players” do the intensive training largely on their own.

When the Kollel began, they started with Gemara Makos (24 pages) and after two years they completed it. They then started learning Gemara Shabbos and have recently reached Daf Tet (page 9).

Like the Kollel at Ahavas Achim, the Ohav Emeth Kollel has a dedicated cadre of participants yet also attracts occasional non-retiree members. Nine men, many with strong science and math backgrounds, regularly attend the three mornings of study. The Kollel also included, for many months, a home-schooled high school age student and, at another point, a Rutgers undergraduate student.

Rabbi Kaufman praises the work of the Ohav Emeth Retiree Men’s Kollel and its impact. “The greatest mitzvah is Torah study—no matter who you are and no
matter how much you can manage. It is a great zechus (merit) for our community to have an intensive Retiree Men’s Kollel meeting in our shul. They are doing impressive work!”

Daniel Pittinsky, one of the participants, said, “I think the Retiree Men’s Kollel at Ohav Emeth is intellectually stimulating and challenging—it really exercises your mind. Rabbi Hoff is an excellent teacher and he’s guided us to learn at a high level and actively participate in the Gemara. We are learning how to learn Gemara and it’s a true honor to be a part of it.”

Rabbi Hoff sees many benefits to the Kollel, both for the participants and for the community. He notes that the men have remarked that they’ve become more sensitive to Halachot they’ve learned and more aware of the issues involved.

The Kollel also builds stronger bonds between the men. And Rabbi Hoff himself feels that his own understanding of the Gemara they’ve studied has grown deeper and more nuanced.

Reports like these, and others, and the evident growth in the Kollel members’ Gemara mastery, tell Rabbi Hoff that his project has indeed succeeded quite well.

For more information on the Kollel at Ahavas Achim, contact Rabbi Steven Miodownik at smiodownik@ahavasachim.org. For more information on the Kollel at Ohav Emeth, contact Rabbi Zvi Hoff at hoff.zvi@gmail.com.

By Harry Glazer