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Not Your Typical Vacation: A Look Inside the Lakewood Yarchei Kallah

Shimmy Blum

Say the word “vacation,” and most people will conjure up images of the great outdoors, swimming pools, hotel lodgings, or picnics on the grass. Yet for an unusual group of people, “vacation” means paying a fee to return to yeshivah and learn all day, with minimal breaks and relaxation. Meet the members of the little-known Lakewood Yarchei Kallah, a diverse group of men who abandon their businesses and professions to spend their summers bent over Gemaras, below the radar of the world at large.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Our visit to last week to BMG’s “cheder haochel shel haramim beis medrash revealed close to fifty men learning the complex sugyos of perek Eilu Naaros in Masechta Kesubos with the utmost intensity. The beis medrash is graced by the Yarchei Kallah’s roshei hayeshivah; Rav Simcha Schustal, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Bais Binyomin of Stamford; and Rav Leib Taub, a decades-long marbitz Torah in the Philadelphia Yeshivah, shlita. At 12:30, Rav Taub begins his daily daf shiur. The chavrusos huddle around the table to hear the shiur and, almost instantaneously, a lively discussion ensues. On three occasions each Yarchei Kallah, Rav Schustal delivers a very deep shiur klali.

All the while, the glances that the lurking writer and cameraman get from the crowd convey their unease with publicity. For four decades, this scene has replayed itself year after year, without much public awareness. Yet as we approach various participants after the shiur, their enthusiasm for the program trumps their suspicion of the media, and they candidly share the perspectives on the Yarchei Kallah.

Reb Yehudah Schwartz, a middle-aged clinical psychologist and thirty-year Yarchei Kallah veteran, says, “For so many years, this diamond has been kept secret. I feel bad that others who’d be able to partake in it don’t even know that it exists. Even many of the people who do know about the Yarchei Kallah are afraid that it’s too difficult for them. But people must know how great an experience we all have.”

Reb Yehudah’s enthusiasm seems to be shared by everyone here — even those with very disparate ages, backgrounds, and occupations. Some participants are rabbanim, kollel yungeleit, and mechanchim. Others are businessmen, attorneys, doctors, and other professionals who have graduated from universities like Columbia and have employers as prestigious as Exxon Mobil. While a handful of participants live in Lakewood, the vast majority traveled from communities across the United States and Canada to enjoy the Lakewood experience.

One particularly enthusiastic smiling participant, Reb Dov Schechter, formerly an attorney at the prominent Smith-Barney financial services corporation, surmises, “At the Yarchei Kallah, you get to learn with a focus and depth that you generally can’t do with your year-round sedarim and daf yomi shiur. We learn very seriously here. Someone who doesn’t commit to learn all the sedarim, every day of the program, cannot join as an official participant.”

Dr. Nisan Hershkowitz, a dentist, strikes a similar chord. “The gadlus is that even this high level of learning is not impossible. It’s open to anyone; the core of the diverse crowd comes back year after year. I’ve come here for the past twenty-four years and I have the same chavrusa since 1988.”

What brings them all together?

It’s simple, says Reb Yitzchok Eckstein, vice president of business operations for Xchange Telecom. “You have a group of people who if asked, ‘How would you spend your spare time?’ would answer ‘to learn Torah.’ It’s so intriguing to hear people of so many different professions converse in limud haTorah. People with different training and occupations are trained to think differently and ask different types of questions. To hear so many mehalchim in learning demonstrates the beauty of Torah, which was given to every yid.”

His chavrusa, Dr. Pesach Ledereich, an ear, nose, and throat specialist from Passaic, New Jersey, nods in agreement and adds, “The fact that I spend my off weeks learning justifies my months at work as being necessary and not bitul Torah.”

While we can’t help but be impressed at these participants’ willingness to forgo moneymaking opportunities, Schechter finds himself inspired by the members who are occupied year-round as bnei Torah and mechanchim. “You’d think that someone who spends his entire year seeped in Torah and avodas hakodesh would feel that he doesn’t need Yarchei Kallah and may be entitled to a short break. Yet many of them take advantage of bein hazmanim to learn even more Torah, in greater depth.”

One of the participating rabbanim, Rabbi Meir Fund, rav of Khal Sheves Achim of Flatbush, takes up that thread. “I see learning at the Yarchei Kallah as going back to my years in yeshivah. Whatever learning we get to do all year doesn’t hold a candle to the level and focus that our group has here. Additionally, as a rav, I get particular chizuk when I see the ‘Zevuluns’ who are in business learning with such intensity. A ‘Yissachar’ who is involved in learning all year becomes a better Yissachar when he sees something like that.” 


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