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Back on Track

Yisroel Besser

When Sender Kaszirer was looking for a position in chinuch, he made a quick calculation: He would go where he was needed, not where others expected him to go. But Lakewood wasn’t ready for a high school where talmidim wear colored shirts or jeans, so he established the mesivta in nearby Eatontown, with an approach tailor-made to the individual student regardless of history or past struggles. “As parents we give children the benefit of the doubt. As mechanchim, we have the same responsibility.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

It was 11 a.m. on Erev Yom Kippur when Rabbi Sender Kaszirer’s phone rang. “Rebbi,” said the teenager on the line, “I have nowhere to daven.” Rabbi Kaszirer might have gulped, but he didn’t miss a beat. “Call me back in five minutes,” he told his talmid — and then proceeded to call his own rebbi. He reached the Novominsker Rebbe and shared the young man’s plea. “Should we be making our own minyan?” Rabbi Kaszirer asked, quickly recalculating in anticipation of the expected answer. “Of course,” the Rebbe said. “If the bochurim ask, you have to provide.” In the office-cum lounge of the Mesivta of Eatontown — a yeshivah high school for boys who for various reasons haven’t succeeded in a typical yeshivah setting — the Rosh Yeshivah and I are joined by two other rebbeim, Rabbi Mordechai (Mottchy) Kaszirer, Reb Sender’s brother, and Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Mermelstein, who recall that game-changing day. “The Rosh Yeshivah called us and told us his plans. But we had no baalei tefillah or a baal korei. We were totally not equipped for it. In addition,” continues Rabbi Mermelstein, “I derived a great part of my personal spiritual uplift from the davening in Novominsk, where my father serves as baal tefillah. I couldn’t imagine giving up going back home to Brooklyn for Yom Kippur. But the Rosh Yeshivah made up his mind. He was going to do it with us or without us.” And so, the mesivta hosted Yom Kippur tefillos, and the rebbeim joined forces to lead, inspire, and direct. Motzaei Yom Kippur, one of the students stopped the Rosh Yeshivah. “Rebbi, it’s my first time fasting on Yom Kippur,” the 16-year-old remarked. It’s a telling story because even now, years after that incident, sitting with the Rosh Yeshivah and staff of this inventive institution, one gets a sense that they operate with instincts rather than an instruction book. Perhaps they don’t follow rules because they wrote the rule book for a yeshivah formed to meet a challenging demand that isn’t going away anytime soon. For a half century, traditional yeshivos welcomed all sorts of bochurim — stronger and weaker, more committed and less so — and the system worked. But then cracks started to appear, and the chinuch world experienced a seismic shift. Yes, educators agreed, some boys needed to develop at their own pace. Yes, the experts conceded, ideally there should be institutions that put these boys first. But communal agreement doesn’t erect buildings, and theoretical consensus doesn’t offer a struggling young man a second chance.

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