By Cindy Mindell
Ten years ago, a charismatic rabbi from southern California transformed an ailing Orthodox synagogue in Bridgeport into a new yeshiva, drawing students from around the country and abroad. At its height, the Yeshiva Gedola, housed at Congregation Agudas Achim on Arlington Street, counted some 50 young men in its study hall, some college-age, some post-university level with wives and children. Led by Rabbi Simcha Berger, the institution also engaged Jewish communities from New Haven to Greenwich with study sessions, lectures, and holiday celebrations.
But in 2009, just before the new academic year began, a fire completely destroyed the yeshiva’s main dormitory facility. The following year, Hillel Academy in Fairfield, where many older yeshiva students sent their children, closed its doors, leaving the local community without an Orthodox day school. With a donation of subsidized rental units for older students and their families, the yeshiva hung on until 2012, when Berger made the difficult decision to close the college-level division of the school.
In its place, he strengthened the existing rabbinical college and community kollel – a rabbinic fellowship of students pursuing post-graduate learning and rabbinic internships. The kollel started with six families under Berger’s leadership, expanding that first year with the hiring of Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonen to direct the rabbinic studies program.
Rabbi Zecharya Rubin joined the kollel last August, moved with his wife and young daughter from Baltimore, where he completed studies at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College. Rubin is responsible for building the kollel’s website, writing a weekly Torah newsletter, and developing lecture topics for the community.
Now led by Berger and Rabbi Yitzchok Ruvain Elchonen, the kollel is in a transition stage, with two families moving on and a search for new families.
Rubin is in the small group of kollel rabbis following a curriculum that will eventually lead to rabbinic ordination. Last month, the students completed study of the Laws of Muksa (pertaining to Shabbat) and received rabbinic certification on the topic from Lakewood, N.J.-based Rabbi Yisroel Pinchos Bodner, an authority on Jewish law.
In addition to their personal studies, the kollel rabbis have initiated many projects in the local Jewish community, including checking the eruvim of Bridgeport (under the guidance of Rabbi Yaakov Mendelson of Congregation Bikur Cholim) and Fairfield (with Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin of Congregation Ahavath Achim and Rabbi Yitzchak Elchonen of the kollel), as well as giving public lectures on Jewish topics including law, history, and holidays. They also engage community members of all ages and levels in study sessions.
After working since 2012 with the three area Orthodox synagogues – Congregations Agudas Achim and Bikur Cholim in Bridgeport, and Ahavath Achim in Fairfield – Rubin says, “the kollel is looking to further spread our wings” through expanded community outreach.
“We are looking to find new avenues to share Torah and Jewish experience with the greater Bridgeport community,” he says. “Of course this includes developing lectures that will appeal to every level and every interest, but more so to make ourselves available to the community in the ways that the community needs.”
Programs under discussion include publishing educational pamphlets and developing community-wide events; the kollel has been reaching out to the rabbis and lay leaders of the community for ideas, and solicits input from visitors to its website.
To learn more visit www.bridgeportkollel.com.
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Rabbi Zecharya Rubin
Bridgeport Kollel students with Rabbi Yisroel Pinchos Bodner