Leave it to Cleveland developer Bob Stark.
This time not to develop innovative shopping centers, but to create a concept for a kollel (center of Torah learning) that is likewise innovative and engaging.
Eleven years after Stark pioneered the Cleveland kollel, its core concept has been emulated by 25 major Jewish centers of learning around the world. They are collectively known as the Torah MiTzion Kollel.
An ardent Zionist, Stark recognized the need for students at Fuchs Mizrachi School to be exposed to young Jewish role models who are committed to Jewish learning and practice, value a secular education integrated with religious education, and are able to teach Torah through the prism of the Jewish homeland. Adult men and women would likewise benefit.
Stark was mindful of a key phrase found in the Torah, “Ki mitzion tay-tzay Torah,” “From out of Zion will come forth Torah.”
“I wanted to bring Israeli scholars to Cleveland who are living Torah a different way than those of us in exile,” he says. “Theirs is the Torah of redemption and as such has a different flavor.”
Stark’s vision was realized through former Clevelander Yehuda Rothner, who had made aliyah several years before and was connected with Hesder Yeshivot. In these yeshivot, students combine advanced Jewish study with military service in the Israeli army.
Graduates of the yeshivot were the ideal role models Stark was seeking. Within a year, four yeshiva scholars and their wives came to Cleveland along with a Rosh Kollel (head of the kollel), Rabbi Binyamin Tabory. This group formed the framework for Stark’s Torat Tzion Kollel.
These early “pioneering” scholars were immediately integrated into the Fuchs Mizrachi School and the modern Orthodox community. The concept of bringing Torah scholars from Israel to teach at a kollel and interact with students at Jewish day schools is the basis for all the Torah MiTzion Kollels. They are modeled after Stark’s initial Torat Tzion Kollel.
“I view each kollel as a think tank,” says Dr. Harold Frolich, former Torat Tzion Kollel president. “Like a political think tank, our kollel is a learning/religious think tank with Torah as the subject of our inquiry. From this type of study, you can spread wisdom, knowledge and Torah interpretation.”
With the burgeoning number of Torah MiTzion Kollels, Cleveland now finds itself in a unique position. “We are competing with our own success,” says Marla Comet Stark, Bob’s wife. “But the Cleveland kollel has maintained the reputation as the Mother Ship; we set a very high bar with regard to standards of learning.”
Robert Aeder, 17, a senior at Fuchs Mizrachi, says the four bachurim (young men) in their 20s from yeshivot who are currently here for a year as part of the Cleveland kollel have had a profound impact on his life, both academically and personally.
“They are great role models and mentor me in my Judaic studies,” he says. “Next year when I go to Israel to study, I expect our friendship to continue; they are like my extended family.”
The Israeli scholars involved in the program have had a win-win experience as well. “When these young men return to Israel, they are better teachers and have a positive influence on Israeli society,” says Marla Stark. “Their English is improved, and they have a much broader perspective of American and world Jewry.”
All 25 kollels are privately funded by their individual communities, with organizational support from the International Torah MiTzion organization. Typically, the young scholars eat their meals with families in the community, forging strong friendships in the process. On Shabbat and holidays, families vie for the pleasure of their company. Much of the furniture and other essentials provided to them, along with housing, is donated by community members.
In Cleveland, these men and the married couples use their many talents n musical, dramatic, artistic and computer skills n with B’nai Akiva, NCSY youth groups, and Israeli Clubs in public schools, explains Marla Stark. “We encourage their community involvement; they have so much to share.”
On Dec. 9-10 the International Torah MiTzion Tenth Anniversary Celebration will be held in Cleveland, hosted by Torat Tzion Kollel. The event is the Torat Tzion Kollel Alan B. Soclof Shabbaton, and the theme is “Bridging the Gap Between Heaven & Earth.” Representatives from various North American kollels will be present. For information call 216-397-0381.