At first glance, there was no telling which of the students in the study hall of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J. were newcomers. All the men in the room sat in pairs, known as chavrusas, deep in their studies, reading from religious texts. For Jews, there is no language barrier; everyone understands, or does their best to comprehend, the Hebrew language.
Only later, with the guidance of Rabbi Baruch Hecht, director of admissions for the college’s Yeshiva Tiferes Bachurim, were their identities revealed. When they spoke, many of them still had a hard time speaking in English; the majority in the room this particular day did, after all, come from South America, mainly from Brazil and Argentina.
In his many years serving as dean of the North Jersey institution, Rabbi Moshe Herson has seen quite a few international students come and go, but never before has such a large group graced the hilltop campus. Out of 100 South American students who traveled north this winter in a special program to give them a yeshiva experience, 51 of them – all male – descended upon Morristown. The 49 girls likewise went to the Machon Chana seminary in Crown Heights, New York.
Interestingly enough, most of the students who joined the month-long program at Tiferes Bachurim, which was established in 1972 to serve a population that did not grow up religious, were older than their American counterparts. With a few in their mid-30s, some of the participants had careers and a family back home. What united them, though, was their common passion to study Judaism and the Torah.
In fact, even though some of them could easily transfer course credits to colleges in South America, Herson pointed out that the issue had yet to be raised.
“They come here to study. They recognize that they have a chiuv to take part in Jewish chinuch,” said Herson, using the Hebrew words for obligation and education.
For their part, the visitors agreed with Herson’s observation.
“I always wanted to be a part of a yeshiva,” revealed Shlomo Wagner, 24, a recent graduate from a university in Argentina who heard of the opportunity to come to the rabbinical college from his rabbi, himself a former Morristown student. “I want to learn more about Judaism, to have a full yeshiva experience: stay, sleep and eat here, to be here all day. I’m getting [the experience] I wanted.”
Like Wagner, 30-year-old Abraham Frayer came to the yeshiva on the advice of a friend.
“My Rabbi, Shlomo Levi, told me to come here. He said it’s a good place to study,” said Frayer, pausing to slowly translate his Spanish thoughts to English words.
The only drawback, admitted some, was the small-town nature of Morristown, a wooded burb with a population of slightly more than 18,000. Hailing from the big city of Buenos Aires in Argentina, for instance, Frayer didn’t find the New Jersey town all to be all that exciting.
“A simple place,” Frayer termed the locale. Motioning a stop gesture with his hand, he continued: “In Buenos Aires, drivers don’t break. They don’t look.”
The yeshiva staff and faculty, though, have not wasted the chance to spoil the group as much as possible before their departure in two weeks. The students have taken part in trips to Manhattan, Niagara Falls and Washington, D.C., and have gone on local ice skating and shopping outings. In addition, through an agreement with the nearby Whippany, N.J. Jewish Community Center, students have been able to enjoy its gym and the basketball court on a nightly basis.
When they’re not traveling or enjoying time off, the South Americans participate in a rigorous five-day-a-week study schedule, featuring classes in their native Spanish or Portuguese. And despite their scheduled return flights, some, like Wagner, have already expressed an interest in staying on a bit longer.
Anything to make learning a pleasant task, said Herson. Regarding the students, he stated happily: “They are our treasure.”