Sunday, November 20, 2005

Magnet for young Hasidic Jews

Among the myriad construction projects going on in the Foothills is a 7,000-square-foot boarding school for Orthodox Jewish boys that already is attracting young men from around the world.

Yeshiva High School of Tucson is a project of Rabbi Joseph "Yossie" Shemtov of the Midtown Orthodox Congregation Chabad Lubavitch/Young Israel, and one of his congregation members, David S. Cutler, an accountant who is the school's main benefactor. Two other Chabad members, Shalom and Eric Laytin, also have helped with underwriting costs.

"Yeshiva" means a Jewish academy for the advanced study of Jewish texts. School officials say the Tucson school is the only yeshiva in Arizona. They're hoping it increases the visibility of the local Jewish community and helps fuel growth in Orthodox Judaism, which is practiced by about 8 percent of the country's 5.2 million Jews.

"In Brooklyn, there are yeshivas all over the place," said Shemtov, who sends his own children to yeshivas across the country, typically when they are about 10 years old. "In Israel, they are also all over. This yeshiva is a little different - there's an environmental touch to it that's different from the hubbub of big cities."

The private Tucson yeshiva for ninth- through 11th-graders opened in 2003 and is operating with 25 students at a makeshift location near North Country Club and East Grant roads.

The students are noticeable for their typically Hasidic appearance - fedoras, dark pants and jackets, and tzitzit, fringes connected to a small prayer shawl that often stick out from under their clothes.

And, for the students who can grow them, there are beards they never shave. They are not allowed to wear jeans, and they all follow a kosher diet.

"We're still teenagers. We have fun, though Tucson is not my speed," said Chananya Levy, a 15-year-old 10th-grader from London who plans on joining the Israeli army when he graduates. "It's hard, but discipline is good, I guess."

Each morning, the boys pray by strapping on tefillin - small black boxes containing passages of Scripture with black straps attached to them. A box is placed on the head, and the other is placed on the left arm, near the heart. The boys go to school seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days, graduate from high school in three years, and study Hebrew and Aramaic, an old Semitic language.

Every Friday afternoon since the school opened, students have been going to local nursing homes, visiting Jewish residents with offers of challah bread, flowers, friendship and prayer.

The school is about to get even more visible. At some point in 2006, students and staff will move into a new $1.5 million facility at 3745 E. River Road, near Dodge Boulevard, which will allow for expansion of up to 60 students.

The school has yet to have a student from Tucson, but school officials say they hope that will happen. "The purpose is to grow the Orthodox community in Tucson," said Cutler, who decided to fund the school even after his son opted for a secular education.

Tuition is $12,000 per year, with about 45 percent of that in scholarship money, said Rabbi Chayim Friedman, the principal. Students study Jewish law, history, Scripture and Hasidic philosophy in addition to regular secular subjects.

"We have trips, so it's not that tough," said 16-year-old Reuven Shapiro of San Diego. "Tucson is a little slow, but the school is a nice place."


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