BILL O’BOYLE – Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — A religious youth program for young Jewish men with a strong international flair has been quietly operating in a downtown residential neighborhood for 15 years.
Bais Menachem at 150 S. Franklin St., as founder Rabbi Uri Perlman described it, is “a very unique Jewish institution.”
It’s a youth program, a “yeshiva,” or Jewish religious school.
Some 34 students, ranging in age from 16 to 20, from all over the world attend this youth-development school — from Australia to Philadelphia. They come here because of the program’s approach that stresses individualized learning with a strong emphasis on creativity and the Jewish faith.
Perlman said there have been students from Northeastern Pennsylvania over the years, but none are enrolled now.
“We have created a home for the disenfranchised — those slipping through the cracks of yeshiva, which can be a rigorous and demanding process,” Perlman said.
Clarity is a word used over and over by Perlman and students at the school who said they arrived at Bais Menachem in various stages of uncertainty with their education, their faith and their lives. They say they have found clarity at Bais Menachem.
About 20 percent of the students go on to rabbinical school, 20 percent go to college and 40 percent enter the workforce. Others, Perlman said, enter military service.
Founded in 1999
Perlman, who founded Bais Menachem in 1999, said he and the other rabbis have made it their mission to help those young men who have found it difficult to succeed in the traditional yeshiva setting.
Perlman said the focus is on each student’s needs, catering to individual specific interests and abilities.
“We believe that is the key to our effectiveness,” he said.
Classes are generally five students or less and are structured so lessons are interesting, relevant and personal.
When you walk into a classroom, students can be observed doing their own individual studying — sometimes speaking out loud in English and/or Hebrew or Yiddish. A rabbi is present to answer questions and to guide students when needed.
Recreation time is allotted daily to allow the students time to unwind.
Trips and outings are scheduled several times a month as rewards for achievement and effort. And community volunteer work is integrated into the program and should a student require professional counseling, it is readily available.
Perlman said that, each year, some students leave Bais Menachem to continue their studies in traditional yeshivas, while others move on to other institutes of higher learning. Many have enrolled in vocational training programs or have entered the workforce as self-sufficient young men, with bright futures ahead of them. Still others return for a second or third year.
Perlman founded Bais Menachem on his 23rd birthday in 1999. His parents, Rabbi Zvi and Sarah Perlman, helped him establish the program. The first location was a house on South River Street with a few kids and volunteers.
“We wanted to create a place where students wouldn’t have to leave ideals behind,” Perlman said.
He said students have more time for artistic, creative, recreational and vocational training, They also do volunteering and apprenticeships.
“These aren’t cookie-cutter academic students,” he said. “They can still grow and not become rebels or misfits. They are not juvenile delinquents — they all come here willingly.”
Students at Bais Menachem reside in one of two locations — Wilkes-Barre or Dallas — that are divided by age group: those closer to 16 stay in Dallas and those closer to 20 are in Wilkes-Barre. Students study at the Wilkes-Barre site, but are based in one location or the other.
Perlman said older students sometimes mentor younger participants. It’s a process, he says, that brings out the best in both. Recruitment is word of mouth, but most come to the school because of its solid reputation.
Perlman said the school adheres to Chabad, also known as Habad or Lubavitch or Chabad-Lubavitch — a philosophy within Hassidic Judaism.
“We teach our students to serve God with everything you have — all your skills and abilities — and to leave nothing behind,” he said. “And we teach them that they can still sing, or play basketball, or whatever.”
Outcomes are not measured by grades, and students are not pushed in any direction.
“We allow them to find their own path,” Perlman said. “We take them from confusion to success with confidence. We let them find their talents and interests. They learn God can be discovered within everything.”
It costs about $14,000 per school year to participate in the 10-month program that runs from August to June in a block that also is home to a YMCA, law offices and large homes. Some costs are subsidized with private donations and grants.
Bais Menachem also receives donations of goods and services, such as books, computers, musical and sports equipment, vehicles and recreational equipment.
“We are here only because of the generosity of the local community,” Perlman said.
Student share rooms in dormitory style living and meals are provided. They have free time to come and go, but must abide by the 11 p.m. curfew.
Students volunteer in the community. They tutor Jewish children, help at Bar Mitzvahs, perform at holiday events for senior citizens and visit hospitals.
Perlman receives a lot of feedback from parents and he and his staff work closely with them to assure a student’s needs are met.
Attorney David Schwager of Wilkes-Barre said Bais Menachem has brought worldwide attention to Wilkes-Barre. He said the program is a “special needs yeshiva” that works for students who struggled in more traditional Jewish educational systems.
“Bais Menachem is a feather in our Jewish community’s cap and also for the greater Wyoming Valley to have this school,” Schwager said. “The program provides students with the oppoortunity to learn in a differnt type of setting.”
Perets Yishai Benhiyoun, 18, of Chicago, enrolled in Bais Menachem 16 months ago. He plans to enter rabbinical school.
Benhiyoun said he was attending a Jewish private school in Chicago where he “went through a rough time.” He decided to go to a school in South Africa, where he had a good experience, but the school closed last year.
He said he heard about great opportunities at Bais Menachem.
“This program is unique; it’s amazing,” he said. “Each person here has a story and they are pursuing an education catered to them.”
Benhiyoun said there are “34 different guys” at the school.
“Each one gets an education they way they need it — the way they can learn best,” he said. “And they learn how to live; to take responsibility.”
Coming to Wilkes-Barre was an adjustment for Benhiyoun, having been used to big city surroundings in Chicago.
“Here is quiet,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons we’re able to do well. There are less distractions. The river is nice, too. It’s been a nice change.”
Since he’s been at Bais Menachem, Benhiyoun said his knowledge of Judaism has increased dramatically.
“I’ve gotten clarity,” he said. “There are some very religious guys here and some not so religious. But we are like a family and we are supportive of one another.”
Benhiyoun has developed friendships and shared personal experiences.
“The guys are not judgmental,” he said. “It’s very inspiring. It makes you work more on improving yourself.”
Zalmon Yanover, 22, grew up in South Africa. He attended Bais Menachem when he was 17, then went to rabbinical college in New Jersey and came back to serve as a counselor. He said the program in Wilkes-Barre differs from mainstream education.
“Most schools take students and bunch them together, apply a formula and hope it works,” Yanover said. “Here is an alternative style, a holistic approach that leaves room for development.”
Yanover said even Jewish mainstream education facilities, although not bad places, use a mold.
“There is no mold used here,” he said. Here we stress creativity and personal growth. It worked for me. I’m a big brother now — ‘dugma chaya’ — a living example or role model.”
Yanover said a lot of the students have been through similar circumstances. He said he is one who now has the ability to give back.
“I grew up here at this place,” he said. “We have a group of teenagers who are growing and seeking self-esteem. I’m still growing, but like many others, I am much wiser. I now have more clarity. I know who I am.”
Yanover plays guitar and piano and writes music. He likes Wilkes-Barre and its small-town atmosphere.
Moshe Fehler, 18, is from London and is in his second year at Bais Menachem. He is studying religious philosophy and creative arts. He designed the back of the shirt he was wearing.
“I was in school I didn’t like,” he said. “It didn’t click for me.”
Fehler went to New York City and then to Pittsburgh. He said he left home at 15, but would return every couple of months.
“Hassidic schools can be restricting, but not here,” he said. “It’s a different approach, more creative. And the program works because it is very, very focused on individual students and their needs.”
Fehler said students are given the space and the time to grow.
“I thought I was happy in England, too, always partying,” he said. “That wasn’t what I wanted. I would go to bed every night wondering if there was more to life.”
Fehler said he has discovered there is far more to life than partying. He said he now has a sense of direction.
“I’m self-confident — much improved,” he said. “I was very close-minded for a long time, I’ve now opened up. I’m seeing a different way to get out of the box.
“I’ve become a better person and a better Jew.”