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New Yeshiva Gets a Warm Welcome Despite a Damp, Drizzly Day

January 3, 2008 By:
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A cold, steady rain fell as darkness descended, but the weather didn't dampen many spirits in the considerable crowd that had gathered. More than 120 people had been drawn to the Rhawnhurst section of Philadelphia to mark the birth of a new Jewish institution -- a talmudic yeshiva -- in a corner of the city that has seen its fair share of synagogue closures in recent years.

A Torah was carried -- wrapped in plastic and covered by a chupah -- down the streets to its destination at the school. Men, women and children sang and danced as a clarinetist supplied tunes that seemed to emanate straight from the ancestral towns and villages -- the shtetlach -- of Eastern Europe. About a half-dozen men carried torches, which helped illuminate the way as daylight faded.

Yeshiva Tiferes Avigdor, an Orthodox Talmudic academy for post-high school boys situated at the corner of Langdon Street and Summerdale Avenue, actually opened its doors in September, but at the time, the administrator was reticent to seek publicity or grant interviews.

So, Sunday represented the official welcome by the community as a newly completed Torah scroll was delivered to the yeshiva. The procession started outside the home of Rabbi Dov A. Brisman, a member of Philadelphia's Orthodox rabbinical court, or Beit Din.

Once the participants went inside the building -- located a little less than a mile from Brisman's home -- they grew more boisterous, as men continued to circle with the scroll for half an hour. As they danced, footsteps thundered in the small, crowded room, overpowering the traditional melody that accompanied the celebration.

"Today is a historic day," announced Rabbi Avrohom Novitsky, founder of the Aitz Chaim Synagogue Center of Rhawnhurst, which opened in the exact spot as the yeshiva back in 1965.

By 2001, Novitsky had retired, but the small congregation persevered until roughly three years ago, when it finally closed. For a time, the building housed Ohr Somayach Philadelphia, a Jewish outreach organization geared toward youth, but that closed earlier this year.

Rabbi Yehuda Brog, the Rosh Yeshiva, or head of school, of Tiferes Avigdor, already ran one school in Brooklyn and said that he was looking to start a second, though he hadn't a specific location in mind. Brog -- grandson of Baltimore-born Rabbi Avigdor Miller, after whom the yeshiva is named -- noted that he decided on Northeast Philadelphia only after he learned that the building had become available.

"We started the whole operation in six weeks," he said, adding that the school's 10 to 20 students -- he wouldn't give an exact number -- were recruited from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland.

Brog explained that some students are living in the house attached to the yeshiva building; Novitsky had lived in that home while he led the Aitz Chaim congregation. Brog wouldn't specify where other students lived.

Issue With the City
There's just one problem: Brog had not obtained permission from the city to convert the house into a dormitory facility, according to Bob Solvibile, commissioner of the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

Since 1965, the property has been zoned for use as a synagogue, religious school and rabbi's residence, but not a dorm, according to city records. Another employee in the commissioner's office stated that the city doesn't plan to take any action at this time.

It's not clear whether obtaining the proper zoning would be as simple as filling out an application, or if it entails a hearing.

Brog denied that he'd done anything improper. He said that a house is obviously intended to be lived in, so zoning approval is not needed in order for people to dwell in one.

Miller's son, Rabbi Shmuel Miller, spoke at the Torah dedication ceremony. He normally lectures in Yiddish, but on this day spoke to attendees in English.

At the yeshiva, the students are instructed in a what Brog called "Yinglish," a mixture of Yiddish and English.

Miller called the yeshiva the heart of a community: "The leaders of klal Yisrael will be taught in this Beit Hamidrash."

In addition to his numerous teachings on the Torah and Talmud, the late Miller, who died in 2001 at the age of 92, was also known as a vocal opponent of political Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel. Echoing the teachings of many Eastern European rabbis, Miller argued that secular Zionism represented an attempt to usurp God's authority, and that a true Jewish homeland could only be established after the advent of the Messiah.

"We are not involved in politics at all," said Brog. "It's not a question of whether it is good or not good. He felt that was not the way for redemption to come. But now that there is a state, everybody has to deal with it."

Brog added that his grandfather "stood for one thing -- to serve Hashem. The obligation of every Jew is to serve Hashem."

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