With the opening of a yeshiva not far from the sun-drenched surf of Miami, retirees won’t be the only ones heading south this winter. Joining them will be a handful of young Jewish men who will call the lower latitudes home after Yeshiva Torah Ohr opens its doors in January.

According to officials, the new Chabad-Lubavitch run institution will serve students between the ages of 18 and 27 who may not have benefitted from a formal Jewish education in their youth. The goal is to instill them with the skills necessary to progress in Jewish textual-based studies and religious commitments.

An extension of last year’s highly-popular Miami Torah Experience, a 10-day retreat scheduled to coincide with many universities’ winter breaks, the yeshiva will function under the auspices of Lubavitch of Florida in cooperation with the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, and will combine a challenging academic curriculum with communal immersion and leisure activities.

“The Miami Torah Experience was really a great program,” said Jerome Wilkenson, who attends medical school at the University of Miami. “I really learned a lot there.”

Wilkenson met Rabbi Immanuel Storfer, who directs the Miami Torah Experience and founded the new yeshiva, at another student learning retreat. He said the encounter has fueled his desire to learn more.

For his part, Storfer, a former New York University psychology student who embraced a Torah-observant lifestyle while attending yeshiva, said that he understands the needs of those exploring their heritage.

“I’m very excited about this opportunity to cater to American students in a friendly, warm atmosphere,” said Storfer. “We’re geared toward the beginner, those who want to increase their learning skills. This is what I went through myself, so I want to share my experience with others. Our dedicated staff and one-on-one interaction will help the process.”

The yeshiva will offer courses in the Bible, Talmud, Jewish law, and Chasidic philosophy, and will draw on a staff of instructors and outside lecturers. Rabbi Yisroel Geisinsky, who spent three years teaching at the central Lubavitch yeshiva in Brooklyn, N.Y., will serve as principal.

Classes will take place in the Sephardic Jewish Center of North Miami Beach, and students will live in a nearby dormitory.

“I think it’s important to establish a foundation among young people who are interested in learning more about their Judaism,” said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation. “The staff really knows how to do this work in a most effective way, and the pleasant environment of Florida is an added incentive.

“The welcoming community and ideal location provides an added level of instruction to students,” added Gordon. “We have all of the ingredients needed for a successful program.”

Highlights of last year’s Miami Torah Experience, which gave birth to the new Yeshiva Torah Ohr, included snorkeling excursions alongside intensive text-based study.
Highlights of last year’s Miami Torah Experience, which gave birth to the new Yeshiva Torah Ohr, included snorkeling excursions alongside intensive text-based study.

Strengthening Foundations

Michael Friedman, a Charleston, S.C., university student who is taking a leave of absence to study at the yeshiva, said that he heard about the program from his local Chabad rabbi.

“I want to strengthen my foundation so that I can learn more,” said Friedman. “If I have a better foundation, then I will know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I want a more solid background so that I can move on from here. I’m looking forward to building the tools I need to cultivate myself and share with others.”

Gabriel Witkin, who heard about the Miami program through Rabbi Gil Leeds, director of the Chabad House serving the University of California, Berkeley, will be attending the yeshiva’s adjoining 10-day component.

“I hope that I’ll be able to read Hebrew better and connect with the Jewish community,” said Witkin, who is studying naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University in Seattle, Wash. “I’m excited to learn Torah because I’ve never done it, especially in a group setting.”

Leead Vangruber of Dallas, Texas, who is still finalizing his winter plans, said that he has clear goals for himself.

“I just want to learn more about Torah,” he said. “I’m Jewish and I want to know more about what that means.”