Ezra Rosen, 23, went to Miami last winter to study at a brand-new yeshiva for 10 days. With his boss’ and parents’ blessing, he left New Jersey at the end of December with a round trip ticket.

He’s still there.

After studying for 10 days at Yeshiva Torah Ohr, a Chabad-Lubavitch run institution in North Miami Beach that caters to young men who never had a chance to study classic Jewish texts, Rosen realized he wasn’t ready to go home. Instead of returning after his week off work with, as he says, a “little bit of Torah,” he decided to stay and acquire much more.

He’s spent the last several months learning with a group of diverse individuals with similar ambitions for Jewish growth. Rosen had previously studied in different Jewish environments, gone to college and worked in commercial mortgaging. This time around, he was teaching himself to translate Hebrew and diving headfirst into the text.

The yeshiva is led by a man who himself comes from a non-observant upbringing and started studying Torah relatively late in life.

Rabbi Immanuel Storfer, 30, went to New York University and studied psychology before deciding to make Torah study a larger part of his life. He first met a Lubavitcher on a mobile “Mitzvah Tank,” around Chanukah time in 1998, he recalls, when he was stopped on the street and asked to take a menorah to light.

“I wasn’t so interested at first,” says Storfer. “I was a typical NYU student walking around Manhattan and a guy started speaking a lot about Judaism, a lot about the Rebbe,” Rabbi Menachem M .Schneerson, of righteous memory.

“Eventually I took the menorah,” he continues, “and eventually, I did light the menorah.”

From his freshman year on, Storfer’s desire grew.

Rabbi Immanuel Storfer directs Yeshiva Torah Ohr.
Rabbi Immanuel Storfer directs Yeshiva Torah Ohr.

A Chabad rabbi giving classes at NYU encouraged Storfer to come to events and eventually visit the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, home to Lubavitch World Headquarters and a large neighborhood of Chasidim. Storfer’s interest in Judaism deepened, and he became inspired to explore what was behind all the traditions he witnessed.

The religious way of life – from Sabbath celebrations to daily synagogue services, donning the prayer boxes known as tefillin, and keeping kosher – spoke to him, explains Storfer, adding that he felt there was a spiritual connection he was missing. He began making friends with members of the Lubavitch community and exploring the Rebbe’s teachings.

The now rabbi is known by some for his 1 a.m. walk from Teaneck to the central Lubavitch synagogue in Crown Heights to spend Passover there. It was 2000, long before Storfer knew his current students, and he wanted to join the morning service 23 miles away. He arrived at 9:45, just in time for the 10:00 prayers.

He transferred out of NYU after his sophomore year, and after attending the Mayanot Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and receiving his ordination from the central Lubavitch yeshiva in New York, Storfer dedicated his efforts to teaching others.

“I was really inspired by what I studied of the Rebbe’s genuine devotion at making this world ready for the coming Redemption by increasing in acts of goodness and kindness, and particularly through learning about the imminent Redemption,” says Storfer. “Back in college, after studying some of the Rebbe’s final talks in the early 1990s and watching videos of these gatherings, I decided then that my goal was to be an emissary to help make the Rebbe’s vision a reality.”

Early this year, Storfer moved to Florida with his wife Rochie and their two children to open the yeshiva, basing the project on the Miami Torah Experience he ran for two winters under the direction of Lubavitch of Florida and in conjunction with the Chabad on Campus International Foundation.

Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, helps a student don the prayer boxes known as tefillin.
Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, helps a student don the prayer boxes known as tefillin.

Storfer still directs the Miami Torah Experience, a retreat program students can attend for a week or two to immerse themselves in text-based study and recreational activities.

“I loved it so much, the chance to study,” Storfer says of what motivated him to teach. “I thought I would try to share it with similar students who grew up in my shoes and background, to show them the beauty of Torah.”

Students appreciate the connection.

“You can ask any question and he’s open to it,” says Rosen, adding that he appreciates Storfer’s ability to break down complicated concepts using analogies and simple perspectives. “So it makes it easier.”

The current group, which includes a Los Angeles film student, a prospective lawyer, and a University of California, Berkeley student, studies for 14 hours each day and spends some of their remaining time getting others involved.

Looking back on the journey that has brought him to Miami, Storfer says his parents were caught off guard at first, but that they are proud of his and his family’s work in Florida.

“Many people, especially in the last generation or two, never had the chance to do what Jews have been doing for thousands of years,” he says. “And it’s never too late.”

Levi Stewart, 23, an Emory University graduate, first met Storfer early this year thanks to Rabbi Mendel Rosenfeld in Aventura, Fla., who introduced the two of them while Stewart was working at Merrill Lynch. When he was let go from his job a short time later, he started studying in the morning and looking for work in the afternoons. What started as just mornings turned into staying the whole day, and six months ago he moved into the dorm.

“I realized it was what I really wanted to do,” says Stewart. “It’s an amazing opportunity for growth.”

He appreciates the personalized attention and Storfer’s passion, energy and commitment to truth.

“He really cares,” explains Stewart, who plans to stay on this trajectory for the next six months, further developing his skill sets and enhancing his spiritual growth. “Both physically and spiritually, he really looks after his students.

“It’s the best thing that could have happened to me.”