NEW HAVEN >> Rabbi Yosef Kalmenson, the revered dean at Yeshivas Beis Dovid Shlomo, said the rabbinic school was given “a unique blessing” when it opened 45 years ago.
The late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as “the Rebbe” and spiritual leader of Chabad-Lubavitch Jews, said of the new school “that we should always be tight and be growing,” said Kalmenson, a Talmudic scholar and author of 22 books on the subject.
The yeshiva has indeed become “tight” in its quarters at 292 Norton St., as its grown to become a leading Chabad institution, with 140 students (60 during the summer) who come from across the United States and beyond to be trained in the Talmud, the Jewish law and teachings that have been handed down for centuries. Most will go on to become rabbis themselves.
The yeshiva also serves as a community center for the estimated 70 Orthodox families in the Beaver Hills neighborhood who participate in Sunday school, after-school programs, classes and activities that bring the residents together.
In September, however, there will be much more space available for the students, teachers, mentors and community members as the yeshiva moves to the Whalley Avenue campus of the former St. Brendan Roman Catholic Church, which it recently purchased for $1.525 million.
“We are busting at our seams here,” said Rabbi Yosef Lustig, principal of the yeshiva. “This will allow us to expand.”
“There’s a flourishing community here in Beaver Hills that’s growing,” Lustig said. “We’re getting, every year, five to 10 new families joining us. The yeshiva and community are intertwined … and we support each other.” While attending the school, students are housed with neighborhood families.
The yeshiva, named after its founder, Dovid Shlomo, is academically rigorous. But that is only part of the preparation for the young men, ages 15 to 20. “In addition to the full course of Talmud that we teach here, we impart a sense of giving and responsibility,” Lustig said.
While extracurricular activities during the week are offered to their Hasidic neighbors, “on Friday and on holidays we reach out to the whole of New Haven and beyond,” going as far as Stamford and Hartford, Lustig said.
“When we go to nursing homes, to old-age homes, we do our best with everybody,” Lustig said. “We visit all residents and try to bring the light and spirit to everybody.
“Something that we try very hard and thank God are very successful at: All our boys are very happy here, they’re very content,” Lustig said.
In the Chabad movement, “there’s this sense of responsibility and this sense of caring and giving to others is central,” he said.
The most well-known event held by the yeshiva is the annual menorah lighting on the Green on the first night of Hanukkah. After that, said Mendel Deitsch, a director of the school, “one of the celebrations is to put the menorah on the car, basically to publicize the miracle that happened. So a popular practice is to tie a menorah to the car and drive around.”
According to Basya Deitsch, director of development, “a lot of light dispels darkness and we’re all lamp-lighters. … That’s ultimately our message to ourselves, to our children and to our families.”
Mendel Schaeffer, 17, of Monsey, New York, is in his third year at the yeshiva. “I came here to learn leadership skills that we teach here,” he said, “to learn how outreach and programs that we do both within the community and outside in the greater community in Connecticut as well, [bring] Jews closer to their heritage and all people closer to a divine message of goodness and kindness, and those skills will take me very far in life, wherever that takes me.”
Mendel Nemes, 16, of New Orleans, said it took some time to get used to being far from home, “but then I got right into it and I enjoy it.”
“The learning’s very good and also there’s a very big focus on helping others,” Nemes said. “We help other Jews with mitzvahs. There’s a big focus here on learning and doing good deeds.”
Mendel Mintz of Brooklyn, New York, is a mentor to the younger students. “We have a twofold role,” he said. “On one hand we work with the students who have difficulty learning on their own, and then we also arrange extracurricular activities and outreach in order to change the world for the better.
“It’s so nice to see how each and every one has their mission in addition to their own studying … They all have their passion to have an effect on the entire world and to spread goodness and compassion,” Mintz said.
“We don’t teach them that they exist,” Basya Deitsch said. “We teach them that there’s life, the sanctity of life, having an impact on the world. Wherever they are they will take these skills and the passion that they are given here.”
The yeshiva’s plans for the new campus will be to refurbish the school and use the church as a synagogue. The rectory will be used for offices and to house guest lecturers and the convent will be used as a dormitory.
“It’s a magnificent building,” said Mendel Deitsch. “The whole campus was really built to the highest standards … It will be filled with sounds of happiness and joy and community celebrations.”
This story has been corrected to state that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was spiritual leader of Chabad-Lubavitch Jews. Call Ed Stannard at 203-680-9382.