At the start of the school year, Yakir Havin sat down with Rabbi Uri Perlman, founder and director of the “Wilkes-Barre” yeshiva, to discuss what makes that yeshiva unique and what is the secret to reaching our teens.
By Yakir Havin
It’s a name whose pronunciation catches the tongues of even the most proficient linguist. To some, it’s the name of a town in Eastern Pennsylvania. To others, it’s the home of Wilkes University.
And to even still others — to about a thousand precious former and current students — it’s a place they call home.
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Wilkes-Barre, or simply “Wilkes”, is the common nickname for what is officially called Bais Menachem Youth Development Program, a Chabad yeshivah started by Rabbi Uri Perlman 23 years ago on 7 Cheshvan, 5760 (1999).
In the last four years, the yeshivah has undergone much change, most significantly with its move from the town of its name to a large campus in the Pocono Mountains. In this interview, I, a former shliach of the yeshivah, sat down with Uri (as he is known to staff and students alike) to discuss and dispel some of the misconceptions held by many about Wilkes, to explore what the yeshivah is really all about, and to learn why it had seen such immense success over its relatively short history.
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YH: What motivated you to establish Wilkes-Barre?
UP: I had just returned from shlichus in Yeshivah College, Melbourne, as well as the London yeshivah and the RAP in Jerusalem, and I noticed a growing number of bochurim drifting through their yeshivah years, many leaving their yeshivahs with nowhere to go. These were the students who didn’t feel as though they belonged in their previous yeshivahs, or even in the community in general. I sensed an attitude where these young men were sometimes treated as outcasts, simply because they didn’t “fit the system”. Their struggles were not novel to me; I had had many similar experiences of my own as a teenager, and had also dealt with countless such students during my years of shlichus.
What I knew with certainty was that if you treated someone like a real person — with feelings, a mind of their own, hopes and dreams — they would respond in kind by developing into someone who is fully engaged, and I was determined to give these young men that chance. Wilkes-Barre was the yeshivah I envisioned to solve this widespread phenomenon, and that was where it all began.
Who is the ideal Wilkes-Barre student? What kind of person is most likely to succeed there?
The character trait that will most underpin a student’s success at Wilkes-Barre is his willingness to listen. Not in the instructive sense of the word, but rather listening to thoughts, to knowledge and information, and to the calls of his own mind and heart. If a bochur is open to receiving guidance and wisdom about better ways to live, if he is receptive to proven methods of self-improvement, to taking in and really absorbing what is offered, then he will succeed here. It doesn’t matter where he’s holding religiously, what he currently does and doesn’t do. Our recent move to the Poconos has aided in this pursuit, giving students the space and nature for self-reflection and introspection, with the added aim of increasing their peace of mind.
Is everyone who applies to Wilkes-Barre accepted?
As of now, we have space for about 50 students and 12 shluchim, with room for flexibility depending on staffing and other resources, so that’s one limitation on acceptance. More specifically, however, we are careful to only grant places to students whom we believe suit the style of the program and will simultaneously benefit from it and cohere with the bochurim and the vision of the yeshivah.
What kind of rules and structures are in place at Wilkes?
I know we are notorious for our dress code — or lack thereof — and because of that, some people believe Wilkes has no rules. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Wilkes has a proper daily structure of learning, classes, and activities. Wake-up and sleep time are monitored by a dorm counselor, and repeated missteps are followed up; sleeping away one’s year is not an option. Additionally, our students have to hand in their phones, tablets, and laptops for most of the week. We have behavioral rules like respecting others, prohibition of any fighting or violence, and we do not allow use of drugs.
The reason we don’t set a dress code is that we believe that allowing students to express themselves breaks down potential antagonism between them and staff, which plays into our philosophy of promoting real growth and focus on improving oneself. In a practical sense, a dress code is not the area that we believe needs attention, especially considering that the stifling of one’s individuality is one of the main complaints that bochurim have about yeshivahs in general, and something which often turns them off in the first place. And inherently, we do not give dress codes much primacy. When a nice look replaces truly important issues like participating in class, learning properly, and treating others well, it is a case of yatza s’charo b’hefseido (the gain is offset by the loss).
Can you elaborate more on that philosophy?
Ultimately, our objective is to help people become who they are meant to be, or who they already are internally. To be comfortable with themselves, so that they can begin to face the challenges and obstacles of life, whether internal or external, rather than running from them. Those aims underpin everything we do at Wilkes. Because of that, we remove what we believe to be unnecessary controls that might encroach on a student’s personality.
We want to encourage creativity and expression, and to teach bochurim to let go of unhealthy self-defense mechanisms that they may employ. We want bochurim to come out of Wilkes with a sense of accountability and responsibility for their actions, the ability to weigh up and make complex decisions, and to have a healthy level of independence and empowerment. To give bochurim these life skills, we aim to deal with the entire student, meaning their history, their struggles, their family situation, or whatever else is going on, or has gone on, in their lives.
How does this philosophy inform the classes and activities available?
For starters, we have a proper seder of learning. Everyone learns Chassidus in the morning. Attendance is amazing. Chassidus is taught as it would be by a Chabad House shliach. We help bochurim recognize how relevant, interesting, and personal Chassidus truly is.
After Shacharis and breakfast, students pick three classes that run for 50 minutes each, including day-to-day interpersonal Halacha and business law; Judaism in the heart and mind (from Chovos HaLevavos to Tanya, fundamentals of belief in Hashem, ourselves, and our inner drives); Smicha is an option for more advanced students; Gemara (with the goal to gain learning skills and a sense of achievement through covering ground); and Chumash/Tanach with midrashim. Seder is critical to our objective. And learning — which perhaps covers fewer hours of the day than other institutions — emphasizes quality and meaningfulness that bochurim can appreciate and relate to.
In the afternoons, we offer a lot more flexibility with what students can do and learn, but once again everything is grounded in our overarching aims and goals. Many bochurim pick from GED studies, computer programming, construction/renovation, car mechanics, or Smicha. We also offer music, video, and photography studies on a more individual basis. And really, we are open to anything productive. We’ve had students get their pilot license, start up an ECommerce business, design jewelry or clothing, involve themselves in fine art, and even candle making!
I should note that these individualized options are subject to approval and regular supervision, but the point is that if they promote growth and learning, and if the student is serious about it and has good intentions, we welcome it. Taking ownership for one’s own time and studies is a key step in personal development.
Are there extracurricular activities available as well?
The main time for extracurricular activities is during breaks during the day, or on Friday afternoons, however some students can conduct these activities during their afternoon sessions. There is a vast range: sports, gym, art, photography, music, paintball, hiking, archery, woodworking, and the list goes on.
Sometimes a group of students will take on extracurricular projects of their own, such as renovating an old school bus into a lounge. Another group got involved in outdoor activities like building a waterfall/pond, a fire pit, an eruv, and more. And on a larger scale, we are constructing a new building for serious vocational training like woodworking, plumbing, electricity, and welding.
We also have regular Shabbatons, exciting trips awarded for participation- and merit-based achievements, yearly road trips, and of course many kumzitzes around the fire. We welcome parents as guests for Shabbos in our guest wing.
And down the line, we are seeking sponsors in order to open a car garage for learning mechanics, to build a seasonal ice skating rink, a ropes course, a horse enclosure, and more. These extracurricular activities allow each of our students to feel that this is his home: a place where he can truly be and shine.
Would you describe Wilkes-Barre as a therapeutic school, a vocational school, a high school, or perhaps none of these?
None of the above. We are not professional addiction counselors, and nor are we a substance abuse rehabilitation center. With our collective experience of over 55 years working with bochurim, we certainly offer a lot of support to students, regardless of what someone is struggling with. We have had plenty of experience diagnosing problems and struggles, and helping students receive the help that they need to heal. In scenarios where therapists or trained professionals are required, we help facilitate that. To say that that is our identity, however, would be incorrect.
Regarding our vocational training, that is not an end in itself but rather a means for student growth. The objective is not to come to Wilkes to get certified as an electrician or mechanic. We are not a high school, but again we offer GED studies. Every single offering we have is a stepping stone to overcoming negatives and introducing positives, to getting students in touch with themselves, their dreams, and their potential. So, as mentioned, we are none of those types of schools. We are a yeshivah with a specific belief system that guides everything we do.
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That was everything I had planned to ask Uri, but as we were about to end the conversation, he added these closing remarks:
At Wilkes, any student can succeed, regardless of where they are in Yiddishkeit, or academically, socially, or emotionally. The only requirement is a positive attitude and a willingness to learn and grow. Our alumni are not only community rabbis and shluchim; they are also professionals and businesspeople. They are upstanding members of society. But most importantly, the ones who succeeded at our yeshivah are people who now have a healthy sense of self-confidence, a deep knowledge of themselves and their emotions, and an ability to make decisions in order navigate the triumphs and turmoils that life will inevitably present.
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