In 1997, an Israel-based rabbi, Yehoshua Kohl, dreamed of returning to his native Southern California and opening a center of learning for all Jews. After obtaining initial funding of about $150,000 from local donors in the Los Angeles area, along with seed money from benefactors in New York and Sao Paulo, Brazil, Kohl realized his dream in the fall of 1999, opening the Valley Kollel. It's been growing ever since. Although the Kollel offices and many of its classes are in donated space at Orthodox shul Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, the Kollel is itself unaffiliated, and courses are taught at private homes throughout the San Fernando Valley and at Cal State Northridge. There are classes somewhere every day except Shabbat -- and even on Shabbat there is a learner's service. The instructors are young and energetic, well-traveled and from a variety of backgrounds, all passionate in their love of teaching Torah. Most amazing of all, however, in this day of ever-soaring tuition and enlightenment-for-the-right-price kabbalah seminars, the Kollel's instruction is totally, completely free of charge.
Kohl said he has always felt strongly that he did not want to charge money for the Kollel, except for special fundraising events.
"The two things should be separate. Wanting to give to charity to benefit the community should be separate from wanting to come and study," Kohl said. "Plus, Maimonides teaches you are not supposed to charge for teaching Torah, because it is the inheritance of every Jew," adding that he hopes Jews in the Los Angeles community will see Jews studying Judaism as "a worthwhile investment."
Kohl, who has run programs for unaffiliated Jews from Dallas, Texas, to Budapest, Hungary, including a stint with Aish HaTorah, said he does not intend to compete with other adult education programs in the L.A. area. Instead, he hopes to attract learners who are searching for a no-pressure environment for study. "It's different from classes like those at Aish in the sense that I found Aish more involved with getting people committed to [becoming more observant]," Kohl explained. "We wanted to focus on people studying and knowing enough to make their own decisions. I wanted to build a place for people to study on an intellectual level."
Why the Valley?
"There was no one teaching adults full time here," he said. "I grew up in Santa Barbara, went to Camp Ramah every summer, and so I felt I had a sense of the Los Angeles Jewish community, in particular the Valley."
Kohl is proud that "from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., there's always something going on here." The Kollel offers a wide array of classes from sophisticated study of Talmud to beginners' seminars such as "Judaism 101." There is also a program of individual study in which students are paired up one-to-one or in small groups with one of the Kollel rabbis. Class times are designed to fit around the schedules of both nine-to-fivers and stay-at-home parents. The monthly calendar of courses is posted on the Kollel's Web site (www.valleykollel.org), but not all classes are listed and many are for men or women only; it might be best to consult with Kohl, at least initially.
My first visit to a Kollel class was somewhat disappointing -- more basic than I expected. The next, which I attended on and off for several months, was far more satisfying.
An intensive study of the Pirkei Avot ("Ethics of the Fathers"), the sessions were held in the beautiful Calabasas home of one of the students. The teacher, Ariella Adatto, though young, was very knowledgeable and pushed us to think beyond the few lines of text we studied each week, asking us to connect it not only to our knowledge of Torah but to our knowledge of humanity. I had never studied Jewish texts with other women and found it refreshing to hear their insights and their connection with the readings. Adatto's style is gentle but determined, and I came away from each meeting feeling more connected to my faith and other Jews than I remember feeling in a very long time.
It is this kind of connection with Torah-based living that Adatto and the other Kollel teachers seek to foster in their students.
"It's like chocolate cake. If you had a friend who had never had it, you'd want them to taste it and enjoy it," Adatto said. "It's something I find so meaningful and deep. I can't imagine how people live without it."
Adatto, 26, grew up in Los Angeles, moving across the spectrum of observance from Conservative to Orthodox Judaism by the time she was in high school. Like many observant teenagers she graduated from Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA) and headed for a year's study in Israel at a women's yeshiva. She returned to the U.S. and to her deferred admission to Harvard University, where she graduated with a degree in Russian history. A friend fixed her up with another YULA graduate, Rabbi Moshe Adatto; the pair now have three children under the age of 5. Both teach a variety of classes through the Kollel, where Ariella is currently co-coordinator of women's programming.
Adatto admits it is not always easy, balancing the life of a scholar, teacher and parent.
"For me, one of the advantages of teaching is I have to continue my own learning," she said. "It's a juggling act -- how many phone calls can I make while the kids are playing, how many pages can I read before the baby wakes up."
She hopes by her example, other busy women will see that it is possible to make regular Torah study a part of their lives.
"People want meaning in their lives. What we're dealing with [at the Kollel] is how to offer something for everyone. ... We help people see the all-encompassing picture," Adatto said.
"It's possible to have a perfectly fine life without Judaism," she continued. "It's like my computer, which came with a 400-page manual. I can use the computer to do word processing perfectly well without reading the manual. It does what I need it to do, but I know I'm not using it to its full potential. Without reading the manual, I'm not maximizing the computer. Without Torah, we are not maximizing ourselves."
The Kollel's Judaism 101 course will run for five Tuesdays at 8:15 p.m. beginning Feb. 6 at the West Valley JCC, 22622 Vanowen St. in West Hills. For more information on these and other classes, call (818) 760-3245.
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