Rabbi Aaron Kotler, son of HaRav Shneur Kotler, zt”l, and grandson of HaRav Aaron Kotler, zt”l, has served since 1996 as president/menahel of Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG) in Lakewood. In that role he has helped oversee the restructuring of the yeshiva and a four-fold increase in enrollment.
Prior to BMG he was on the faculty of Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem and involved with other outreach organizations.
He serves on various boards, including Monmouth Medical Center, the Association of Advanced Rabbinic and Talmudic Schools (AARTS), and the New Jersey Presidents’ Council, which represents the state’s public, private, and community colleges and universities. He and his wife, Dina, have seven children and six grandchildren.
The Jewish Press: How has BMG grown since you became president/menahel 18 years ago?
Rabbi Kotler: We baruch Hashem grew from 1,700 to 6,800, emerging as a gathering place for the most serious talmidei chachamim. BMG talmidim study the full spectrum of mesechtos, many not studied in depth elsewhere, learning in 285 distinct chaburos or study groups, with each chaburah having its own personality and methodology. This is attractive to advanced talmidei chachamim, allowing unusual specialization and “cross fertilization” of knowledge between chaburos, under one global umbrella.
BMG’s talmidim broke new ground in the historical development of learning. If you walk into our 16 batei medrash, our study halls, you might stop to chat with the world’s leading posek in Z’manim, or those with deep knowledge in Eiruvin, Ribbis, Shabbos, or Avodah Zarah. You might encounter someone writing the definitive commentary on Yerushalmi or Mishnas Sheviis; close by you may find an ArtScroll author, or one editing a rare medieval sefer, familiar only to cognoscenti. Around these lead scholars are thousands of talmidim whose intellectual ferment is exceptional and infectious, carrying our mesorah, refreshed, to yet another generation.
How has BMG impacted Lakewood Township?
Lakewood has emerged as a major center for Yiddishkeit and Torah. Twenty years ago, Lakewood had a handful of K-12 yeshivas; today we have 127 yeshivas with new ones opening constantly. Many famous metropolitan institutions opened branches here, such Rav Paler’s yeshiva, Torah Temimah, Bais HaTalmud, and Masores. In some cases these branches are now larger than their parent institution.
Describe the Lakewood kollel model, found throughout the United States.
These kollels, created by my father, are community-based centers for serious study, staffed by groups of talmidim who go “local,” serving as vital hubs of community learning. We partner in building these kollels by assisting with strategic planning, leadership, and staff personnel, thereby strengthening these communities. Last year 200 BMG graduates moved to California, Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, Ohio, and elsewhere, impacting 80 Jewish communities. We provided assessments, capacity building, staffing, and “angel” funding for these new institutions. Many of these are not formally “Lakewood” kollels, yet we partner with them to help these communities become even stronger.
How does BMG help talmidim in terms of pursuing a parnassah, making a living?
While last year 1,000 new talmidim enrolled in BMG, a similar number left. These comprised a diverse lot; 60 graduated our Aish-Dos Teacher program, enabling them to become professional educators, while an additional 30 enrolled in our Ner Le’lef program, designed to train leaders for positions in kollels and kiruv. Others attained semicha, became rabbanim, poskim, mashgichim, roshei yeshiva, or founded new yeshivas. Some started new enterprises, or successfully joined one of the 3,000 local businesses of all sizes and types created by BMG alumni. Those seeking accounting, finance, business, healthcare, technology, etc., will often enter a specialized graduate degree “track” created by Lakewood’s Professional Career Services, in conjunction with local institutions of higher education, for our alumni.
These “tracks” are run for talmidim who have completed their studies in BMG. These programs are intensive and accelerated, typically completed in 14-16 months, allowing quick transition to these careers. We are blessed that so many of our alumni have excelled, living beautiful Torah-centered lives while possessing the same necessary credentials, that are no less valued, as those who spent years pursuing those careers.
This is a win-win, as our alumni are serious talmidei chachamim who don’t want to sacrifice their precious BMG years; their strong intellect and unique capacity to focus allow them to compress the time needed for their degree and credentials. We are proud of how they continue to learn hours each day, even as they go about their professions. We are appreciative of the New Jersey higher education institutions that accommodate the unique needs of the Lakewood student. This path was carefully reviewed by gedolim whose counsel we cherish, and was created with their guidance.
How many rebbeim do you have? What are their functions?
We have 240 roshei chaburah, dozens of nosai v’nosnim – experts who help work through tough questions – and poskim who are expert in practical applications, roshei yeshiva, and hundreds of senior talmidim, who answer questions or assist at any time. The yeshiva has continual chaburos, shiurim, and vaadim, or group lectures, in an eco-system that operates differently from a classroom model. Talmidim don’t spend hours “preparing” for shiur; rather, their day is spent working with their chavrusah/chaburah until they master the subject matter. Many go on to lecture or publish, allowing their conclusions to be challenged by their peers, while others choose not to.
Describe the chaburah system and how talmidim find chavrusahs.
Admittance to BMG is only an initial step. Once admitted, you need to join a chaburah, except for the few who prefer to learn solo. Chaburah admittance entails evaluating the different offerings, and convincing your peers and potential rosh chaburah why you are a good fit for that particular group, gaining their acceptance, and finding a chavrusah suited to your needs and interests. This process often entails negotiation. A Telzer talmid wishes to learn Kodshim, a Brisker wants to learn Zevochim, one wants to learn fast, another slower, yet none has critical mass to form his own chaburah. A group is formed, negotiating, compromising, and ultimately agreeing on the model of learning. There are many variables; if you are not happy with the options, you might try to form a new chaburah, which may require “raiding” chaburos in order to build your new group.
This process takes place twice a year, over a two-day period. It is organized, using computers and databases, with a team of guides who assist talmidim but who don’t run the process. Talmidim run it for themselves, as a “free market.” Each talmid gets bar-code labels, and upon acceptance submits his label to his rosh chaburah for placement in his group registry, generating instant data on chaburah composition. This decides the chaburah’s venue, seating allocation, resources, library availability, etc. allowing the chaburah to function.
How many BMG talmidim are single and how many are married?
We have 5,400 married and 1,400 single talmidim. They come from 20 states and 22 countries, and originate from 400 yeshivas around the world.
What chesed projects does BMG extend to the community?
As many as possible. We created Chemed Health Center, which provides adult and pediatric medicine, women’s health, behavioral health (with 32 therapists), dental, specialty care, pharmacy and radiology. Our affiliated LCSC agency has 40 behavioral health therapists, serving children and parents. We built the LRRC social service “one-stop” agency that provides referrals and social service guidance, and that in 2014 fielded 28,000 cases from across Ocean County, including many Hispanics and other minorities. We seek to serve all b’kavod, with the highest quality of care. Our affiliated Affordable Housing agency is building 455 low cost town homes for the public.
Our talmidim and alumni also created Hatzolah, Bikur Cholim, Tomchei Shabbos, Chaveirim, Mekimi for kids with cancer, Chai Lifeline-Lakewood, the Special Children’s Center, and more. Some 150 Orthodox “Lakewooders” serve in local fire, emergency, and first-aid squads, including six who just graduated Ocean County Fire Academy. We are blessed with hundreds of chesed societies founded by alumni which lend money, tables, and chairs for simchas, floral centerpieces and gowns, home improvement tools, even cars and homes.
What is BMG’s annual budget? How much is from tuition and how do you raise the balance?
Our 2015 budget is $48,000,000. We raise $25,000,000 and the balance is covered by tuition, financial aid, and endowments. Our network of supporters includes parents, alumni, and individuals who treasure our heritage and appreciate the value and contribution made by BMG and its talmidim to the klal, both now and in the future.
Does BMG get involved in marriage issues like prenuptial agreements?
The roshei yeshiva have repeatedly expressed their immense pain at seeing destructive costly court battles among families. They wish for the beis din system to be strengthened, and for clear resolution, if not a form of shalom, in a timely fashion.
BMG does not have or plan to have a beis din, so it has no direct role in this issue. Yet there are highly regarded dayanim and batei din in Lakewood, including leading halachic experts such as Rabbis Feivel Cohen, Yaakov Forchheimer, Simcha Bunim Cohen, and Shmuel Meir Katz, among others. I am personally aware of their interest in finding solutions, including exploring the halachic and social ramifications of a tenaim or prenup.
By the way, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge your wife’s legendary work as an advocate in this field. I thank her for bringing the pre-nup to the attention of the poskim.
Of related note is our extensive series of shalom bayis programs for newlyweds. Our new shalom bayis hotline is also helpful in preventing, where possible, the tragedy of divorce.
What is the impact, both to your advantage and disadvantage, in carrying the name of the preeminent gadol hador?
I never met my grandfather but I encounter many who did, even briefly. I find it profoundly uplifting to hear of the impact he made on them, and how poignant those memories are, fifty-plus years later. Their recollections are so enriching, generating a renewed inspiration to build Torah and the klal. On the challenging side for those who represent the name of “once in a generation” gedolim, the margin to err in carrying forth their mission is greatly limited. We walk in their paths and have to remain alert and work hard to remember that.