January 28, 2005

Religious schools work together as they continue to grow


THEY couldn't be more different.

Then again, they couldn't be more alike.

Beth Medrash Govoha, the country's largest school for rabbinical students, sits side by side with Georgian Court University, a Catholic college founded by the Sisters of Mercy. The township could be the only place in the world where a school for Orthodox Jews and a school for Catholics coexist so close to each other.

"We're just two blocks away from each other," said Eduardo Paderon, Georgian Court's provost. "I find that a most interesting juxtaposition of campuses."

BMG, as it's known around town, is for young men studying the Talmud, the Jewish bible. People study texts and interpretations of those texts from dawn way past dusk.

There are dormitories on Forest Avenue so students - many of whom come from Brooklyn and other areas with large populations of Orthodox men - have a place to stay while they study. Some students continue to study at the school for years. Others join the workforce and stop by the school only to study briefly in the mornings.

The school, centered on Private Way, was founded in 1947 by Rabbi Aaron Kotler.

Kotler, a European immigrant whose arrival in America was heralded by Jewish newspapers, already was respected among Orthodox Jews when he arrived in Lakewood in the early 1940s.

Ranked by the Jerusalem Post in 1999 as one of the foremost Jewish theologians in history, Kotler founded Beth Medrash Govoha in 1943 in a modest building at Seventh Street and Forest Avenue.

The first class had 13 students. Now, the school has more than 4,000, said Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a community leader.

The school - run by Kotler's grandsons - has become so well-known in Orthodox circles, it no longer needs a name. "It's called Lakewood," Weisberg said. "More people refer to it as Lakewood than as Beth Medrash Govoha." The school may even be the largest in the world.

Weisberg said BMG is the largest school in the United States, despite sizable Orthodox populations in Brooklyn, Baltimore and other metropolitan centers. But it is difficult to say if it has more students than all of the yeshivas in Israel because the schools do not report to any unified body that tallies student enrollment.

"It's hard to say," Weisberg said. Georgian Court, too it also has an ever-growing history.

It was converted from the Gould estate - built by the son of railroad magnate Jay Gould - into a school by the Sisters of Mercy in 1924 as a school for women.

So, unlike BMG, men don't dominate the Georgian Court campus. In fact, only women are allowed to live on campus, and of the school's 3,065 students, nearly 90 percent are female. But the school does have a lot in common with BMG.

First, there's location. The schools both sit near the intersection of Ninth Street and Private Way. Then, there's religious instruct! ion. Georgian Court's president is Sister Rosemary E. Jeffries, a nun for 30 years. The school offers dozens of religious courses (on the undergraduate and graduate level) and has more than 60 students earning degrees in religion.

And, finally, there's the growth factor.

BMG's enrollment has grown by about 300 students a semester in recent years, Weisberg said. Georgian Court, which attained university status last year, has increased its enrollment 33 percent in the past five years.

New dormitories for students and staff opened last year, and construction of a new community chapel should be completed by the end of January, according to the university's public relations department.

The two schools have a working relationship, Paderon said. Jeffries and Rabbi Aaron Kotler, BMG's chief executive officer, have met several times to discuss how both schools can be good neighbors and be of use to Lakewood as a resource.

"`We do it differen! tly because we are different institutions," Paderon said. "But I think the commitment to the community is equally strong at both institutions."

Copyright (c) Asbury Park Press. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Asbury Park Press

January 20, 2005

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