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Small Jewish school teaches more than just religion

By Chris Welch, CNN
  • Boys' school is one of few Yeshivas to focus on students with special learning needs
  • MyYeshiva aims to help kids who are "stuck in the middle" but haven't given up
  • School has had difficulty making mortgage payments, needs $500,000

Cottage Grove, Minnesota (CNN) -- Unlike many other boys his age, 17-year-old Levi Dubov wakes up excited to go to class each day.

"There is no other place like this," he says, as he finishes up breakfast in his school's basement cafeteria.

Dubov is talking about his Yeshiva school outside Minnesota's Twin Cities, known simply as MyYeshiva.

The boys' school not only focuses on the study of Judaism. It's one of a few Yeshivas nationwide that combines religious teaching with a focus on students with special learning needs.

The school aims to help kids who are "stuck in the middle" -- who can't keep up with the pace of regular schools, but haven't completely given up either.

"[It's] a place for kids that are struggling everywhere else," the school's director, Rabbi Moshe Weiss, said. "There wasn't ever a place for those kids."

Video: Unique Jewish school in peril

Students come from all over the country to attend this boarding school, including many from low-income households.

"We wanted to try and help those kids out there that need more attention," Weiss said, sitting in his office after just returning with the students from a twice weekly hockey trip to the local ice rink.

Since opening in 2006, the school has seen its enrollment double from its inaugural class of 18 students.

Dubov, now in 11th grade, feels more at home here than he did at his previous Yeshiva in his hometown of Montreal, Canada.

"They told me I was a weak learner," he said. But he says at MyYeshiva he excels because of the different pace of teaching.

Tzemi Zimmerman, a ninth-grader from Chicago, Illinois, says he struggles with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

"In another school, if you can't keep up with the learning, they'll tell you ... 'We're going to have to suspend you,'" Zimmerman said.

He says the school's dedicated time for physical education -- another unique quality of this Yeshiva -- makes it easier for him to sit through classes.

"It makes you feel like people care," he said. "It's just -- you're wanted. You're part of everybody."

Victoria Livshutz, whose son attends the school, says he would be in a much different situation if it weren't for the school.

"They are just like a family, which, to me, is very important," she said. "Because even though he is a big boy, he still needs a lot of attention."

There wasn't ever a place for those kids.
---- Rabbi Moshe Weiss, school director

The school's co-founder Rabbi Mordechai Friedman calls MyYeshiva a place where "there's a little bit less of the stress in learning, a little bit more relaxed in academics."

"We want to know how you are doing -- not just what your test scores look like," Friedman said.

While the school may be unique in many ways, it's still a functioning business. The rough economy hasn't passed by unnoticed. Weiss acknowledges they've had difficulty making mortgage payments this past year.

If they can't come up with the remainder of the building's cost in cash or five-year pledges by May 15 -- about $500,000 -- they'll be forced out.

"We're talking about these kids' home and the future kids that are going to come here," Weiss said. "I believe that with God's help, the best case scenario is going to occur."

While this year the school has set tuition at more than $18,000 a year, it typically operates with a "pay what you can" mentality. But this is the first time since the school opened four years ago that not one of the 36 enrolled students has been able to come up with the full amount.

Weiss blames a combination of factors.

"Throughout last year, lots of our parents lost their jobs," Weiss said, adding that they also "lost donations due to the economy, some large."

Regardless, students and faculty are optimistic.

"What'd they say about Chrysler? Too big too fold. We're not as big as Chrysler -- yet. But we're too important," Friedman said.

"To see the kids we're helping, there is no way in my mind that this won't continue," Rabbi Weiss said. "God is not that cynical."

Levi Dubov says without this school, he'll likely end up moving to Israel where his family lives now. That means he'd have to join the Israeli army after his 18th birthday.

But Tzemi Zimmerman offers a reassuring assessment:

"Someone will pull us through," he said. "We're going to keep going on like this for many more years, and one day maybe I can send my children here."