Missouri Torah Institute spreads out in new Chesterfield campus

Missouri Torah Institute students schmooze in the school’s foyer earlier this month. The school started the school year in their new Chesterfield campus. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As warm sun filters in through massive skylights, students lounge in sunken couches built into an atrium. Others sit in quiet study in a beit midrash. Others work in refurbished computer labs. Shoes sit neatly in the halls in front of dorm room doors so boys returning from class can quickly change footwear before heading to the gym for basketball.

School is in session at the new and renovated home of the Missouri Torah Institute at 1809 Clarkson Road in Chesterfield, site of the former St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf.

Work is not finished. The muffled sound of a power drill can be heard, and a sign warns students not to disturb recently placed tile before the grout dries.

“I would say we are 90 percent done,” Rabbi Dovid Fromowitz said.

Fromowitz is a dean at the school, which recently took over the 120,000-square-foot campus on more than eight acres of land near Baxter Road. Fueled by a $6.5 million capital campaign, almost two-thirds of the acquisition and renovations are funded. School leaders have spent the summer converting the facility into a center for Jewish education.

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That meant installing a new roof, revamping a bathroom, knocking down classroom walls to create a study hall and doing a little painting. But leadership at MTI, which had been housed at Tpheris Israel Chevra Kadisha, felt that much of the facility was fine just as it was.  

“Most of the building was ready to go,” Fromowitz said. “The original structure we’re keeping almost all intact.”

That structure is actually two buildings, one of two stories, the other of three. The space has allowed rooms for music and art, a workout area, room for recreational activities, a full-size gym with an indoor basketball court, and a 199-seat theater/auditorium with a sound system for presentations, graduations and other special events.

It’s a big change for the school, which started nine years ago with just six students. Today, 85 boys and young men attend for high school and three post-high school grade levels.

Most are out-of-town students who live on campus. Thirty dorm rooms each house three or four people comfortably. Fromowitz said as many as 15 other rooms could be opened up; he said the school’s capacity is about 150 students.

Fromowitz said the original idea was to create a school primarily for local students, but it has become a magnet for others. Enrollees come from as far away as Canada and Argentina. He said the goal is add 15 students per year.

“I think that when they graduate, many of them like St. Louis because they’ve gone to school here,” he said. “They are going to come back hopefully and settle here. We need more young families here in St. Louis.”

Avraham Gifter, 18, a post-high school student from Staten Island, N.Y., seems to like it. He arrived for 12th grade.

“What I saw in one year here was worth enough to make me want to be here for four years,” he said. “The teachers, the rabbis are amazing.”

Gifter also has been impressed by the new facility.

“Last year, sometimes we had to have classrooms in places that weren’t meant to be classrooms, or in the computer lab,” he said. “Now, we have enough space for every class. Every teacher has their own classroom.”

Teachers have been added in both general and Hebrew studies. A building manager also has been hired, bringing total staff to about 20.

Rabbi Dovid Goldman, menahel (principal) at the school, said the adjustment has been an easy one for  students and teachers.

“In a way, it feels like this is fresh, but also it feels like we’ve been here for a while,” he said. “The best thing about this new space is that it provides the boys an opportunity to be in the physical surroundings that they are worthy of, a physical surrounding that really reflects the importance of the mission, to be in a facility that can make them feel comfortable, happy and energized while having all the facilities they need for their educational growth.”

The school also got some help from the building’s former occupants, who left behind about 3,000 pieces of furniture. Fromowitz said some of it was used and the rest was given away to other schools.

But some items at MTI were purchased. The rabbi made special note of new computers in the two-story library, which, like much of the facility, takes advantage of skylights for much of its lighting.

The facility is so big, Fromowitz said, that all of it isn’t being used yet. 

Meanwhile, the students are enjoying the chance to spread out for classes and recreational activities.

Baruch Singer, 16, of New York, said he loves playing basketball every night.

“Now there’s a gym, there’s a game room to play Ping Pong,” the 11th-grader said. “There’s a Starbucks across the street and a Mobil up the block. You are not bored at night. There is stuff to do.”

Rabbi Shimshon Gewirtz, the general studies principal, said the new space is working out well.

“We have technology in the classroom that we didn’t used to have,” he said. “We have enough room for everyone, and space for students to keep their books and supplies. It helps the classes run more smoothly.”

Ninth-grader Benjy Deutsch, 14, is from University City but he stays at the dorm on campus. He said he likes the walkability of the neighborhood and the stores in the area he can visit. He also appreciates the quality of the education, saying that rabbis really connect with their students, who in turn are offered numerous options in some classes.

“They can put you in different levels,” he said. “They have multiple math classes you can go into.”

Yehuda Dubovick, a ninth-grader from Chicago, said he likes the small class sizes at MTI and feels good about the atmosphere with fellow students.

“You know how sometimes in schools, the seniors might not be so nice to the freshman? It’s not like that in this school,” he said. “All the guys get together and have fun and talk.”

Fromowitz said final touches will be put on the campus over the next six weeks. Some areas, such as the infirmary, are still being renovated.

“The challenge of this building is really the upkeep, because it costs us around $1,500 a day to upkeep this facility,” he said.

That includes maintenance staff and utility bills. The rabbi said the school might eventually switch to LED lighting or look at other cost-saving measures.

Administrator Yigal Sasportas said he thinks that the process of settling into the facility could take  an additional six months or so as loose ends are tied up and issues of infrastructure and who has access to which areas are decided.

“It’s about figuring out the building pertaining to how we operate as a school and making the adjustments,” he said. 

But in the end, Sasportas said, he thinks the new facility will make a huge impact.

“It anchors us tremendously in the community and creates a dynamic in this area that puts us in a position to really grow the school and grow the community,” he said.